Brittany & Normandy

Brittany and Normandy are probably the areas of France which most British people can relate with most easily. The link is there in even the name of Brittany; testament to the long Celtic association, especially with Cornwall and Wales. Normandy is a part of our history, all the way from the Norman Conquest to the D-Day landings. We even have a St Michael's Mount each.

Brittany is loved particularly for its coastal parts. There is much to it, as it spreads southwards from the English Channel towards the Bay of Biscay. Brittany's departments are: Côtes-d'Armor, Ille-et-Vilaine, Finistère and Morbihan.

Côtes-d'Armor in the north has lots of rugged coastline, with many cliffs making for many a pleasant walk. The Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast) is a highlight: besides the obvious rocky areas, there are fine sandy beaches. This area is one of only three locations worldwide with such a pink granite expoased on the coastline (the others being in Corsica and China). Boat trips can be taken from Perros Guirec, to get to the Sept Iles archipelago, which has a sea-bird and seal sanctuary; you can even see such birds as puffins here at migration time. Two of the 33 official ‘Grand Sites of France' are in Côtes-d'Armor. These ‘grand sites' are places which are specially classified by the RSGF. Beauport Abbey is 13th century and a starting point for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Cap d'Erquy is a wondrous, seemingly untouched coastline. The department also has a shore with black sand: la Grève Noire.

Ille-et-Vilaine includes the ferry port at Saint-Malo. There is a good aquarium here. Pleugueneuc has a zoo, as does La Bourbansais. Just under 20 miles from Rennes, you find Paimpont Forest, the setting for legends such as those of Arthur and Merlin. Rennes itself is the regional capital, whose annual highlight is regarded as the ‘Tombées de la Nuit' festival held in early summer, with light shows, fire-eating, juggling and music.

In Finistère, the Regional Parc d´Armorique offers lots of scenery worthy of walks. The Cairn de Barnenez in Plouezoc'h is a prehistoric monument, which is supposed to be one of the first European buildings to use durable material in its construction. At around 6500 years old, it has 11 dolmens, and is one of the 85 designated French National Monuments. Having been one of the original gateways to the Atlantic, Brest has an important naval base, and there is a maritime school there.

In Morbihan, Carnac is noted for its vast array of prehistoric monuments. There are probably over 3000 standing stones, with all sorts of menhirs and dolmens. Much of the reason for the existence of these stones is unknown, and to preserve them, many of them have been fenced off, so visitors cannot always get as close as they would like. However, there is a Museum of Prehistory which has an excellent collection.

Normandy is divided into Lower and Upper Normandy. The former has the departments of Calvados, Manche and Orne, and the latter Eure and Seine-Maritime. Upper Normandy is sometimes seen as just the bit of the region to drive through to get to the lower part, but it deserves better. Rouen is quite a lively city, with its restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Its cathedral is a sight to behold and was painted on various occasions by Monet. Speaking of Monet, the Giverny Gardens are known for being the setting of some of his paintings; he lived in Giverny for 43 years. Dieppe offers a good seafood market.

Moving to Lower Normandy, to see the Bayeux Tapestry is an absolute "must". It is enormous: just 50 centimetres high but 80 metres long. The town itself still has something of a mediaeval centre. The UNESCO World Heritage Site island Mont-Saint-Michel has drifted between ownership of Normandy and Brittany, due to a silting in the river and change of direction, shifting the island between the two regions. Its main feature, the abbey as it is seen now was gradually put together over many centuries- from the 11th to the 16th. Back on land, Falaise Castle was the birthplace of William the Conqueror. The Normandy Cider Route is worth remembering (‘La Route du Cidre'). The 25 mile-or-so route is marked by signposts and takes those who follow it on a trail of cider made by the ‘AOC Pays d'Auge' producers, witnessing its production techniques, tasting, and being able to make purchases. In recent history, Normandy has become inextricably linked with the D-Day landings. The remnants of the coastal defences and the mulberry harbour are a sobering sight.