Tips for an unforgettable road trip through the most ancient and wildest corner of France
A road trip through Brittany had been on my bucket list forever. It had all started during that very short period of time when I smoked roll-up cigarettes a couple of years ago. Have you ever wondered what the paper brand OCB’s letters stand for and why it says Odet-Quimper-Finistère on the inside of the well-known little blue packs? See, me too. Hence, one night, sitting in my Berlin kitchen, I googled it. And as with so many brand names, the letters actually tell the history of the company: They stand for Odet and Cascedec, the names of two paper mills located in Brittany, while Bolloré is the last name of the founding family.
The last rugged stronghold before land becomes ocean.
And as I kept reading, about the town with the funny name Quimper, located on the banks of the river Odet, in the department of Finistère, I was intrigued. Finis terrae – the end of the world, the last rugged stronghold before thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean lead to America and one of the four Departments of Brittany. An Atlantic promontory where long before it became subsumed into France 500 years ago, its inhabitants were risking their lives fishing and trading on the violent seas and rough winds, while struggling with the arid soil further inland. That very night I also started reading the first Inspector Dupin novel by Jean Luc Bannalec – which years later will have a distinct influence on our first road trip through Brittany – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rough, exposed and slightly backwards looking – Brittany doesn’t sound like the most inviting place at first sight. But just like driving a Defender does, arriving in Brittany feels a bit like being let in on a secret. The sheer setting of Brittany as this tower of strength against the Atlantic’s forces and the fact that any place is hardly ever crowded makes travelling through Brittany an encounter with comfortable solitude, while yet, there is so much to discover: The coastlines of Brittany have the greatest concentration of lighthouses in the world; there are warm white-sand beaches, towering cliffs, rock formations and offshore islands; stone dolmens and menhirs are telling stories of a prehistoric past wherever you go; and most of the towns and villages seem impossibly picturesque, with blue-shuttered cottages and ancient townhouses.
Oyster banks, salt marshes and druid cults – Brittany has it all
Our route through Brittany was mostly determined by the before mentioned books of Jean-Luc Bannalec, in which the grumpy caffeine addicted Inspector Dupin, ever viewed as an outsider, gives you his vivid account of the landscapes, people, food and myths of Brittany while slowly becoming more of a Breton than a Parisian and solving his nebulous cases that take him deep into the oyster banks, salt marshes and druid cults of Brittany.
With Max and our Land Rover Fran being happy to meander along the empty country roads and perfectly maintained motorways (which aren’t tolled in comparison to the rest of France), our waypoints consisted of places I had read about so many times, I was each day just randomly pointing at all of them on the map (yet had no idea how to pronounce the Celtic rooted place names): Concarneau, La Torche, Locmariaquer, Morbihan, Benodet, Pointe du Raz, Douarnenez, Crozon, Brocéliande, Tréhorenteuc. To this concoction of letters and flags on the map we added our inexplicable adoration of prehistoric standing stones, which are scattered ten a penny around Brittany – and the fact that a detour of up to 90 minutes to see an old stone is deemed entirely proportionally and reasonable in our vehicle – and we were good to go.
Here are our top 5 to do’s when road tripping in Brittany
1. Brittany’s most beautiful bay: Get lost in the myths of the island-studded Gulf of Morbihan
The Morbihan (meaning ‘little sea’ in Breton) is a territory of legend between land and sea and one of the loveliest stretches of Brittany’s coast. It’s a paradise of changing light for photographers: nowhere else will you find such rich and varied blues and greens of land meeting the sea. And honestly, the brightness and intensity of light in Brittany is the most special: “If you could bottle the Breton light you would make a fortune from it. People when they see it just stop and stare, no other response is worthy.” (Ken Burnett)
It is said that the gulf was formed from tears shed by the fairies that were driven out of Brocéliande forest (which we will visit in a second). The garlands of flowers which they threw into the sea transformed into islands. Legend has it that the gulf used to hold 365 islands – one for every day of the year, but that rising seas have left fewer than one per week. And indeed, if you do your own count you will find about 40.
And while we walked around the little peninsula of Arradon, we observed the currents inside the bay finding their way along channels and around the island and let the new sights, sounds and smells around every corner of granite rock jutting into the waves take over our senses.
Tip: To discover the most beautiful bay in France from land, either hike around the gulf (part of the famous GR34), or cycle on the Route 5 of the coastal cycle path. Alternatively, take a boat from Quiberon, Vannes, Locmariaquer or Port Navalo to discover the gulf and one of its many islands.
2. Brittany’s most famous prehistoric site: Explore the Standing Stones of Carnac
Along with Newgrange, Stonehenge and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkneys, the tombs, alignments and single standing stones of Carnac are of pre-eminent status among the megalithic sites of Europe. Standing amongst the rows of thousands of menhirs that go on for kilometres and are older than Knossos and the Pyramids, simply leaves you behind in awe. They are unique in their sheer complexity and as for their actual purpose, the most fashionable theory sees them as part of a vast astronomical observatory centred on the fallen Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer. But the truth is, no one really knows.
Max has this silly theory, that licking a menhir would transfer some of it into my DNA. And while we will not disclose at this point whether any old stone has ever been licked (in pre-Corona times), I promise: even if you are not into archaeology and old stuff, wandering around the fields of Carnac, that have been sitting there for thousands of years, is as reassuring and magical as looking into the night's sky discovering the milky way.
You got the hang of it? Hundreds of impressive Neolithic sights are waiting in Brittany, like the Alignements of Lagatjar nestled along the coast of Crozon, the Cairn de Barnenez (Europe's largest megalithic burial chamber) or La Roche-aux-Fées (a 20 metres long dolmen aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice).
Tip: Drive towards Carnac from the north following the D196 to get an idea of the sheer size of the alignments dotted left and right along the road. There is plenty of parking along the fields and at the Maison des Mégalithes, across the road from the Alignements de Menec, which also holds interesting displays, plus a model of the site.
3. Surfing in Brittany: Surf your heart out at La Torche
You think surfing in France happens down south, on the famous beaches of Hossegor and Capbreton? Well, you are not the only one, which makes the much emptier line-ups of Brittany’s 1500 km rugged coastline a surfer’s paradise. Compared to the heavy west-facing beach breaks in the south, the peninsula of Brittany boasts a wide swell window and everything from sandy beach breaks for beginners, to more advanced sweeping point breaks and creeks that shelter from the winds. Whatever the forecast, in Brittany you never have to drive very far to find a wave to surf in front of a scenic backdrop.
La Torche in the south-western corner of Finistère, is one of the most famous surf spots in Brittany. I ‘knew’ it quite well since two of Inspector Dupin’s suspects are avid surfers paddling out at their home spot of La Torche in the mornings – thus we had to go and get in there ourselves. It’s a huge beach with peaks popping off all over the place and a super friendly atmosphere in the water. Take a walk around the little headland towards Plage de Pors Carn after your session or take the short drive to the nearby super-famous lighthouse Phare d’Eckmühl.
Tip: Always be careful, take lessons if you are a beginner and make yourself familiar with your surf spot: Brittany is very exposed to the Atlantic and tides of up to 14m, swirling currents and offshore islands can have very sudden effects. The waters still get the benefits of the Gulf Stream, with the water being a couple of degrees colder than in south-west France but warmer than Devon or Cornwall. We went surfing in Brittany mid-September and during the day a 3/2 wetsuit was sufficient.
4. The wildest cliffs of Brittany: Let the wind clear your head at the Crozon Peninsula and Pointe Pen Hir
While the headland of Pointe du Raz further south is the touristically more known site, we made our way to the Crozon peninsula and its Pointe du Pen Hir instead. Mostly, because we wanted to see the seaside town of Morgat on the way, as Max’s grandparents spent their honeymoon there in 1947. Crozon is a narrow finger of land poking into the Atlantic and sums up the essence of Brittany: The landscape shifts from spectacular cliff scenery to heather-covered moorland, then to deep blue sea and beautiful beaches. As you drive west towards the tip of Pen-Hir, the roads get narrower and heather-clad cliffs plunge towards secret coves. The 70 metre high cliffs of Pen Hir offer magnificent views on a clear day while the sounds of the waves crashing into the rocks offer a soundtrack to your walk. You will stumble across two WWII memorials nearby and leftovers of a system of German bunkers, once part of the Atlantic Wall, that is definitely worth exploring.
Hike just a couple of miles north and you will find the Alignment of Lagatjar, another 100 of standing stones arranged in perpendicular lines. Totally unexpected, behind them suddenly appear the magnificent ruins of the burned-down Saint-Pol Roux Manor, the house of the forgotten French Symbolist poet Paul-Pierre Roux. Overlooking the waves rolling in at Plage de Pen Hat, this sight alone, with not a human soul to be seen but a handful of surfers down at the beach, makes you feel like you have taken all the right turns.
Tip: After exploring the manor, read up on the dramatic story of Paul-Pierre Roux and his family getting caught up in the turmoil of WWII. The tragic story finds it end with the poet dying of a broken heart when he heard that the manor had burned down after an allied raid with all his unpublished manuscripts inside.
5. Follow King Arthur’s footsteps in Brittany’s most mythical place: the Forest of Brocéliande
Our last stop takes us inland towards Rennes, into the legendary Brocéliande forest: a natural area of outstanding biodiversity and the birthplace of the tales of King Arthur. Legend has it that the Knights of the Round Table regarded this undulating landscape as their headquarters. Following in the footsteps of Lancelot, Arthur and Guinevere, romance and adventure lie among every tree, rock and lake of Brittany’s largest forest.
Again, it’s mid-September and we hardly ever meet a soul, but a couple of birdwatchers, when exploring the area. And while we walk deeper and deeper into the woods, imagination and reality get intertwined focusing on the birdsongs and fresh smells and changing light of nature around us. We get lost a bit and end up at a formation of rocks called Merlin’s Seat – just in time to witness a magical sunset overlooking the forest.
Whether it’s the valley of no return, Merlin’s Tomb, Vivien’s house or the Fountain of Youth – merely wandering along these places will get your perception mingled with the stories and, wait! – was that a fairy or just a hedgehog?
Tip: Try to spend some time in the 'Valley of No Return' (easiest accessible from the village of Tréhorenteuc) during early evening and twilight. The atmosphere and light in the empty, dense forest as it shuts down for the night and the sunset viewed from Merlin's seat will be unforgettable. Don't be afraid of the valley's name - there will still be plenty of light to follow the paths back to the village.
My passion for smoking roll-up cigarettes lasted for only two weeks – as I was so bad at rolling them and instead spilled tobacco everywhere. But my love for Brittany stayed, as it is a country of contrasts, oddities and contradictions and yet full of outstanding beauty and rawness. Or, as Nolwenn, Inspector Dupin’s assistant, puts it in one of the first lessons she teaches him about his new home: “There is not the ONE Brittany. There are many Brittanys.” And she couldn’t be more right!