Brittany Bretagne


Why go

If there’s one word that British visitors indelibly associate with Brittany, it’s beaches. Great beaches are everywhere you look, from the posh north-coast watering hole of Dinard, beloved by nineteenth-century British aristocrats, to any number of humbler family resorts strung along the entire, endlessly intricate and gloriously unpredictable coastline.

Some of the region’s abundant strands of sand bustle with life and energy, lined with hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets; others lie tucked away at the end of unpromising little rural lanes, rewarding those who take the trouble to find them with splendid, unspoiled isolation.

There’s much more to Brittany than beaches, though. For many centuries this was a proudly independent realm, with closer connections to Britain than France; Brittany was after all “petite Bretagne”, as opposed to “Grande Bretagne” across the Channel.

The pan-Celtic traditions of that era are still going strong; the Breton language remains proudly spoken, while cultural festivals celebrate Celtic music and dance. And local history stretches back even further than the Celts, as evidenced by the ancient standing stones and mysterious burial mounds of places like Carnac, Locmariaquer and Camaret.

Brittany’s most striking towns are the walled medieval citadelles that once guarded its borders with France – places like Dinan, Vitré and the ports of St-Malo in the north and Vannes in the south. The further west you go, into the Celtic heartland, you’re in wilder territory, where vestiges of ancient forests survive around villages such as Huelgoat.

Brittany is one of those destinations where the longer you spend in one place, the more there seems to be to discover. You don’t have to tour the entire region to find variety and stimulation; base yourself in one small resort, and you’ll find plenty to engage you nearby. Recommendations include, say, Ploumanac’h on the northern “pink granite coast”; Camaret, on the Crozon Peninsula in the far west; or Carnac in the south.

Oh, and there’s another word – pancakes. In the home of the perfect crêpe, don’t forget to sample a few, both sweet and savoury.

When to go

While Brittany’s tourist industry is heavily focused on its beaches and seaside resorts, the season is longer than you might expect. Only in the depths of winter, say between December and mid-February, do many hotels, and even entire coastal communities, tend to shut up shop altogether.

Come any time between March and October and you should find things open everywhere along the coast – and there’s a reasonable chance that the sun will be out, too. Much the busiest months are July and August, which actually get pretty warm; if you’re hoping to swim in the sea, you shouldn’t need a wetsuit, in southern Brittany especially, between around mid-June and mid-September.

The cities, such as Rennes and Quimper, as well as ferry ports like St-Malo and Roscoff, remain busy throughout the year. All the inhabited islands have year-round ferry service, but the boats are only regular enough to suit day-trippers between around May and September.

The biggest annual event is the Festival Inter-Celtique, held in the otherwise un-enthralling port of Lorient in August, but Quimper also puts on large festivals in July and August, as does Rennes in July and December.

The traditional religious celebrations known as pardons, in which villages and towns mark their local saint’s day, are generally rather sombre affairs. You’d do better to look out for posters advertising festou-noz, riotous concerts of Breton music and dancing that often last long into the night.

Bretons have been playing the bagpipes – here known as the biniou, and equipped with either one or three drones – since the Middle Ages. Pipe bands, or bagadou, are a popular feature of many festivals and competitions.

Getting there and getting around

Brittany Ferries (0870 244 1400; sail year round from Portsmouth to St-Malo (1 overnight crossing daily; 9 hr 30min–11hr), and from Plymouth to Roscoff (1–2 daily; 6–8hr). Return rates for a car with two passengers range £160–450. Overnight sailings arrive around breakfast time; be sure to book a (very comfortable) cabin.

CityJet ( fly non-stop from London City Airport to both Nantes (once daily) and Brest (2–4 times weekly, summer only); typical one-way fares range £70–145.

RyanAir ( fly non-stop from London Stanstead, East Midlands and Leeds Bradford airports. Flight prices fluctuate based on season and demand but always appear good value.

You could enjoy a perfectly pleasant three – or four-night stay in either of Brittany’s cross-Channel ferry ports, Roscoff and St-Malo, without needing your own car. Otherwise, driving, or cycling, is preferable to being dependent on public transport. The Breton coastline being repeatedly indented with deep-cut bays and estuaries, the major road and rail routes are obliged to run well inland.

Thus you can circle the region quickly and efficiently by both car and train, but it can take a surprising amount of extra time to reach smaller seaside destinations. Motorways and train lines link the major cities – Rennes, Brest, Quimper and Vannes – and branch railways also run to several of the ports, including St-Malo, Paimpol, Roscoff and Quiberon.

Know before you go

It’s all too easy for English drivers who take their own cars to France to be caught out by the latest French laws for motorists. All drivers are obliged to carry a red warning triangle, to adjust the dip of their headlights, and to have a fluorescent safety jacket in the car itself, not in the boot – if you’re stopped by the police, you face an on-the-spot fine if you’re not wearing it when you get out of the car.

As of 2012, you’re also required to carry a breathalyser; cheap single-use kits are available at the ferry ports.

While speaking the Breton language is a great source of pride for many locals, everyone you’re likely to come into contact with as a visitor will also gladly speak French – and most speak some English as well.