Brittany - just like home, only better
Being so like Ireland enhances the good vibe and sensual glories of Brittany – a place not quite French, not quite Celtic, but entirely its own, writes DANNY DENTON
IN MANY WAYS, Brittany is like Ireland through the looking glass. Walking the cobbled streets of the region’s towns, or passing along the coast, you get the impression you’ve been here before. You could be driving down to Kinsale, only on the wrong side of the road, with a sun high in the big sky betraying the illusion.
Still, the look of the people and the landscape are similar to what you know, the music faintly familiar. The traditional dance even reminds you of the Siege of Ennis. Of course, it’s not Ireland, but the feeling of being somewhere you know only enhances the good vibe and sensual glories of a place not quite French, not quite Celtic, but entirely its own.
In keeping with its status as a kingdom (the region only became a part of France in 1532), Brittany should be treated as its own country. A tour of different towns in the region is the best way to explore it.
Each walled city and seaside resort has its own delicacies and customs. You can see the sights via the area’s network of canals, roads and train lines. Alternatively, the more energetic visitor can undertake a cycling tour using Brittany’s beautiful “greenways”.
Aer Lingus will fly you from Dublin to Rennes, Brittany’s capital, in little over an hour, and the tour can begin. A large part of any visit is the food. Seafood is the speciality, and eating in Brittany is an incredible and educational experience.
To help you work up an appetite, Rennes offers tons of interesting sights – aside, that is, from the simple charm of its close, cobbled streets and angled timber houses. The weekend market is a tour of aromas;with a huge food market that suddenly seems to bloom into a flower market as you make your way through.
On Saturdays you’re likely to see an open-house auction at the town hall, couples dancing to American swing between the flower stalls, or children thoughtfully swapping mussels with each other before sampling the catch like young food critics.
Out from Rennes, your tour can follow a myriad of trajectories, all offering something unique.
On the coast, towns like Saint-Malo exude bonheur. On the cusp of the ocean, Saint-Malo’s ramparts were once guarded by a team of bullmastiffs. Luckily, it’s now easier to gain access to the granite archways and quiet gardens of this gorgeous medieval town. Everyone knows each other here, and the local artisans stock and promote each other’s produce. The chocolate guy praises the cider guy (cider being a speciality in Brittany); in turn, the cider guy implores you to visit the spice shop.
FROM EASTER TOHalloween the local diary is packed with festivals and events, and the gastronomic tour is educational and delicious enough to cheer up even the French football team.
There are several sidetracks you can take in Saint-Malo, and this is true of most of Brittany’s towns. Brittany is the birthplace of thalassotherapy, a range of saltwater spa treatments unique to the region. Families and couples can combine this option with the local golf courses and water sports schools.
If there is one place itching to be discovered in Brittany, it’s Île de Bréhat, a tiny archipelago off the coastal town of Paimpol. Here, you encounter something different. For a start, there are no cars, and the roads are akin to the small country lanes John McGahern loved so much. The only vehicle you’ll hear will be one of the compact tractors that farm various tracts of land, or transport supplies from the pier to the town hall (for distribution among the locals).
Adding to Île de Bréhat’s uniqueness is its geographical fortune. As a particularly flat island, it has a microclimate, meaning that it very rarely rains on the island. Here, you can discover meadows of rare plants as you walk (or cycle) lanes populated by eucalyptus, mimosa, and rare birds on seasonal stopovers.
Rambling the island, you’ll discover La Citadelle, a restored fort that houses a glass-art workshop and boutique. You’ll also walk the chaotic rock formations of the pink-blue headlands, where lighthouses and churches quietly watch the sea. On the way home you might stop in a farmer’s driveway and take a pot of jam or a bottle of cider from the table. A blackboard will tell you how much to leave in his post box in payment.
LATER, IN THEevening, you can enjoy dinner in Le Bourg, the tiny town centre, and fantasise about abandoning the hustle and farce of modern life for an existence in a place like this; about getting back to the simple enjoyment of the best the world has to offer.
And, at some point after that, you’ll return through the looking glass, to Ireland, and everywhere see signs that remind you, somehow, of Brittany.
Where to stay and where to eat
3 places to stay
Hôtel BelleVue, Le Port Clos, Île de Bréhat, 00-33-2-96200005 hotel-bellevue-brehat.fr. This quaint townhouse is on the road from the island’s main pier to Le Bourg. From the terrace you can take in views of the archipelago and the Brittany coastline. Doubles with half-board for €240 in high season.
Le Grand Hotel des Thermes, Grande Plage du Sillon, Saint-Malo, 00-33-2-99407575 thalassotherapie.com. Hotel and spa just outside the walls of Saint-Malo. The people behind this place pretty much invented the saltwater therapy industry. There’s even a “diet restaurant”. Doubles €116.
Accor Thalassa, 1 Ave du Château Hébert, Dinard, 00-33-2-99167810 accorhotels.com. Set on beautiful seaside grounds, the Accor Thalassa also offers spa treatments. Doubles from €160.
3 places to eat
Le Café des Bains, 36 Rue St Georges, Rennes, 00-33-2-23203564. Cosy restaurant in the heart of Rennes. They’re friendly and easy-going here, and the blackboard menu is adaptable (and cheap). The monkfish crumble is not to be missed.
Chocolaterie Confiserie Galland, 4 Rue Broussais, Saint-Malo, 00-33-2-99409353. A must. Its proprietor was making bread one day when he accidentally mixed up his ingredients, using sugar instead of salt. The result was a new, and now famous, kind of butter cake and it is among the many incredible things to savour. If the owners are in, they’ll take you to the kitchen and show you how the stuff is made.
Le Cap Horn, Le Grand Hotel des Thermes, Saint-Malo, 00-33-2-99407575. One wall of the restaurant is all window, so the light of the sea and sky affect the atmosphere dramatically. The food is exquisite. Of the three set menus, the gourmet (at €39.60) is fantastic.
What to do
Food market Le Marché des Lices, every Saturday in Rennes, at Place des Lices.
Tour Île de Bréhat. Cycling the island and kayaking around the headlands is affordable and recommended.
Take a gastronomic tour of Saint-Malo, organised by the local tourist office.
Cruise Brittany’s canals. Emerald Star offers boating holidays (emeraldstar.ie).
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly to Rennes. Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie) has weekly sailings from Cork to Roscoff, departing Saturdays. Prices start from €222pp return, €888 for a family of four and car, sharing a four-berth cabin