…you discover a world of wonders. There are places we love to dream about; for me, one of them is Brittany. I used to picture cliffs, forests, heather fields and lots of clouds in my mind, and lighthouses, stone houses and isolated little churches. Ancient tales, heroes and wizards, mystery. When I actually visited the region, I wasn’t disappointed. Not al all. I went over there by car (but I was not driving), stopping in Paris (how could I ever not stop, when I see “Paris” written on the road signs?). It was August, the perfect month to visit a place where it rains a lot. And I fell in love with it.
Brittany is a land suspended between two worlds, the one we know and the one we imagine. If it wasn’t for cars and shop chains in the biggest towns, it would feel like traveling back in time. From Paris, we drive past Le Mans and Rennes, heading for Quimper. Almost every trace of modern civilization disappears, the horizon seems endless and the clouds chase one another, pushed by the wind.
So my first encounter with French Cornwall is the small town of Quimper on the river Odet, not far from the ocean. The Odet is said to be the most beautiful river in France. I can’t tell if this is true, but for sure Quimper is lovely. Small and lively, full of places to discover. There are the old Gothic cathedral of Saint-Corentin, the Medieval houses of Rue Kéréon, the Museum housed in the Bishops’ palace and the suburb of Locmaria (what a charming name) with the church of Notre-Dame and Medieval gardens.
But Quimper’s beauty also resides in small details, such as the bicycles parked by the river, the pottery museum and embroidery shops. Walking in the town centre, you can bump into a couple of donkeys and two men wearing eccentric clothes, selling vegetables or trimming plants.
Being in France among bakeries and restaurants always makes me hungry. In Quimper there’s a fabulous market, the Saint-François, and many nice cafés by the river which invite you in. The food here is a constant temptation. Buckwheat crepes with goat cheese, salmon, veggies and walnuts; flan – a soft cake with plums and cream, wrapped in a pastry shell. Butter biscuits which smell so good, and apple cider, too.
If you happen to have dinner at La Plaidoirie, a small restaurant located by the river Odet, you’ll have the pleasant surprise of eating local food, fish from the market and goat cheese with honey, accompanied by a traditional ratatouille. French coffee is better here than anywhere else in the country – it’s so good that I can’t resist the temptation to buy a French coffee maker.
Hôtel Des Indes
Even more pleasant is to sleep in a hotel that you wouldn’t expect to find in this area. I was attracted to it immediately because of its colonial style, which I love. Not far from Quimper, this eco-friendly country house welcomes you with a garden full of palm trees and small statues of Buddha in the rooms. It’s called Manoir Hôtel Des Indes, and the name alone is enough to make us dream.
Crozon, Heather, Cliffs
From Quimper we decide to head North, towards Crozon peninsula, which really feels the end of the known world. Cliffs, heather fields, mysterious grottos and lonely country roads – no, occasionally you might see a farm, with a cow grazing freely and peacefully.
I won’t ever forget the incredible sense of freedom that I felt while watching the rugged cliffs at Point de Pen-Hir, a promontory of the peninsula. It’s so beautiful I could spend hours just admiring the landscape. Why going back to civilization, stress and people? We reluctantly leave, as clouds gather and become thicker, brining rain. This is Brittany sky, mercurial, ever changing. But if you’re patient enough and wait for the clouds to go away, the sun will surely shine.
King Arthur’s Land
The weather is perfect when we stop at Trégastel and Ploumanac’h, in the Northern part of Brittany, where cool waves crush against rocks and white beaches, and stone lighthouses overlook the sea. These wonderful names come from King Arthur’s saga; and in Arthurian times, Brittany was populated by lots of Britons fled from the island.
According to the legend, it was a Roman emperor who took an army of Britons here, founding a new kingdom. Brittany is also the location of Borceliande, the enchanted forest of Arthurian stories, where Lancelot was raised and Merlin was trapped by Viviane. Lancelot’s castle is also set in Brittany, and according to some of the legends, he took Guinevere in these lands after rescuing her.
Going East, we stop at Plougrescant to visit a house built between two huge rocks. There’s nobody around, only Nature and some very small villages. Then, after a while, we see a crêperie. We’ve not had lunch yet, so we go in and are welcomed by an old, smiling woman who lead us to a wooden table by the lit fireplace. She sells jams and cider, and bakes cakes. It’s so quiet in here. We don’t miss anything.
Locronan & the Celts
And these towns are so small that Locronan, not far from Quimper, seems (almost) big. It was founded by the Celts and is listed among the most beautiful villages in France. According to the legend, the Irish hermit Saint Ronan came here and taught people the art of weaving.
We leave our car in the parking lot and walk to the city centre, peering into the art galleries housed in stone buildings and admiring the traditional roofs and cobbled streets. In the main square, next to the church of Saint Ronan, there’s a Celtic bookshop populated by elves. Seriously, those little creatures are everywhere, on the shelves, in books, inside the cupboards. The pages are full of wizards, saints and knights. Yes, it’s a magical place, and yes, I bought an elf charm.
The megaliths of Carnac
South of Quimper, the landscape changes. The region of Carnac is renowned for its megaliths, including the giant menhir of Loqmariaquer; these prehistoric standing stones are actually Roman soldiers turned into stone by Merlin. So local tradition claims. And it’s nice to believe it.
The walk in the park is so beautiful that it really seems to hear voices from the past (it’s probably the wind, but the effect is creepy) in the silence of the land. Along the coastline, no more cliffs, only beaches and tides that change with the moon.
At Quiberon, in the Morbihan – an island with a main road that connects it to the mainland – the atmosphere is festive. There’s a local festival, I suppose, with stalls selling sardines (yes, they’re very popular here) and candyfloss. People linger on the wide beach; the light is warm and paints everything gold.
We find a restaurant with a view and the waiter brings us the Homard à l’armoricaine, a local lobster with tomatoes, garlic, herbs and cream. A slice of moon has already appeared in the clear sky. All of a sudden I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favourite books, Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher:
“You know, it won’t ever be like this again. Not ever. Just you and me, and this place and this time. Things only happen once. Do you ever thing that, Judith? It can be a bit the same, of course, but never quite the same”.
That’s why memories are so precious.