IF New York, New York, is so good they named it twice, the French province of Brittany must be fantastic because almost everything you see there on signposts and posters about public events is in two languages. We explored some of the most beautiful, and possibly most under-exposed, destinations in Brittany during our three-week house sit there.
Brittany is not Paris
When the non-French think of France we tend to think of Paris or holiday resorts like the French Riviera. To have any understanding of Brittany you must understand that Bretons have a distinct regional and historical identity. And nowhere is this more evident than in their language and cultural heritage.
French, of course, is the official language of France. Sans doute. But in the country’s most northwestern region the Breton (or Brezhoneg) language is making a comeback after being in danger of disappearing.
The French for Brittany is Bretagne. In Breton it is Breizh. Brought to the region from Great Britain in the early Middle Ages, Breton is a Celtic and Indo-European language that recently was spoken by only about 200,000 people. About seventy years ago, that number was closer to one million. So it was classified by UNESCO as a “severely endangered” language. But the number of children taking bilingual classes is on the rise now and there is even a Breton Wikipedia.
Multi-lingual directions to destinations in Brittany
While the French Government still recognises it as only a minority language, the signposts-posters move is official policy in the province. If you spend any time there it can be a little confusing trying to follow — especially as you whiz past traffic signs — but don’t let that put you off. While the movie star playgrounds such as the French Riviera get all the press, there are some amazing destinations in Brittany where you won’t have to fight off the crowds and empty your bank account to visit. Rugged coastline, beach resorts, beautiful old towns and villages and spectacular places to hike are all on offer.
Brittany is divided into five “departments”. Our house sit was in Finistere (in Breton Penn-ar-Bedd), in a village called Saint-Yvi (Breton: Sant-Ivi). The village, it has to be said, is nothing exceptional — the usual, ancient church and a smattering of dwellings either side of a main road. There’s a Post Office that’s open sometimes; an excellent boulangerie; a pizza place; and a very limited supermarket. Le Terroir is a restaurant that doesn’t have a menu as such, but serves whatever the proprietor has made fresh that day. It certainly doesn’t lack a kind of charm and the day we popped in for lunch there was a choice of roast beef or tuna lasagne. Both were delicious.
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The main drag through Saint-Yvi goes one way to Rosporden (actually spelt the same in Breton), where you’ll find bigger supermarkets and the nearest train station, and the other way to Quimper (Breton: Kemper), the capital of Finistere. We were lucky enough to house sit in the area in July, when a week-long celebration of Celtic culture, the Cornouille (Breton: Kalon ar fest) is held. The Sunday morning parade of costumed dancers and bands and all modes of transportation is absolutely not to be missed. It starts immediately after Mass, of course.
Elsewhere, within a hour’s drive of Saint-Yvi, there are places such as Concarneau (Breton: Konk-Kerne), with its walled city (below) and still an important fishing port; and Brest (same spelling in Breton) with its famous aquarium, Oceanopolis.
4. Port d-Audierne
5. The Moros
On the Crozon Peninsula, near the village of Telgruc-sur-Mer (Breton: Terrug), we saw everything from jaw-droppingly beautiful coastline to heath to forests and cornfields. The nearby village of Chateaulin (Breton: Kastellin) was another great place to start and finish a walk.
But best of all for me was Pont-Aven. Mentioned among the towns that took part in the Breton anti-tax Rebellion of the Red Bonnets against Louis XIV of France in 1675, it is best known for the Pont-Aven School (Breton: Skol Pont-Aven) of artists, led by Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard in the 1880s.
These days you can eat lunch in some of the mills, such as the Moulin de Grand Poulquin (below), that sprang to life on their canvasses. A leisurely stroll around this gorgeous old village is just a delight.