Recently, on our annual summer pilgrimage from the Algarve to our flat in Wimbledon, Helga and I did a small detour to spend a few days in Brittany, an area we had never visited.
This is a part of France that many of its inhabitants don’t consider to be part of France (this article’s headline was spray-painted on an overpass in the heart of Bretagne)! This is in spite of the fact that Brittany officially became part of France 490 years ago, thanks to Anne of Brittany, and then her daughter Claude of France, marrying Kings of France.
All of this history awaited us, but first we had to get there. Our first night en route was at the Parador in Tordesillas – a modern structure with a very large swimming pool, a welcome lock-up garage and a good kitchen (our roast suckling lamb was wonderful).
At the end of our second day on the road, we stopped in Saintes, north of Bordeaux. Our hotel was Les Chambres de l’Abbaye aux Dames, located in the heart of the city. What a find! The rooms are actual nuns’ cells in the Benedictine Abbey, which dates from 1047 AD and is part of the Église Sainte-Marie. The rooms are simple, calm, serene, no TV but beautiful vaulted ceilings, and quite entrancing (if you ever go, ask for room 123). Helga, a Catholic, was (dare I say it) in seventh heaven.
The Abbey has the added interest of being La Cité Musicale, the centre of a musical life that attracts world-famous musicians year-round, with most concerts using the church, with its beautiful acoustics, as its venue.
Dinner was al fresco at La Musardière in the courtyard of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a short walk across the Charente River from the Abbey. It was all like a walk through medieval times, and we could have spent days in this interesting city, but we had to move on to Brittany.
Our first stop in Brittany was the city of Vannes, located at the head of the Golfe du Morbihan on the south coast. The very picturesque old town, enclosed in its 13th century ramparts and grouped around the 13th century Cathedral St. Pierre, is a pedestrian zone full of old half-timbered houses.
If you like French street markets, as we do, be sure to visit Vannes on Wednesday or Saturday morning. The market is very large and features lots of mouth-watering local food and lovely arts and crafts objects. We were lucky with the weather, the flowers were everywhere and Vannes showed us why it thoroughly deserves its Michelin 2-star rating.
From Vannes, we drove west through the Finistère region and Quimper to a small fishing town called Douarnenez, nestled in a pretty curved bay. The locale is beautiful enough to have attracted Renoir and Boudin to paint. We didn’t set up our easel, however, as we were anxious to get to our lodging in good time.
The Hotel de la Plage was located nearby, at close to the westernmost point in Brittany and overlooking a huge beach. Beaches in Brittany are very shallow and, at low tide, immense. At high tide, however, they almost disappear. The Algarve’s beaches are more inviting.
A glass or two of a lovely white wine on the terrace, followed by an excellent dinner in the hotel, brought our day to a close.
The next day we traversed the northern part of Brittany to Dinan. This town is, in many respects, the twin of the much larger Vannes – located on the water (the river Rance), with an old town surrounded by 2.6 km of ramparts enclosing pretty half-timbered houses. Dinan, however, stands on a plateau and the upper village overlooks its marina and the picturesque viaduct 75 metres below. We lunched at an outdoor bistro on a huge bowl of moules marinière washed down with a few glasses of cold Muscadet. Heaven!
From Dinan, we edged past Le Mont St Michel on our way to the Cotentin peninsula and our final night in France – not in Brittany but not far from it, in the Calvados region of Normandy. Our “hotel” was the Château de Colombières, a monument historique classé of the 14th century. The current owners, the Count and Countess Etienne de Maupeou d’Ableiges, are only the third family to possess the château since the end of the 100 Years War in 1450.
Although there are five rooms, we were the only guests and our suite was magnificent, two huge rooms in the tower, with a walk-in fireplace (obviously not in use) in the salon. Truly luxurious. The château does a lovely breakfast but does not do dinners, so we drove a few kilometres to the Restaurant Le Trot in nearby Trévières, where we had an excellent meal, topped off, of course, with snifters of calvados. The restaurant gets its unusual name from the owner’s fascination with trotting horses and races.
All that was left for us to do the final morning was pack up and drive the 70km north to Cherbourg to catch the noon car ferry to Portsmouth, ending a great five-day trip into a part of France that many don’t think belongs to France at all.
By Larry Hampton