SHORT BUT SWEET CITY BREAKS The re­gional cap­i­tal of Brit­tany, Rennes is a city that is proud of its Bre­ton her­itage. But what is it that gives this re­gion and its peo­ple their unique iden­tity? Mark Samp­son heads west to find out more

France - - Contents -

The cap­i­tal of Ille-et-vi­laine in Brit­tany makes a great his­toric city break.

Caught up in late Fri­day af­ter­noon traf­fic from the pe­riph­eral ro­cade to the city cen­tre, it’s only re­ally the bilin­gual road signs – in French and Bre­ton – that dis­tin­guish Rennes at first glance from any other size­able ur­ban ag­glom­er­a­tion. De­spite the sup­posed leisurely pace of life, ‘la slow at­ti­tude’, that draws dis­af­fected Parisians here, Rennes is big and bustling. The pop­u­la­tion of around 220,000 roughly dou­bles if you count the out­ly­ing métropole. The city has em­braced mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, too: Rennes Ata­lante was one of the first hi-tech technopôles es­tab­lished in the whole of France.

Its heart, though, is steeped in his­tory. The mix­ture of nar­row half-tim­bered me­dieval pas­sages and el­e­gant 18th-cen­tury streets is rem­i­nis­cent of a scaled-down Lyon. The sun was out and the bars and bistros were teem­ing with young life. With a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of over 60,000, so­ci­ety spills out­doors. I wan­dered into an Ir­ish bar for a quick aper­i­tif. The chirpy young bar­man, who hailed from Lim­er­ick, spoke im­pec­ca­ble French and di­rected us to the Crêperie La Saint-ge­orges. When in Rennes, you sim­ply have to eat à la Bre­ton, but here the

tra­di­tional buck­wheat galettes come with a 21stcen­tury twist. The galettes are each named af­ter a fa­mous Ge­orge – I plumped for a ‘Clooney’ while my wife sam­pled a ‘Se­gal’. The place was packed and vi­brant, and the pan­cakes non­pareil. We had a jam-packed itin­er­ary for Satur­day. Rennes was the first French city to in­tro­duce a bi­cy­cle-shar­ing scheme, but we opted for foot power in­stead of pedal power. We made our way first to the heav­ing mu­nic­i­pal market in Place des Lices, where knights on horse­back in olden days would come to joust. Nowa­days, you jos­tle. Out­side of Paris, it’s the big­gest market of its kind in France. We headed east with our lo­cal délices, via some of the posh river­side shops on Les Quais, for the mag­nif­i­cent 19th-cen­tury Parc du Tha­bor, to pic­nic in the lee of an or­na­men­tal wa­ter­fall. En route, we stum­bled upon an Art Deco trea­sure. The Saint-ge­orges mu­nic­i­pal swim­ming pool is one of nu­mer­ous build­ings in the city adorned with mo­saics by the Ital­ian Odorico fam­ily. The baths are now de­servedly an his­toric mon­u­ment. By the af­ter­noon, the tem­per­a­ture was ris­ing, and we set off on an in­dis­pens­able tour of the his­toric cen­tre. We met our ex­pat Span­ish guide in the Of­fice du Tourisme, housed in the Gothic Chapelle Saint-yves, once a hospi­tal within the me­dieval city’s walls. As a pre­lude, she mapped out the city’s birth as a cen­tre of trade on the con­flu­ence of the rivers Ille and Vi­laine, which lend their names to to­day’s dé­parte­ment. In Rennes the architecture speaks vol­umes about the city’s past. From the Ro­man re­mains re­vealed within the city’s an­cient walls, we walked to the Portes Morde­laises, the for­ti­fied en­trance to the walled town, where suc­ces­sive dukes of Brit­tany would take an oath to de­fend the re­gion’s in­de­pen­dence. We passed through the ‘royal gate’ to Cathé­drale Saint-pierre, where those dukes and duchesses would be crowned – in­clud­ing the leg­endary Anne, whose mar­riage to King Charles VIII even­tu­ally uni­fied the war­ring par­ties of Brit­tany and France. The cathe­dral was built in a clas­si­cal style, with twin tow­ers but no spires, and an em­blem of the Sun King was added to the cathe­dral’s fa­cade to in­duce Louis XIV to re­turn the re­gional par­lia­ment to Rennes af­ter he trans­ferred it in an act of reprisal to Vannes in 1675. Our stroll through the labyrinthine coeur his­torique, where the best tim­ber-framed houses can be seen, re­vealed just how much the pros­per­ity of the city de­pended on the needs of its par­lia­ment. The idio­syn­cratic charm of wood gave way to the more uni­form el­e­gance of stone in Rennes’ 18th-cen­tury ‘new town’, built to re­place the 33 streets de­stroyed by the great fire of 1720. Here, we took in its two great open-air con­courses – the Place de la Mairie, where sev­eral wed­ding par­ties awaited their turn in the im­pos­ing Hô­tel de Ville, and the Place du Par­lement-de-bre­tagne, which hap­pened to be buzzing with an eco-build­ing fair.

Con­structed around a cen­tral court­yard, the mag­nif­i­cent par­lia­ment build­ing was it­self rav­aged by fire in 1994. More than 20 years on, we wit­nessed the re­sults of a painstak­ing and ex­pen­sive restora­tion: the wood pan­elling, (alas only some of) the ta­pes­tries, and above all the daz­zling gilded ceil­ings com­plete with al­le­gor­i­cal paint­ings. Ap­pro­pri­ately, the build­ing now lodges var­i­ous lo­cal and re­gional law courts.

Un­ex­pected de­light

How to fol­low such op­u­lent splen­dour? We hur­ried south of the river to Les Champs Li­bres: an ul­tra-mod­ern cul­tural cen­tre that en­com­passes a li­brary, a science cen­tre and the Musée de Bre­tagne. Dead on our feet in the heat, we were tempted to give the mu­seum a miss – but, as with the sar­dine fishing mu­seum in Douarnenez (near Quim­per), we would have missed an un­ex­pected de­light. It was ut­terly en­gross­ing: from the au­dio-visual dis­play that un­der­lined the ge­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural prox­im­ity to Wales and Corn­wall, to the cap­ti­vat­ing pho­tographs of Guy Le Quer­rec that record so poignantly the con­trast be­tween the re­gion’s van­ish­ing agrar­ian lifestyle and in­dus­tri­alised mod­ern times, to an

ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to Rennes’ role in the in­fa­mous Drey­fus Af­fair.

A long leisurely break­fast the next morn­ing set us up for Sun­day. Alas, not the Sun­day of the monthly flea market, but there was the Musée des Beaux-arts to visit. We lin­gered over the paint­ings of two of my favourite Im­pres­sion­ist painters, Al­fred Sis­ley and Gus­tave Caille­botte, be­fore head­ing over to the Es­planade du Général de Gaulle, the noisy con­crete heart of mod­ern Rennes, for a look at the week­end speed-skat­ing com­pe­ti­tion. How do they even bal­ance on sin­gle-wheel blades, let alone sprint on those per­ilous edges?

We left our am­pli­fied com­men­ta­tor whip­ping up the crowd to find the car and head for Le Havre and the ferry to Portsmouth. Out­side of the hol­i­day sea­son, Brit­tany’s mo­tor­ways are gen­er­ally quiet – and free (one strik­ing dif­fer­ence to the rest of France). You don’t have to be Bre­ton to ap­pre­ci­ate the re­gion’s cap­i­tal: L’ex­press news­pa­per named it this year the ‘most live­able city’ in France. ‘La slow at­ti­tude,’ per­haps? No, there’s much more to Rennes than its pace of life. We loved its free, in­de­pen­dent spirit. In fact, the one thing wrong with the place is that it of­fers far too much for a mere week­end.

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT: Colour­ful tim­ber-framed houses in the old city; the Art Deco Saint-ge­orges swim­ming pool; a bridge spans a wa­ter­fall in the 19th-cen­tury Parc du Tha­bor

ABOVE: The Place de la Mairie which is home to the Opera and City Hall

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