It’s not hard to see why Brittany is a perennial British favourite
Rich in legend and mystery, Brittany’s seductive powers never fail to charm those who find themselves in search for the perfect home on her shores, as Joanna Leggett explains
Proud of its Celtic origins, Brittany’s very name is derived from the Britons who came across the Channel seeking refuge from marauding invaders. Others fled to Wales and Cornwall, all carrying their Celtic language and customs with them which remain shared even today. The countryside here, where myths and legends abound, is marked with Celtic crosses, ancient stones and menhirs.
Jutting out into the ocean, Brittany is a province of varied landscapes with ragged coastlines complemented by rich rolling pastures – this is a land of farmers, fishermen and, more latterly, painters and those seeking a peaceful haven in which to live.
To the north and west where it’s more open to the North Atlantic, the coastline is rugged and rocky with beautiful sandy beaches and coves. The south, facing onto the Bay of Biscay, is flatter and milder with large sandy beaches; and the warmer sea temperatures attract holidaymakers. Most of inland Brittany is generous farming country famous for milk, butter and early crop production.
At 25km from the coastline, Ile d’ouessant is the most remote of all of Brittany’s islands – it marks the southern limit of the Celtic sea and southern entrance to the English Channel (the northern point being the Isles of Scilly). Once considered on the edge of the world, its inhabitants insist their beloved island is the beginning and not the end. Known in English as Ushant, it is the only place in Brittany to have an English name.
Back on the mainland, Breton villages tend to be small with granite and white-washed stone houses. Thatched roofs are rare here: they say it takes a good granite roof to resist Atlantic wind. Pretty fishing ports are picturesque to say the least with houses clustered around small harbours where brightly coloured boats dance on waves. South of Brest, stretching inland from the coast almost to Morlaix, is the Parc Regional d’armorique (the ancient name for Brittany).
History lesson Made up of four departments – Côtes d’armor to the north, Ille-et-vilaine in the east, Morbihan to the south with Finistère in the far west – this region was relatively unscathed by the ravages of WWII so much of its history and architecture remains.
Brittany was one of France’s ancient duchies, the most famous duchess being Anne of Brittany who married no less than two French kings. Much loved by the Bretons, she is said to have governed her duchy wisely and fairly before it became part of France in the early 16th century. Today Bretons remain independent in character, though the Breton language is spoken less and less.
With its strategic position Brittany is home to important ports such as Brest, on the Atlantic coastline. To the north, St-malo was once notorious as the home of corsairs, French privateers, and sometimes pirates forcing English ships passing up the Channel to pay
The tranquil inland regions, never far from the sea, prove highly attractive to secondhome owners or those seeking to relocate to France
tribute. Jacques Cartier, credited as having discovered Canada, lived in and sailed from St-malo. Although rebuilt after the war, it remains an imposing walled city standing above the sea with great overnight ferry connections to Portsmouth.
Holiday time All along Brittany’s southern coastline are holiday resorts and towns such as Quimper famed for its eponymous faience pottery. This pretty town is regarded as the cultural heart of Brittany not least for its cathedral, enchanting old quarter and museums but most of all for the annual festival held here each summer celebrating Breton culture.
Shipping and large-scale ship building may have declined but ports along the south coast are today better known for yachting and yacht building. Fishermen and artists are attracted to this area of coast indented by so many estuaries and inlets – with its great light it makes the ideal spot to paint or cast a line.
And then there’s the food – if you love seafood this is the place to be. Some 80% of France’s shellfish production comes from Brittany – the oysters are delicious (two-thirds of France’s flat oysters are farmed near St-malo) and to my mind you haven’t lived until you’ve shared a platter of fruits de mer with crabs, langoustines, small prawns, winkles, clams and oysters served on a bed of seaweed, all washed down with either local cider or a delicious glass or two of something cold. Then there are the pancakes – sweet crêpes or savoury buckwheat galettes – the cakes, pork dishes, cheese and the list goes on.
As a great holiday destination, Brittany’s coast naturally attracts the most visitors, although the tranquil inland regions, never far from the sea, prove highly attractive to second-home owners or those seeking to relocate to France – not least because of their affordable prices.