Destination France: Brittany 2011

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Brittany harbour belle-ileDid you hear the story of the cat who died for France? It happened in the 17th century when the Brits decided to drive a sailing ship loaded with explosives at the walls of the city, but it went off prematurely and wiped out the invading army instead.

The only Breton casualty was a cat who has had a street named after him for his heroism. It is but one episode of a storied past in a scenic city. I have always wanted to climb the town ramparts, all that survived of WW2, and hear about the corsairs who ran an industry out of the town. It is a splendid place, best viewed, like Mont St Michel, from the beach below the town, surrounded by the tide-rushing water and a sprinkling of fortified islands.

If Brittany was independent, as it was until the 1580s, it would be one of Ireland’s favourite holiday destinations.

It is the right size for us, one and a half times the area and one and a half times the population of Munster – 3m people resolute and adamant they were never properly conquered by the French and wearing their Celtic credentials on their sleeves, street signs and tavern placards such as that declaring Ty Faitaud – Teach Fáilte to us.

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Brittany beach ridingEach turn of the road is a revelation, the beaches, the countryside, the markets, the cider (and calvados) but especially the walled towns.

And the spirit of the people is familiar, that resilient independence. They have even taken to Gaelic football with enthusiasm, operating an extensive recreational league which remains unaffiliated to Croke Park.

It is a place we often drive through en route to the holiday favourites further south, a stop in the overcrowded Mont St Mchel being as much of a taste which we indulge. If we did pay more attention, we might go no further than Brittany.

Britanny aprliament 1818When Irish people DO stop we camp on the coast. There are, of course, other options.

Our home for the week is the Domaine de Cicé-Blossac, a pleasant golf and spa resort with 120 rooms, about 15 kilometers from Rennes.

It was chosen as our base because I have made a conscious decision to finally get to the heart of Brittany instead of speeding through it like most Irish tourists do.

The self catering units are expansive and comfortable with a covered balcony, which is fortuitous because it has rained every day of our stay.

The secret weapon is the restaurant on the course, with a u16 set menu that would leave many more expensive restaurants stranded in the rough.

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Britanny wlakers look at inIt is tempting to stay and play, but there is lots to see. Our guide in Rennes is Séverine Even, lively and knowledgeable as she brings us into hidden courtyards and reveals a town that we tend to pass rather than stop. The tour includes a ramble in the massive gardens and a jaunt on the subway, because Rennes is the smallest city to have its own metro, smaller than Cork with 210,000 people and a student population of 60,000.

Since I first came in the 1980s it has changed beyond recognition, its city centre pedestrianised and its old wooden fronted pubs and shops revealed to the world once more. As dusk descends the town fills with life, the babble of conversation from the tables spilled over the streets and a rock concert in the square on front of the Hotel de Ville. “Nothing works in Rennes except fire,” Séverine quotes.

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The town burnt, famously in 1720, fire consuming 945 half-timbered houses, leaving 8,000 homeless but the ancient houses outside the bounds of the conflagration are thankfully still there.

She does have a point. In 1800 the Opera burnt to the ground. Opposite stood a statue of Anne de Bretagne kneeling before the king. This was politically unacceptable to Breton nationalists, who in 1932 blew it up (a delegation later participated in the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar).

Finally, the parliament roof burned during a fishermens’ protest in 1994 and the priceless tapestry sent to Paris for restoration was eventually destroyed when the workshop there burnt down.

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We finished the evening with an amazing dinner in the St George Creperie in the Rue du Chapitre, an intimate setting in a rambling old home. My St Jacques scallops are so juicy a pilgrim would need to do penance before he continued on the camino.

Further afield, Fougères is a ruggedly beautiful fortified frontier town just off the road from the ferry, not exactly undiscovered but a hideaway compared with Mont St Michel, with an amazing frontier chateau that seems to ramble along the headland, making up its defensive strategy as it goes along. The stories here are again of Anne of Brittany, the Duchess who married two French kings to save her province from being subsumed by the French.

Reasons why we love France, the people, the attitude, the way the culture of appreciation of the finer things of life seeps under your skin.

The last stop before the journey from Roscoff to stock up on wine, champagne cider, lobster bisque, cheese, garlic, olive oil and onions. Someday we may even leave the children behind to get more stuff into the car.

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