Façade of a traditional Breton crêperie.
Discover the covered markets of Rennes.
Traditional façades of Breton houses in Rennes.
Pavement cafés in front of half-timbered houses.
Floodlit front of the Hôtel de Ville in Rennes.
Capital of Bretagne and a Culture all its Own
The capital of Bretagne (Brittany), Rennes is a bit over two hours from Paris on the TGV. The Rennes train station is a light, airy and modern terminal and a short 15-minute walk to the Republique Square and Parlement de Bretagne.
This lively town is well known for its spectacle called "Les Tombées de la Nuit." Held every July, performers turn the town into their stage. Randomly hear poetry on a street corner or a song in a garden.
And speaking of gardens, the city and its inhabitants are, one would say, obsessed with them. We're not talking about ordinary pruning. These are labor-intensive and labors of love. The city's best is the Parc du Thabor. While compact, the garden is significant. Free for all and open daily, the garden was established in 1868 and consists of circular walkways around 11 beds growing over 3,000 types of flora. It's a classic French formal garden, a style that places an emphasis on symmetry and order.
Rennes is the perfect point to start your other adventures in Brittany, from the art-inspring interior to the rugged coastline.
Brest, approximately 2.5 hours away, is long on maritime history. Way out on the west end of Brittany, it's famous for its massive drawbridge, the Pont de Recouvrance, a military arsenal and Siam Street, the main artery of the city and home to restaurants ranging from traditional French to Cuban. The story goes that the King of Siam in 1686 sent three ambassadors to meet Louis XIV in Versailles. "Getting to Know You" took on an aire of extravagance when they came loaded with gifts and servants. The locals were so amazed and grateful, they renamed the street.
What you won't find in Brittany is a street named after the following rascallion.
Paul Gauguin, lover of, well, many things, said, "I love Brittany. There is something wild and primitive about it. When my wooden clogs strike this granite ground, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful tone I seek in my painting." He found himself in Pont-Aven, which is about two hours from Rennes by train. Simply take the TGV to Quimperle, and hop in a cab for a 15 minute ride to this staunchly Breton artists' colony.
It was here that he quickly made his reputation as a ladies' man, with no regard to his ailing wife Mette. Writing to her, "I take psychological satisfaction in ruling the roost here in Pont-Aven." If only the locals felt the same way. Despite his defiling, he managed to paint one of his most famous canvases here. "The Yellow Christ" hangs at the Trémalo Chapel in town, which you'll want to visit even if not for Gauguin. The requisite cobblestoned streets, granite houses and charming cafes overlooking the River Aven make for a journey back into 19th century post-impressionist France.
Whether in Pont-Aven, Rennes, Brest or elsewhere in Brittany, you'd be remiss to leave without purchasing something lacey. An integral part of Breton national dress, especially when worn on the head, there are schools here dedicated to the craft of lacemaking attended by people from around the world.
Lace is the perfect metaphor for the entire region of Brittany: Delicate, intricate, fragile. Especially the language. Only about 3% of Breton people speak the traditional tongue, and now there's an effort underway to increase that number.
Get a France Rail Pass. Come to France. See the big cities. Drink the fine wine. Then come to a place where traditions outweigh tourist attractions. And your experience is colored in truth.
To learn more about preparing your trip to France, visit Atout France by clicking here if you’re a US resident or here if you’re a Canadian resident
Contributed by: Eric, Specialty Desk Agent, loves to frequent European events on visits with family in wonderful Kassel and Dortmund.