After 3 weeks in the region, I will be reluctantly leaving Brittany tomorrow. The area is beautiful, replete with rolling green fields bordered by wildflowers, sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast and enough villages and cities filled with medieval timber frame houses, gothic churches and majestic castles. It’s a history lover’s dream – with its population proud of its Celtic (we are not French, they reminded me) roots, Arthurian ( of the British King Arthur) connections and a bevy of new world explorers, privateers and slave traders.
The people I met seemed more relaxed than in Paris; maybe it’s the small town mentality or the lack of hordes of tourists. People were patient with my attempts to speak French and instead of telling me they spoke English, most asked me if I would like to them to speak English. Walking the streets was a pleasure. Cars stopped to let me cross the street if I so much as looked at the street, zebra stripes or not. At the abundant pedestrian crossings, without fail, every vehicle stopped to let me pass. Cycle paths were plentiful, unfortunately so were hills. That, along with solid rain and cool temperatures, limited my enthusiasm for cycling long distances in the region.
Following a long day of cycling to get to St. Malo, my legs were in no shape to get back on a bicycle, so I spent the day exploring the city. The town earned its fame as a maritime city, its Atlantic shores blessed with bountiful supplies of fish and crustaceans. Early inhabitants were fishermen, later it became a center for shipbuilding and exploration. Both Jacques Cartier and Sebastian Cabot set sail for the new world (although Cartier was aiming for China) from here, eventually landing in Newfoundland and Quebec. In the 17th century, the port became wealthy with loot earned by privateers capturing gold laden ships departing South America. Today, in addition to its fishing booty, cruise ships dock here and disgorge their passengers who mostly race out of town on pre-paid shore excursions to nearby Mont. St. Micheal.
St. Malo has a glorious castle and ramparts. The castle’s foundations date to the 6th century AD, but its current reincarnation was built between the 15th and 17th centuries, Today, it is a museum showcasing the city’s history, with the exhibits only in French , so my comprehension was limited. But the real star was the building, medieval with thick stone walls, tiny arrowslits and an entrance to the tower roof, where a view of the city and the Atlantic awaited.
The ramparts, or walls, encircle about 2/3rds of the old city and were a pleasure to walk, with pathways as wide as 10 feet and paved in large tiles, rather than cobblestones awaiting to trip the unsuspecting walker. Strolling atop the ramparts, all of the architectural features of the city were on display: reconstructed 18th century houses (the city was heavily shelled during WW2), the castle, Fort National built on an island in the ocean, a lighthouse, watchtowers and an outdoor Olympic size swimming pool. Statues of local celebrities dot the path, including at least one honouring a privateer, a fancy name for a state sanctioned pirate.
Today, St, Malo is best known as a beach town, with two beautiful white sand beaches bordered by pleasant walkways. Maybe it was too early in the season, but there were no signs of the tacky fish & chip shops and salt water taffy stands that deface the British seaside resorts I know (Margate comes to mind). Instead, there were creperies and brassieres (bars). Even the merry-go-round was quaint, reminiscent of a 1920’s model with pink horses and golden curlicues decorating the edges.
St. Malo is also famous for its seafood – oysters were for sale everywhere – and boat signs announced they had a fresh catch. Restaurants promoted their “fruit de la mer” and I couldn’t resist. After playing it safe with a St. Malo filet (dory) one night, the next I braved the seafood platter. With apologies to my Jewish family and friends, the offerings included oysters, escargot (snails), prawns, whelks, crabs and some things I couldn’t identify.
I gave it my best, but the oysters were really salty, the escargots chewy and tasteless, the prawns were fine but mostly bone and very little meat. Having tried at least one of everything on the platter, finishing the prawns and crab legs, I was still hungry, so I had my favourite part of the meal – the pumpernickel-like bread with butter.
Mont. St. Michel:
Beautiful bike routes of about 50 kilometers exist between St. Malo and Mont. St. Michel and my original plan had been to cycle there, but the previous day had seen hail and the day’s forecast was for rain. My bike stayed in storage and I took a train to Dol de Bretagne, then the bus conveniently waiting at the train station to the Mont. St. Michel visitor center to catch the trolley that dropped me and the other waiting tourists to within 500 meters of the island. From there, we were left to walk, using the causeway, or drop down to walk across the sand but as one could only walk on the sand with a licensed guide. I stayed on the causeway.
After entering through the walls, a winding narrow cobblestone alley with shops and restaurants on either side leads, after a heart pounding climb, to the abbey proper. I followed the audio guided tour through the abbey. Originally constructed in the 8th century, it has been rebuilt, expanded and reconstituted over the centuries. Inside are chapels, cloisters, greeting rooms and studies, most open to the public. The decoration was less elaborate than other churches I had visited – no stained glass windows or tapestries – but impressive in its simplicity.
I emerged to a thunderous storm and made my way down the street, ducking into one of the many overpriced restaurants selling Mont St. Michel’s specialties – galettes, crepes, and seafood- and enjoyed a Mont. St. Michel omelette, which was fluffy with a light cream sauce.
Mont. St. Michel is impressive, but its most awe-inspiring aspect for me was that first glimpse, of the abbey and spire pointing to the heavens, atop an island. I walked the 3 kilometers back to the visitor center, frequently turning back for another view and a picture of the island.
Five days into my 3 week long cycling trip, I’d given up on long distance cycling, but the town (15,000 residents) of Morlaix on an estuary for which I could not find the name (everyone said “the Morlaix harbour” but it wasn’t a harbour as I understand the term) had lots of bike paths. It’s a pretty town, with 123 timber buildings, numerous churches, a viaduct built in 1861 for trains and way too many stairs, which I did my best to avoid. I stayed in the 200 year old Hotel L’Europe. Morlaix has long been a haven for ships, with the unnamed river/estuary only 6 kilometers from the ocean, but it became rich in the 15th and 16th century thanks to its manufacture of tobacco. An exhibit at the former tobacco manufacture plant explained the relationship of Morlaix to this industry and boasted that Morlaix had the largest number of smokers in France in the 1990’s. The plant is now an arts school and no cigarettes are made in the town anymore. Sadly, pretty as Morlaix was, its former market square had been turned into a parking lot.
Roscoff is a small city on the Atlantic about 28 kilometers from Morlaix. My desire to cycle there was met with the dilemma of too many options. My Voies Vert (green routes for cyclists) book had one route, GoogleMaps another, maps.me a third and the signs with a green bicycle saying “Roscoff” pointed to yet another. I choose to follow the green road signs, which didn’t mention the route is probably good training for the Tour de France, with way too many steep climbs for my liking and a few off-road treks through farmers’ fields ripe with the bright yellow blooms of canola or smelling of manure. The signs were relatively easy to follow- only one wrong turn easily remedied when the path led straight into the ocean – and less than 4 hours later, I arrived at my destination.
Roscoff is primarily a fishing and pleasure boat center, having no discernible beach. Its buildings spanned the centuries, its main church topped with a unique spire emphasizing its square building blocks, and plenty of restaurants lining the marina. I stopped for a typical Breton pastry, the Kouign-Amann, which is butter and sugar added to a croissant-like dough. Not great for dieters, but warmed-up, it was the perfect reward for a long bike ride. After demolishing one in quick fashion, I took a look at the brewing storm clouds and began the long ride back to Morlaix. I was drenched by the time I made it back, but nothing a hot bath and a glass of wine couldn’t cure.
The one thing I figured out about cycling in France is the route along the river or canal is likely to be flat. With that thought in mind, I cycled the 6 kilometers on the very flat roadway beside the still unbeknownst to me named river from Morlaix to Dourdoff. Despite the roadway being a minor (“D” series) highway without shoulders, the drivers were ultra considerate, always swerving generously to leave me wide berth, sometimes even slowing behind me for a few minutes until the center line became broken and passing was again permitted. Dourduff itself is fairly non-descript but offers beautiful views of the Atlantic.
Brest is a coastal city on the southern edge of Brittany, so I was expecting another charming seaside town, perhaps with a beach or two and an abundance of architecture. Unfortunately, as my train approached and I read up on the city, I learned that it had been, and still was, the headquarters of the French navy. Thus, it had been bombed to smithereens in WWII; only a single original castle housing a maritime museum (in French only) withstood the barrage. Today, 1950’s office and apartment buildings line the river and harbour, with high fences topped with barbed wire and signs (again in French) warning it is military property and beware of the dogs. Looking down into the river, I could see a vast array of military ships and submarines. It was not my favourite stop, but its main pedestrian road had a bagel store, called Bagelstein, which made me a very good smoked salmon with cream cheese and red onions bagel.
Quimper marked a return to the scenic, quaint town, traversed by the canal along the Odet river and highlighted by the Saint Corentin cathedral, another gothic cathedral, this one dating to 1239. Architecture in the town again spans the centuries, with an unique Art Nouveau theater. Quimper and its suburb of Locmaria gained fame for its arts & crafts, especially its Faience pottery, for which there is a dedicated museum that is pleasant and informative. Feeling quite touristy, I took the tourist train for a ride around the center and, as the history buff in me demanded, visited the History of Quimper museum, with a large display of stone and Iron Age implements.
Nantes, a city of 300,000, is the administrative seat of the Loire-Atlantique region. Why it is not part of the administrative region of Brittany is a mystery, but it isn’t. Situated at the last navigatable point where ships could sail upstream from the Atlantic Ocean along the Loire River, and having two other convenient estuaries, it has a long history as a major port city. Its center is dominated by the Château of Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who had the good (or bad, depending on your viewpoint) fortune to marry two different kings of France, became a patron of the arts and completed the Chateau that bears her name. Entrance to its grounds, via drawbridge across a moat and around its ramparts, was free; the history museum charged but it was worthwhile. Although it detailed Nantes’ long legacy, the most informative displays recited Nantes’ role in the African slave trade. Nantes’ ships sailed to Senegal, picked up slaves, sold them in the West Indies and returned to Nantes laden with mostly sugar cane, but also tobacco. Nantes wealth – its soaring gothic Cathedral (started in 1434 and not finished until 1891), its canals, its streets and public houses were largely financed with profits made by the slave traders. France abolished slavery during the French Revolution, but Napoleon reinstated it. It was outlawed for good in 1831.
Nantes, more than any other city in Brittany, prides itself on its forward thinking. Many of its buildings represent cutting edge architecture – my hotel had large orange and turquoise green pieces of plexiglass decorating its exterior, maybe resembling sails or maybe the colours of the football stadium which it adjoined. I don’t know. Nantes’ most lauded artistic achievement is Les Machines de l’Ile, a former shipbuilding site that artists turned into a place to construct and exhibit interactive plants and animals made from machines. The crowd favourite is the 3 story high, Grand Elephant, which carries passengers about and can spout water from its trunk.
And so, with a mechanical elephant, I end my days in Brittany.