Brittany: France’s Best Kept Secret

Brittany: It is a permanent impressionist exhibition here; you only have to put your nose outside the door when the weather is fine: it’s Monet all over: violet overalls, green land, orange sky, blue trees, violet, red and pink boats etc. It’s enough to make you mad.— Emile Bernard, (artist and friend of Gauguin)

If you long for the primary-colored world of your kindergarten days, come to Brittany.  In northwest France, I found a royal blue sea set with white-sailed skiffs, red and white lighthouses, and red, blue, green and yellow fishing boats gleaming in the sun like enlarged Brio toys.  The 18th-century cliff top homes have the boxy, symmetry of children’s blocks, making the coastal scenery here one of simplicity and cheer. 

This is not what I had expected.  

I had mistakenly thought Brittany to be a blustery cold place of gray houses and bleak skies. Yet, everywhere I went, I was taken with the bright, bold beauty of a sunny land filled with traditional delights for the visitor.

An easy train ride from Paris, using my France Rail Pass, two hours and a coffee later I arrive  in Brittany’s capital, Rennes, and discover not only was I not in Kansas anymore, I was not in France anymore. With a revival of Brittany’s Celtic culture, radio stations broadcast entirely in the Breton language and, as if to cement the solidarity with their neighbors across the Channel, the twisted medieval streets of half-timbered houses sport Irish pubs and Irish street musicians. I stay in Rennes for a lunch and a stroll, then make a beeline for the museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts, with its lovely Art Nouveau and Modern pieces and my very favorite painting on the planet, Georges de La Tour’s, The Newborn Child

From Rennes, it’s a brief train ride to perhaps the most breathtaking of French cities: St. Malo.  This walled seaport perches at the edge of the Atlantic. The setting is spectacular. From the 16th-century mile-long ramparts, breathe in the brisk air smelling of iodine, and look far across the water to several little islands crowned with ancient forts. White and pink-sailed yachts and fishing boats ply the waters and ferries, white and high as wedding cakes, sail to and from England. On the cliffs across the way, is the stately resort town of Dinard with its extravagant English houses and long, wide beach.  St. Malo is celebrated as a city of adventurers and privateers. It was from here that gentlemen pirates made life hell for English sailors, and it was from here that Cartier sailed when he discovered Canada.  

St. Malo blends 18th-century elegance with 16th-century provincial port.  The surprise however is that St. Malo is new. Destroyed by the Germans in World War II, St. Malo was painstakingly re-built, stone by stone, so that today it is a perfect yet poignant replica of itself.  The town’s heart is the elegant Place Chateaubriand, fringed with nautical-themed cafés. The surrounding streets are lined with shops selling unique gifts, including yacht sails recycled into chic totes and handbags with the steel clew holes as handles.  There are delicious cookies and caramels made with Brittany’s famous salted butter, and the ubiquitous striped nautical tee shirt. It is not only the Malouins (the citizens of St. Malo) who sport these jaunty blue and white or red and white striped shirts but every man woman and child who visits. It’s amusing to see all these horizontally striped people for it gives the town the appearance of some kind of retreat for prisoners.

The essential thing to buy in St. Malo, and in fact in all of Brittany are the galettes; a crepe made with buckwheat flour and filled with something savory.  At a bow-windowed crêperie, I learn to order a galette with ham, cheese and fried egg, oeuf miroir, so that when I cut into it, the yolk spills deliciously around the crepe. For dessert, I have a crêpe, not a galette (as a crêpe is made with wheat flour), filled with the Breton specialty, a warm caramel sauce called crème de Salidou made from that luscious salted butter. There are no words to describe how sensual this tastes so I won’t try.

There’s something about France that makes you hungry all the time, and in Brittany this phenomenon is no exception. There are so many gastronomic discoveries and they’re so easy to come by, that even after I’ve eaten, I am eager for more. I visit Cancale, a fishing village, 15 minutes from St. Malo. If the name of this village sounds familiar, it’s because Cancale is where more than 80% of France’s oysters are farmed. The eponymous oysters feed naturally on the plankton-rich waters of the Breton sea and this is said to make them especially delicious. Men in knee-high rubber boots, yellow slickers and weathered faces drive up from the beach, in tractors loaded high with oysters. You buy them fresh; a dozen large cancales for 3 euros. Squeeze a drop of lemon on one (if it contracts, it’s alive) then scoop it with your fingers and drop it into your mouth. It slides down the throat in sea-salted silkiness.  To enhance the experience, look at the horizon. If the weather’s fine, the view is to exquisite Mont. St. Michel, rising in the distant mist like a ghost abbey. 

I fell in love with Brittany and I fell hard. Both for the “big” cities of Rennes, St. Malo and Quimper but also for the little nooks, unknown to most visitors to France. I took to my heart the tiny seaports of Bénodet and San Marine. In these wee places, the pace slows and dinner is garlicky lobster while gazing on the same Breton sea that Monet called “incomparably beautiful.”  It’s Brittany and whether in city or hamlet, you will, as the French say, amuse yourself well. 

Published by Maxine Rose Schur

Maxine Rose Schur has a passion for travel and for art and has combined these two loves in many of her award-winning travel essays. Maxine's essays have appeared in numerous publications including, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Escape, Américas, Caribbean Travel & Life, Northwest Airlines World Traveler, Insight Guide to Hispaniola, LION Magazine, Traveller (U.K.) National Geographic Explorer and Her essays have been anthologized in several Traveler’s Tales series, Salon.Com Wanderlust: Real-life Tales of Adventure and Romance and Paris in Mind, both published by Random House and The Kindness of Strangers by Lonely Planet/Pantheon Books. In 1995 and again in 1999, Maxine won the Lowell Thomas Award given by the Society of American Travel Writers for excellence in adventure travel journalism. Maxine Rose Schur is also the author of critically-acclaimed, award-winning books for young people including picture books and historical novels. Her non-fiction for adults includes the art-filled gift journals: The Reading Woman and Enchanted Islands: Voices and Visions from the Caribbean, Solo Passages and the travel narrative, Places in Time, named 2007 Best Travel Book by the North American Travel Journalists Association and named Best Travel Narrative of 2007 (Gold) from the Society of American Travel Writers.

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