Best Places - Brittany: France's Celtic coastline
by Ann Bieri
(On the Web, 5/11/99)

Rugged shores, rustic towns on a restful side trip from Paris

When the urban whirl of Paris turns into sensory overload, spend a few days catching your breath in Brittany, the northwestern tip of France. Just hop on the high-speed train and in a few hours you'll be in the ancient Breton town of Auray, savoring crêpes on the most romantic harbor in France. Auray will rejuvenate you with its scenic waterfront and quiet hilltop setting. But it also makes an ideal base for day trips to gulf islands, rugged wave-battered coasts, and the myriad pre-Celtic megaliths for which Brittany is renowned.

Bagpipes in Brittany

Rocky, isolated, and veiled in legend, Brittany juts away from the rest of the country in more ways than just geographically. Toll autoroutes come to a sudden stop at its borders, signs appear in both French and the Breton dialect, and the ubiquitous Breton flag will make you think you've left France altogether. In a sense you have.

Brittany, or "Little Britain," derives many of its unique cultural traditions from Celts who arrived from Britain around AD 460. Even today Brittany (Bretagne in French, Breizh in Breton) has close ties to other Celtic regions such as Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, and Galicia. Europe's largest Celtic gathering, the Festival Interceltique, is held every August in Lorient, not far from Auray. Brittany has a character all its own, as you'll soon discover.

Auray's picturesque harbor

Situated in a steep river valley, Auray draws somewhat smaller summer crowds than nearby beach resorts. But no beach can catch your heart like Auray's meticulously restored harbor district, known as St&endash;Goustan. Tiny cobblestone lanes wind around houses dating back to the 15th century, and quayside buildings now house inviting crêperies and restaurants. One of the most famous is No. 8, where Benjamin Franklin stayed in 1776 on his historic journey to solicit French help for the American Revolution. Arriving fishing boats and crying gulls remind you that this picture-perfect port is not a figment of your imagination.

Across a stone bridge and uphill from the harbor, Auray ville commanded an impressive vantage point during medieval battles. The ornate 17th-century St&endash;Gildas church, the grand 18th-century city hall, and streets of slate-roofed houses and interesting shops make for a good afternoon of wandering, capped off by a stroll on the stepped promenade that overlooks the lively harbor.

Delightful day trips

If you can tear yourself away from Auray, it's easy to explore Morbihan (as this département, or region, of Brittany is known) by ferry, train, or bus&emdash;without the hassle of parking. The following are three suggestions for rewarding excursions. With an early start, you can return in time to enjoy a leisurely sunset dinner on the harbor.

Side trip 1: Stonehenge South Britain may have Stonehenge, but Brittany has its own archaeological wonder in Carnac. There are literally thousands of monumental stones in the Carnac area, dragged from great distances and heaved into upright positions some 6,000 years ago. Whether astronomical, religious, both, or neither, their meaning is still being debated. Catch a bus to the site or sign up for a tour from Auray and decide for yourself. The archaeological park is very popular in summer, so reservations must be made now to get in.

Here you will find the famous Carnac alignments&emdash;long parallel rows of standing stones. Three words you'll quickly learn: menhir, a standing stone; dolmen, a stone burial chamber; and tumulus, an earthen mound covering a dolmen. Artifacts excavated from Brittany sites can be seen in the Musée de la Préhistoire in Carnac.

If you want a smaller dose of the megalithic, explore the pine-shaded Kernous tumuli, near Bono, or the archaeological park at Locmariaquer, which contains an astounding 18-meter-high (60-foot) menhir (now lying broken on the ground). No matter where you ramble in this part of Brittany, you're sure to stumble across a menhir or two.

Side trip 2: Enchanted Breton Islands Just downriver from Auray lies the enchanting Gulf of Morbihan, dotted with dozens of wooded islands, most of them privately owned. The largest public island is Île aux Moines, a 2-hour ferry ride from Auray. The boat makes several stops before arriving at the island (including the Locmariaquer archaeological park), giving you ample time to take in the views.

Ile aux Moines is graced with palm trees, beaches, creeks, wooded glens, and spectacular vistas of the blue gulf. Renting a bicycle is a popular way to explore the narrow lanes of the island's village. (Bikes aren't allowed on the coastal footpath.) There are good restaurants here, tucked among the whitewashed cottages, walled gardens, and holiday villas. The farther south you go from the bustling quay, the quieter the island becomes. You'll find it hard to leave this paradise when it's time to catch the ferry back.

Side trip 3: Cycling Quiberon's "Savage Coast" The skinny Quiberon Peninsula protects the bay of the same name from the blustery Atlantic a short distance southwest of Auray. As a result, sandy swimming beaches lie on one side, while grottoed cliffs of the Côte Sauvage (Savage Coast) brace against waves on the other. From Auray it's only 40 minutes by train to the popular seaside resort town of Quiberon at the tip of the peninsula. Walk to Quiberon's main beach&emdash;the Grande Plage, among the finest in Brittany&emdash;for lunch and a swim, then rent a bicycle near the tourist office for a windy ride along the dramatic Côte Sauvage. Hang onto your hat!

Quiberon is also the jumping-off spot for ferries to several island destinations, including the popular Belle Île, once home to Sarah Bernhardt and now a resort frequented by celebrities and visitors from around the globe. Several walking tours lead to inspiring vistas of Brittany's dramatic shoreline. It's no wonder that the island was a favorite haunt of Impressionist painter Claude Monet, whose canvases paid tribute to the rugged coastal beauty that continues to enchant visitors today.

Freelance travel writer Ann Bieri lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to
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