In a French province in which the dialect has the word 'mad' meaning 'good', anything goes.
Brittany certainly is different. It has a freshness and wildness totally estranged from your usual French refinements but this doesn't mean it lacks sophistication. Its food is sublime, its accommodation includes Relais & Chateaux properties (always a hallmark of quality), and its beaches - long, shallow and beautiful - are among the best in Europe.
We'd come to Brittany, a mere morning's drive from the
, via Pont Aven, paying homage at the art museum to the Pont Aven school of painters whose luminaries include Scrusier, Jourdan and Gaugin. It's a pretty village laced with canals and water-mills, dappled shadows and sunny squares. Brittany, on the other hand, turned on grey skies and the searing winds which sculpt the environs into swirling seas and trees lying almost horizontal to the ground.
It's said that Bretons are 'born with the waters of the sea flowing round their hearts' and I can believe it. Wherever you look in Brittany you'll find sheltered coves studded with fishing boats, spectacular stretches of coastline edged with jagged black rocks, long lonely beaches and pounding waves.
It was the Gauls who called this region Armor, meaning 'the country near the sea', and it's an ethos inherent in even the modern Breton. They have a fierce sense of individuality, calling themselves Bretons rather than Frenchmen. When we arrived at Audierne and snatched a narrow car space from a local slower than us, he got out of his car, noted our numberplate indicating that we'd come from the capital, then roared at us, yelling, "I'm a Breton, not a shit Parisienne!". They also have a strong mystic sense from their Celt heritage, as well as a friendly relationship with their saints who loom large in their daily lives. Brittany has a large number of churches, whose weather-worn stone is in great contrast to their rather frivolous airy spires - a sort of Romanesque-meets-Gothic manifestation. Near Carnac are many Celtic mysteries. The prehistoric Breton capital has lines of megaliths in such numbers as to give Stonehenge a run for its money. Their origins are lost in legend, but it's thought these giant stones are associated with the worship of the sun and moon. Whatever they are, they are certainly awesome.
Where ever you look in Brittany you'll find SHELTERED coves studded with FISHING BOATS...
Brittany's coastal villages are picturesque in the best sense of the word, saved from preciousness by the austerity of their sea-lashed stone. La Roche Bernard, overlooking the Vilaine River, is possibly the prettiest of them all, a sheltered haven for pleasure boats, surrounded by yellow gorse-covered hills. Vannes, at the head of the Morbihan gulf, is a great place for walking - cobbled streets, various churches, tilted elderly houses and great ramparts where, according to our guidebook, "mad virgins and indecent women" were once imprisoned.
Concarneau is still a busy fishing port with huddles of working boats crewed by Bretons in big boots and seamen's sweaters, while Dournenez, also a working port, is celebrated for its crepes and spiny lobsters which appear on every Breton table (we enjoyed a spectacular example of this delicacy at Relais & Chateaux's Hotel de Ia Plage at Sainte Anne Ia Palud. This is a blissfully-sited hotel on a stretch of beach with wheeling gulls, deserted dunes, and one morning, an elderly sheep dog who appeared to share our bracing, windy walk. Probably the 'don't miss' town of Brittany is Quimper, on the junction of the Steir and Odet Rivers. It is threaded with narrow lanes, doll-sized houses and a wide river. It boasts one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in France, St Corentin, which had its origins in the thirteenth century, but whose nineteenth-century twin steeples have so swiftly succumbed to the sea air, you'd swear they were original.
La Baule is famous for its "Thalassotherapie" treatments, where one is swathed in seaweed-based jellies and lotions. (Seaweed contains minerals in similar proportions to the human body, and the treatment is thought to restore a balance.) I tried a thalasso bath from the sachet in the bathroom of our hotel, the Castel Marie Louise - a great stone pile right on the seemingly endless sands of La Baule - but those who did try the full treatment raved about it. La Baule is also within a minute's drive of the great salt marshes of the area where Bretons sell you salt on the roadside, and where birdwatchers think they've discovered Paradise. It's also close to the restored village of Kerhinet with its thatched roof houses and seriously expensive gift and souvenir shops.
For a true Breton experience, travellers should journey to the Point du Raz, a deserted, windswept expanse easing down to jagged rocks bracing themselves against a violent sea. It's the summary of Brittany: Sea, gales, grey-slated signal station and a moving statue of Our Lady of the Shipwrecked, where a benign Madonna clutches a baby to her breast while a fisherman stretches his hand to her in supplication.
In Brittany, we went seriously upmarket, indulging ourselves in the Relais & Chateaux hotel Le Castel Marie Louise at La Baule. It's a Belle Epoque stone fantasy set in a park with 100-year-old trees. The bay is just across the road and in summer one dines sumptuously outdoors. We also stayed at Le Goyen which its right on the fishing quay at Audierne, so your blue painted balcony affords a close-up view of Brittany's sea life. Rooms are airy, suites downright opulent.
Jill Mullens 30/3/10