A tour of Brittany – first impressions

Having already been to Scotland, I want to get to know the rest of the Celtic countries. This time we planned for a tour of Brittany.

I always try to read as much as I can about the places I’m going to visit, so I ordered the DK Eyewitness Travel from Amazon and there I learned a few things about the country’s history, such as the fact that one of Brittany’s most famous rulers was a woman, the Duchess Anne of Brittany; amazingly, I had never read anything about her. I ordered a book about her by Helen Sanborn and I read it in a few days. What an amazing woman she was and what a mark she left in her country and also in France – she was married not to one but to two Kings of France! – in the short span of her life, as she died when she was only 37 years old. She lived in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century but certainly had a vision far beyond her time.

Nuno and I made the journey by car and after a day and a half – having stopped at Irun in the Basque Country – we finally arrived at Rennes, the capital of Brittany. We stayed at a very centric hotel, the Mercure Rennes, convenient and quite comfortable.

We had a late light lunch at the Café de la Paix at the Place (square) de la République  and headed for the medieval quarter of Rennes, just a few hundred metres away. As we walked we could see the half-timbered medieval buildings that are still standing in that neighbourhood and we were impressed at how well preserved most of them are. The architecture is very peculiar and very typical of Brittany it seems as there are similar buildings in several other Breton cities. Truly beautiful!

Then we saw St. Peter’s cathedral, the “Portes Mordelaises” (the old city doors through which the dukes of Brittany entered the city), the place des Lices (thus called because of the jousting lists that were posted there in medieval days) and the beautiful Breton Parliament building; afterwards I could not resist going into a bookshop and buying a few books on Breton history and legends.

We had dinner outside – it was a mild evening even if with cool temperatures when compared to the more than thirty degrees we were having in Portugal – at a typical crêperie, called ” Le petit baigneur” where I discovered salted crêpes are called “galettes” and only the sweet crêpes are called by that name. So we ate the most delicious “galettes” (mine with smoked salmon and “crème fraiche”) and then we shared dessert, a mouth-watering honey and lemon crêpe.

After dinner we went back to the hotel but when the reception employee told us a light and sound show was about to begin at the Parliament square we were back there in no time and enjoyed a beautiful colourful and musical spectacle for about half an hour together with many other people. It was impressive, and so ended our first day in Brittany.

The following day we had a busy schedule, as there were a few things to see in the area before moving on to the St. Malo region, where we’d be staying for the two following days. Our first stop was at the village of Paimpont, near the Paimpont forest, believed to be the forest of Brocéliande of the Arthurian tales. In my guide I had read about an Arthurian exhibition centre at Comper castle, in the forest, something I just had to see. We first went to Paimpont information centre, where they gave us a map of the several locations of interest in the forest and confirmed the interest of the Arthurian exhibition. There I bought a few Brocéliande forest colourful magnets as well as a booklet about the legends of Brittany.

Then we were off to Comper castle where the exhibition is held. The castle faces a lake said to be the one Merlin created around his beloved Viviane’s crystal palace so that it should not be seen by human eyes – a story I have told in my post “Brocéliande”. The location is lovely and the exhibition very interesting and informative, with many artistic drawings and paintings but also some finely dressed mannequins enacting some very well known scenes of the Arthurian legends. It was like being inside the tales and immensely enjoyable for a fan such as I am. At the Castle shop I was tempted to buy almost everything, from books to paintings, but settled for two beautiful posters of Arthurian scenes.

After the castle we went to see the place of Merlin’s tomb and the fountain of youth. Merlin being a legendary figure his tomb must be the result of imagination too, but in fact there is a pile of stones in a small clearing in the forest and in the beginning of the 20th century there was a scholar, an expert in Arthurian legends, who declared that all evidence pointed to the fact that this was the place of Merlin’s tomb. After all, there have been many theses on the possibility of Arthur being a historical figure and not just an imaginary king.

We visited the Holy Grail church, with beautiful glass windows depicting scenes related to this quest, and then we finally left the area as we still wanted to see the cities of Vitré and Fougères, both with incredibly well-maintained medieval quarters and castles.

And so we did. At Vitré we went up the medieval streets leading up to the castle. The castle was imposing and very well maintained. In the old streets there were many half-timbered medieval buildings like those I had seen while in Rennes – but also very peculiar shops, such as one that absolutely charmed me, with all sorts of artefacts from the Middle Ages. I wanted to buy an outfit for myself, but obviously this was not the time. But I loved every inch of the shop!

Then we proceeded to Fougères. Here – I remarked – the castle, unlike all the others, is not located on a hill but in the lower part of the city. Maybe because of this, it is a powerful fortress, and widely used in the many wars Brittany had to fight over the centuries. We visited the whole castle and it was very interesting and informative, as not only did we have an audio phone to accompany us during the tour but there were many films telling the story of the castle as well. In one of the castle towers the audio guide pointed out the existence of an “oubliette”, a dungeon beneath the ground with a trapdoor as the only access. It was impressive to see it and imagine the prisoners down there,  without any light, forgotten by the world, as the name of this type of dungeon implies.

Finally we headed towards the St. Malo area, for the next stop in our tour.