The trouble with rural Morbihan is that you can hear the clock ticking in the farmhouse three kilometres away. That’s a slight exaggeration; the farm is only one kilometre away. But the fact remains that here the sounds of silence are no paradox, it really is tranquil and as far removed from the hullaballoo of townie gabble as can be.
I first arrived here by mistake; taking the road for Brest as I drove around Rennes, instead of waiting for the Lorient exit. The result was a pleasing if unplanned trans-country route through the remnant forests and farmland of the Landes de Lanvaux, and diminutive hamlets where the average age of its inhabitants was probably seventy at least. Even when I hit the, by comparison, metropolae of Plescop and Mériadec, the pace of life was hard pushed to produce anything more than a father and three wobbling daughters on bikes, the signs and paraphernalia of road works but without a workman in sight, and a stooped, elderly lady who scowled as I drove by and must have been thinking that my black Volvo was a hearse bound for one of her few remaining friends.
There are large towns here, of course; well, just two. Vannes, population around 50,000, and Lorient, which sprawls across an urban conurbation about twice that size. Vannes, perhaps surprisingly if you approach from the north, is actually built on the coast, a huge amphitheatre constructed around the Golfe du Morbihan, a most agreeable city, not unlike a chocolate bonbon – hard on the outside but with a soft and agreeable centre. And that impressionable heart is its old town, grouped within sturdy ramparts around its nondescript cathedral, a pedestrianised zone where up-market shops, cafés and restaurants have breathed new life into the geometrically challenged half-timbered colombages of old, which seem in perpetual danger of collapse, and rest companionably on their neighbours for essential support, with ne’er a right angle in sight.
Antiquity is very much the undercurrent here, for Darioritum, as it was then called, has been around since Roman times, and prospered until Barbarians took possession in the 4th century. The ramparts, certainly where they parallel the stream known as the Marle, are well-preserved and attractive, mainly 17th century, and penetrated by medieval gates at Porte Prison, Porte Poterne and Porte St Vincent. A small bridge leading to Porte Poterne overlooks the town’s old wash-houses.
South-west of Vannes lies the Golfe de Morbihan, almost an inland sea, studded with islands. It was once said that the gulf had as many islands as there are days in the year. That may have been a medieval tourism marketing ploy; there are certainly nothing like so many now, maybe around forty, most of the rest having been consumed by rising tides. All but two of those that remain are private and owned by celebrities.
Beyond the narrow opening at Locmariaquer lies the Baie de Quiberon, embraced to the west by the long, narrow arm that links what was once the island of Quiberon with the mainland. For those in search of all things seasidey, including the crepes and donuts that seem to be the staple fare of beach lovers judging by the number of outlets selling them, this narrow isthmus – geographically known as a tombolo – is quite special, and at its narrowest at Penthièvre, where waves roll in both left and right. There is little that screams ‘Breton’ about Quiberon; it used to be an important sardine-fishing port, but today the great sweeping beach bustles to life only in the summer months, and is fairly light-weight outside the main holiday season, which is particularly appealing if you like enough space on a beach not to feel like a tinned sardine.
Elsewhere, the landscape is widely varied: sand dunes held in place by pine, a wild, west coast of cliffs, rocks, caves and reefs with needless pretension to something more dramatic, and white-sand beaches. This area was heavily occupied during the Second World War, and one of the last German strongholds to fall, in May 1945. The French Riviera this is not; and is all the better for it. There is room to breathe here.
Most people visit Quiberon to take boat trips out to the islands in the bay – Belle-Ile in particular, brought renown by both Monet and Sarah Bernhardt – but you could just as easily settle for lounging in one of the cafés on the seafront, chill out and give in to the donuts.
West of Vannes, where fingers of water probe the landscape, lies the small-big town of Auray, essentially a two-storey settlement having an upper town and a lower. You arrive in the upper town, where the place de la République and the 18th-century Hotel de Ville is a natural centre; it’s attractive and sufficient in a domestic kind of way, with a fine indoor market and an open air market on Mondays.
But the real showpiece of Auray is the old quarter of Saint Goustan, developed on a bend in the River Loch. Accessed by a lovely 17th-century bridge, it is easy to see why this was a perfect defensible site, and, with easy access to the Golfe du Morbihan, became a thriving port. Although restored, many of the extant buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Even at the height of lunch, the place has a quiet charm, with its higgledy-piggledy buildings, narrow streets and waterfront dwellings. It was at Auray, on 4 December 1776, that as the American War of Independence raged on at home, the US statesman Benjamin Franklin landed from Philadelphia to enlist the help of Louis XVI, and so negotiate the first alliance between the two countries. To this day, the quay is named after Franklin, and the house where he stayed bears a plaque commemorating the occasion. At a much earlier date, Auray is believed to have been the limit of Julius Caesar’s conquest ambitions in Gaul, although that may just have been a personal thing as the Romans certainly went further west.
Between Auray, where you leave the east-west drag, and Quiberon, you branch off to Carnac, a prehistoric MENSA puzzle that no one has yet solved. The area around Carnac is said to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world, certainly for the last 8,000 years. The standing stones here, several thousands of them, make infants of Stonehenge, Knossos, the pyramids and the great Egyptian temples bearing the same name at Karnak. ‘Kar-’, ‘Car-‘, or, more usually, ‘Ker-‘ is a familiar prefix to place-names in Brittany: it means, ‘place’.
And the place to see huge and unfathomable alignments of standing stones is Carnac. Here, almost 3,000 monoliths have been part of the landscape of Brittany since long before any system of communication was invented that could transmit their purpose down the millennia. Most experts agree that the stones had religious, astronomical or ritual function, maybe all three. But the mystery remains; experts can make educated guesses, no doubt very highly perceptive educated guesses, but the truth is that it is unlikely we will ever know.
Away from the coast, inland Morbihan really does have a quiet appeal. Few of the villages that appear on maps feature in guidebooks; they are out-of-the-way, bright, clean, flowery, drowsy places surrounded by gently undulating farmland and the remains of a once great forest. To the north, beyond the Landes de Lanvaux lie pastel-shaded St-Jean-Brévelay, and Guéhenno, renowned for its ornate calvary, which has served to remind everyone since 1550 when it was built that they are constantly being observed. Today, the calvary is a classic example of Destroy-It-Yourself-ism, having been amateurishly restored by the local priest following Revolutionary damage in 1794. All the local sculptors, with an eye to a generous dip into the ecclesiastical coffers, or fearing reprisals come the next Revolution, demanded exorbitant fees for the work.
To the east of Vannes, and worthy of note is the attractive village of Rochefort-en-Terre, occupying a promontory site overlooking the Gueuzon valley. It is rated as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’, and, unlike some, with justification. First impressions are of a one-street village with charming 16th- and 17th-century houses, florally decorated and tastefully maintained. But there are a number of side streets that beckon like an impatient child: one leads to a neat, modern public garden; another to the entrance to the chateau.
The original chateau was destroyed in 1793, and little remains of that building save for the main entrance, sections of the walls, some underground passages and a few outbuildings. Using what can only be described as a pic’n’mix approach to chateau building, in the early 20th century, the American artist Alfred Klots rebuilt the chateau using masonry from many other buildings, principally the dormer windows, which came from the 17th-century Kéralio manor house near Muzillac. The ensemble: chateau, houses, and setting make this an appealing destination, and it has found favour with artisanats who ply their trade in yarn, glass, earthenware and on canvas.
But of real note is the ancient town of Josselin, of which one house, dating from 1538, still remains.
A town of particular medieval splendour, Josselin is hugely dominated by the triple towers of its reconstructed feudal chateau, home of the Rohan family, who once owned a third of all Brittany. It was here, or at least in the chateau that existed before Richelieu had it demolished in 1629, that the Edict of Nantes was signed, in 1598. But even that significant historical note pales when set against the delightful mish-mash of ancient streets, lined by beautiful half-timbered houses. Below the modern, 19th-century chateau and the town flows the Oust, long since canalised to form part of the Canal de Nantes à Brest, and today paralleled by an excellent towpath, enlivened by floral baskets, en-gardened locks and lush waterside willow. The busy Saturday market in Josselin resounds to all that is authentically Breton, and while the town is a place wherein to spend a couple of days, the danger is that it may become much longer.
Such is the way, too, of Morbihan in general.
Comité Régional du Tourisme, 1 rue Raoul Ponchon, 35069 RENNES Cedex. Tel: 00 33 (0)2 99 28 44 30; www.brittanytourism.com
PIBS-KERINO, Allée Nicolas Le Blanc, BP 408 -56010 VANNES Cedex, Tel: 00 33 (0)825 13 56 56; www.morbihan.com
By car: Vannes is 193 miles (308km) from the Caen ferry port at Ouistreham via the A84 and Rennes; 215 miles (431km) from Cherbourg; 111 miles (178km) from St Malo.
There are two main motorway routes that head towards Brittany and as soon as you reach the region, road transport is made up of a network of dual carriageways which is free to travel on.
By rail: British Rail and French Railways (SNCF) operate a daily service between London (St Pancras, Eurostar) and Paris (Gard du Nord) (2h15).
Brittany’s excellent rail network means it is quick and easy to travel to the region.
From Paris Montparnasse, allow 2 hours to get to Rennes and 4 hours for Brest or Quimper; Vannes (3h) or Auray (3h20) all by TGV (high-speed train). Equally, direct routes allow you to travel to Brittany without even having to go through capital.
By air: There are several airlines that fly to Brittany’s convenient regional airports from the UK and Ireland, many of which are low-cost. The nearest cities to which flights can be made are Nantes and Rennes. A number of companies fly here from Paris.
By sea: Surrounded on three of its four sides by the sea, the ferry is an obvious option for coming to Brittany from the UK and Ireland. Either with your own car, caravan or motorhome or perhaps as a foot passenger, there are two main points of entry: St-Malo and Roscoff.