Brittany (Bretagne) has always been fiercely independent; indeed it only became part of France in the 16th century. Today, facing the North Sea and the mighty Atlantic, the Bretons still look outwards towards the rest of the world rather than towards Paris.
It’s a stunningly beautiful region running from the Côte du Granit Rose (the red granite coast) with its pink rock formations and wonderful beaches in the north to the prehistoric remains at Carnac and the glorious islands just off the mainland in the south. It has history and great towns, superb food, and top events.
Brittany is also the land of myths and legends with a separate language where those stories are celebrated. It's a place for romantics and fairy tales, many of which appear at the great Breton annual festivals that gather Celts and like-minded people from all over the world.
Geography and a Few Facts
Brittany juts out into the Atlantic ocean on the western coast of France. It runs from the northwest coast just outside Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, one of the great abbeys of France, along the coast of the Golfe of Saint-Malo, passing St-Malo, Dinard, and St-Brieuc then past the Granite Coast to Brest. From this huge outcrop, Brittany goes south to Quimper, then east past Concarneau, Lorient, and Vannes and meets the Loire-Atlantique region at La Roche-Bernard just before the Regional Park of Brière.
Facts About Brittany
- The great naval city of Nantes was once in Brittany but in 1941 became part of Pays-de-la-Loire and the capital of the region and of Loire-Atlantique, something which has infuriated the Bretons ever since.
- Brittany has over 2800 km (1,740 miles) of coastline
- Brittany produces over 80% of France’s shellfish
- There are 4 departments: Côtes d’Amour (22) in the north, Finistère (29) in the far west, Morbihan (56) in the south and Ille et Vilaine (35) in the east.
- Rennes is the capital of Brittany.
- The Celts arrived in Brittany in the 6th century
- The discoverer of the St Lawrence River and the effective founder of Canada, Jacques Cartier, was a Breton from St. Malo
- The inventor of the stethoscope, René Laënnec, was born in Quimper. He gave the name ‘cirrhosis’
- The first transatlantic transmission by satellite of a TV program comes from the station at Pleumeur-Bodou
- In 1978 the supertanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the northwest coast of Brittany, resulting in a huge oil spill that affected much of that coastline.
- In 2002 Rennes became the smallest city on the world to build a subway system
Brittany had a megalith culture probably as early as 6,000 BC before the Celts arrived in the 6th century BC. In 56 BC Caesar arrived to conquer the country, and the Romans stayed for four centuries before the collapse of the Roman Empire. In 460 Celts arrived from Britain, driven out by the Anglos and Saxons. From the 8th century when Charlemagne took over Brittany, there were the usual wars and allegiance changes, with Brittany remaining largely defiant and independent.
Brittany was only united in 851 under the ruler of Brittany, Erispoë, and it wasn’t until 1532 that Brittany became part of France.
Brittany’s golden age was in the 16th and 17th centuries like much of France. This was the time when major ports were either built or renovated at St-Malo, Brest, and Lorient with the expansion of the French navy. It was from Brittany that the French sailed to the New World of Canada and the West Indies.
Nantes, then part of Brittany, played a huge part in the growth of the region's wealth, fuelled by the Atlantic slave trade.
The 18th century and the lead-up to the French Revolution were marked by disorder and division between those who supported the monarchy and those against. In 1789 Brittany was divided into five departments: Côtes du Nord, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, Loire-Atlantique (later moved), and Morbihan.
Brittany had mixed fortunes in the 19th century when the industrialization of France and the mechanization of agriculture drove many Bretons out of the region to the cities for work.
In the mid 20th century the idea of reviving the Breton language and keeping the culture alive became a real issue, partly as a result of World War II which brought particular destruction to Brest, Lorient, and St-Nazaire. The removal of Nantes from Brittany to Pays-de-la-Loire was also a huge economic and symbolic blow to the region.
Today, Brittany is prosperous, with tourism playing a large part. The coast has become one of the favorite places for the French and many Europeans to holiday. Agriculture is hugely important, and with fishing accounts for 10% of the national production of France.
Coastline and Coastal Towns
The glorious and immensely varied coast is one of the main reasons people come to Brittany.
The north coast has exposed Atlantic beaches and natural harbors. To the east, just in Normandy but marking the boundary, stands the magnificent Mont-St-Michel. Just 15 km (9.5 miles) away you'll come to the charming harbor village of Cancale. This is the place for fresh oysters which you can buy from stalls on the quayside.
St-Malo is justly famous. Originally a fortified island controlling the estuary of the river Rance and the open sea, today it’s a glorious walled city and a must on a Brittany vacation. It has an old citadel of cobbled narrow streets with ramparts to walk along and great beaches.
This part of the coast is packed with great small towns, and Dinard should be next on your list. This smart resort is a great favorite with all you expect from a casina to regattas. It is also associated with Picasso who stayed here regularly in the 1920s, using the beaches for pictures like Deux Femmes Courant sur la Plage. A slightly more sinister connection is with Alfred Hitchcock who apparently based Bate’s house in Psycho on one of the villas here. There’s a statue of the famous director and an annual English language film festival.
Drive along the coast road following the Pink Granite Coast for fabulous views and remote villages. If you’re a walker, take to the Sentier des Douaniers, a superb coastal walk from Trestraou beach in Perros-Guirec to Ploumara’ch beach. It follows the trail used by customs officers hunting smugglers along the clifftop.
Finistère juts out into the foaming waters of the Atlantic. The naval town of Brest, home of France’s Atlantic Fleet, was destroyed during World War II by Allied bombing to prevent the Germans from taking it over as a submarine base. If you’re here with the family, visit the Château and Océanopolis, a complex of aquariums and attractions.
More rewarding, particularly for walkers and cyclists, is the Crozon Peninsula to the south. Don’t miss the delightful port of Camaret, with old streets, beaches, and a real feel of Breton life.
Southwest Finistère has Douarnenez, vital to the sardine fishing industry with the whole of the old Port-Rhû now the Port-Musée full of vessels to explore.
This is beautiful, with Quimper still living up to the description by the 19th-century writer Flaubert of ‘this charming little place’. It has bars and cafes to linger in, museums, a cathedral, and some great annual festivals.
Concarneau might be the third most important fishing port in France but it’s also a magnet for visitors with a walled medieval village on a rocky island, a great Friday market, fishing museum, and Breton festivals.
Paul Gauguin came to paint in Pont-Aven just inland from the Aven estuary, founding the important Pont-Aven school of painters. You can see their work in the recently renovated Museum of Pont-Aven.
If you're on a seaside holiday, take the chance to go out to some of the many islands dotted around the Brittany coast. They're stunning.
Major Cities and Charming Towns
Rennes has been the capital of Brittany since 1532 so has many historic buildings. The medieval quarter of Les Lices, with parts left from a disastrous fire in 1720, is a lucky survivor and well worth a stroll around. The place des Lices once rang to the sounds of knights jousting on horseback; now it bustles on Saturday mornings when one of France’s largest street markets fills the two market halls. The medieval houses here were built in the late 17th century but look the part. Venture into the streets behind the place and you’ll come across the genuine article.
Dinan is an impossibly pretty picture-postcard town. Its walled citadel is wonderfully intact and full of old streets. Arrive by boat up the river Rance for the best views of the town. You get off at the port below the 13th-century ramparts and the walk up gives you a very real feel of the Middle Ages.
Lorient on the south coast has its own natural harbor protected from the sea by the Ile de Groix. Badly damaged in World War II, it’s not a tourist destination.
Morlaix on the north coast was once a great Breton port. Today it has a port full of yachts, an old center with cobbled streets, and good views.
Vannes, the major tourist town of south Brittany has an old quarter, entered originally through an old gateway. Cobbled alleys inside the walls around the cathedral have half-timbered houses; Place Henri-IV is lovely. Walk the ramparts for the views.
Carnac is the most important prehistoric site in Europe with around 2000 menhirs stretching over 2.8 miles. It predates all the other great European sites of Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and Egypt’s Karnac temples.
Fougères in northeast Brittany is famous for its magnificent, huge medieval castle. It’s on two levels and is a superb sight with a water-filled moat, great towers, the main keep and plenty of displays on the history of the castle and town to keep you occupied.
A trip out to the gorgeous islands surrounding the Brittany coast is a must.
Festivals in Brittany
Rennes celebrates with the unique Les Tombées de la Nuit (Nightfall) in July. Street art and performance in some very unusual places.
Quimper offers the Festival La Cournouaille, founded in 1923. It takes place in July and again takes Breton culture in all its forms as inspiration.
Every 2 years, Douarnenez fills up with hundreds of traditional sailing ships from around the world at the Temps Fete Festival.
The Interceltic Festival of Lorient is the big daddy of Celtic festivals, with around 200 events and shows, 5,000 performers and 700,000 spectators from all over the world.
Brittany is known for its seafood and produces the vast majority of shellfish eaten throughout France. Little surprise then that you cannot come to Brittany without eating their oysters which appear everywhere; you’ll be amazed at the differences (and particularly try the in Cancale). In restaurants, go for the groaning plates of lobster, clams, cockles, mussels, oysters, crabs, and scallops.
Soupe de poissons (fish soup) is another must, coming with garlicky mayonnaise, grated cheese, and croutons.
Try the local fish stew of sole, turbot, and shellfish called cotriade.
And for desserts, there’s far Breton, a baked sponge, and custard with chopped plus. Iles flottantes are well known all over France: a soft meringue floating in crème anglaise which is an egg custard.
But the best-known feature of Brittany food is the crêpe (the sweet version) and the galette (savory version). The pancake is found everywhere, with fillings you would never think could exist (and maybe some of them should not). But they do make great snacks!