A short break in Southern Brittany
Often overlooked, yet rich in attractions, the Morbihan Gulf in southern Brittany, offers the perfect combination of culture, nature and gastronomy. On a long weekend with friends, I was able to discover some of the best attractions in Brittany, and dare I say, in France.
Start a tour of the region in the town of Vannes, which I found to be one of France’s best preserved medieval towns. Offering views over the Golfe du Morbihan, Vannes is the ideal base to explore southern Brittany. The old town is surrounded by sturdy walls, which will make you feel like you are back in the Middle Ages.
Walk through the imposing gates and around the cobbled streets towards St Pierre Cathedral, amidst colourful half-timbered houses. From here you will get to nearby Henry IV Square, where you can take in the laidback atmosphere with a hot drink at one of the cosy cafes. You will then reach the impressive Jardins des Remparts, and the smaller and perfectly manicured gardens at Chateau de l’Hermine, my favourite in town, built on the site of the residence of the dukes of Brittany. End your exploration with a glass of wine at Place Gambetta, facing the small marina which is always busy.
From Vannes you can sail to some of the Gulf of Morbihan’s many islands. It is said that there are as many isles as days in the year; but, in fact, they are just over forty. Morbihan means “Little Sea” in Breton, and with its own microclimate, the gulf is a sanctuary for marine plant and animal life. You can take a boat tour to Île aux Moines and Île d’Arz, the largest and most popular islands in the gulf. Both have fine 17th- and 18th- century houses and several small megalithic sites - an ideal setting for long walks, I loved the views over the gulf from some of the promontories.
Morbihan also has some of the best oysters in France. I went on a tour with Ivan Selo, the fifth generation of oyster farmers, who takes tourists on a boat to the oyster beds. Under his supervision, I found myself banging and turning oyster bags, to the point my arms were too tired. Not only did we learn about the farming process, but also ended the afternoon tasting some damn good fresh oysters, washed down, of course, with local white wine.
On the east side of Morbihan is the large Rhuys Peninsula, a stretch of land that shelters the gulf from the rigorous Atlantic waters. I enjoyed cycling here, which I found extremely pleasant and not much hard work, stopping at the tiny beaches, picturesque harbours and the majestic Château de Suscinio. During medieval times, the chateau was the main residence of the dukes of Brittany, and was abandoned during the French Revolution. Today, it offers an insight into Breton history and welcomes visitors of all ages, with special activities for children.
Cycling back towards Vannes, and spotting some wildlife along the way, I recommend taking some time to admire the views of the glittery salt marshes reflecting the sunlight. After that, nearby St-Armel, another small town facing the gulf, also deserves a stop. Here you can end the day feeling the gentle breeze with a relaxing drink and some of the best seafood I tried in the region.
But no trip to Morbihan is complete without a visit to the world’s largest collection of megaliths in Locmariaquer and Carnac. These extraordinary granite monuments, erected by pre-Celtic people, date from 4,500BC. Locmariaquer’s Great Broken Menhir, which weighs 280 tonnes, still divides specialists as to how it was transported and erected. Carnac, on the other hand, amazed me with its impressive collection of over 3,000 stones aligned for several kilometres.
In summer, southern Brittany comes alive with cultural festivals. In July, the Cornouaille-Quimper Festival welcomes over 250,000 visitors in a commemoration of Breton history, arts and cuisine, turning these small towns into capitals of Breton culture. In August, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient gathers artists from all over the Celtic world, with performers from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Galicia and Asturias, celebrating their common heritage through music and street performances.
With so many unique experiences available, I find it only fair to say that a visit to Morbihan is a must for anyone travelling to Brittany, whether you like history, the great outdoors or, like me, just tasty, fresh oysters washed down with a glass of wine.