Brittany – France’s Best Kept Secret
(WINDSOR, ON) – Parisians typically holiday on the Cote D’Azur, the Mediterranean jewel frequented by tourists worldwide. Yet, so few people realize, when Parisians travel to the sea, they are just as likely to drive to the coast, the Atlantic Ocean that is!
While in Paris last Christmas, my French friends urged me to travel to Brittany, a lesser-known region of France on the northwest coast, a peninsula surrounded by the sea and the ocean and associated with pirates and fishermen. Always eager for an adventure, I plopped myself in the backseat of my friends’ Citroen for the scenic four hour drive from Paris. Little did I know that my second visit to France would be so unlike the first — like so many others, I’d focused on Paris and Nice alone; this holiday to France would be as distinct as the region itself, the French Maritimes, home of the Bretons with their deep-rooted Celtic pride.
What a delight it was touring Brittany, bursting with culture, history, charm, and ocean grandeur.
While en route from Paris, we stopped to enjoy Chateau de Chambord, an imposing castle in Loire built in the 1500s as a hunting lodge for Francois I. A scant two hours later, we were marveling at the charming features of Breton architecture, stone buildings
threaded with ivy, displaying brightly-coloured shutters and traditional black shale rooftops.
While quiet in the off-season, the seaside town of Sarzeau was adorned with quaint tourist boutiques, as well as plentiful outdoor markets selling scads of fresh seafood, many varieties of local cheeses, and a healthy sampling of flowers, fruit and vegetables, all nestled amongst the narrow streets and alleys that are unique to France.
Yet, surprisingly, not five minutes drive from town, we walked along the captivating beaches on the Bay of Biscay, took in the peculiar red algae along the seashore, and basked in the temperate climate of a December day at the coast.
While the fog and mist are reminiscent of the Yorkshire moors, there is no doubt you’re in France when dining, and Britanny has its own unique traditional fare. While crepes are now considered a national dish of France, they originated in Brittany, and, sweet or savoury, crepes can be found everywhere, from sidewalk vendors to posh restaurants.
As a seafood lover, I reveled in the natural flavour of saltwater oysters and mouthwatering lobster, a mainstay of Breton menus, while a delightful beverage to accompany the traditional meal is a wonderful Breton cider called cidre brut bouche.
Naturally, there are many fine artisan cheese producers in Brittany as well as makers of a specialty butter mixed with sea salt. And for dessert, another special offering of the region is the galette bretonne (a buckwheat crepe), homemade crunchy butter cookies, as well as a sweet buttery pastry called kouign amann.
Shopping abounds in the larger cities of Vannes, Lorient and Nantes, and I was often amused by the ever-present image of the Bigouden at souvenir stands, a portly woman dressed in the traditional Breton costume with lace headdress, mounting skyward in a vertical column, a common symbol of the region.
I noticed, as I sauntered about the charming streets of downtown Vannes, that although I heard the whispery tones of the mother-
tongue, I could just as easily catch a Breton speaking in his native Celtic dialect, as a quarter of the population of the region speaks this ancient language.
After shopping, I strolled along the seaside with its abundant sailing vessels and reposed at an outdoor café, yes in December, sipping on vin chaud, a delightful cinnamon-spiced hot red wine.
While Christmas in Brittany was enchanting, I now imagine a summer there, with the hordes of Parisians laid out along the myriad beaches or frequenting the shops and restaurants nearby. The sea is a gorgeous backdrop to a destination offering so much to stimulate the senses and cultivate the spirit.
And, while everyone can appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the ocean, so too can we celebrate, with fervor, one of only six Celtic nations on earth.
Brittany, that part of France just waiting to be discovered.
The most direct route to Brittany is to fly into Paris and then travel by bus, train, or car to the region. Alternately, regional air lines also fly direct to Brittany from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
For more information on the destinations of Brittany please visit the online tourism portal.
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