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
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.
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