We spent a few days meandering around part of Brittany — mostly for the scenery. Today, we’ll share some images from three small picturesque towns: Dinan, Rochefort-en-Terre, and Auray.
But first, a little about Brittany. We’re sure you’ve noticed by now that France is full of distinct territories, each with its own atmosphere, food, history and pride. We think this is why our French friend Jef says that we don’t need to galavant around the world; everything you can want is right here in France. Well, maybe. But he’s right that France is like a country full of all sorts of little countries. Brittany is one of the most distinctive of these little countries.
A strong Celtic background distinguishes Brittany from other parts of France. The Celts were the first historically identifiable inhabitants of Brittany, but they probably intermingled with the earlier peoples who built the great stone monuments, the menhirs and dolmens, that still stand. Conquered by Julius Caesar in 56 BCE, the region became part of the Roman Empire as Armorica, a Romanization of the Celtic words for “seaside.” The Celts of Armorica never were more than superficially Romanized. After the Romans withdrew, Celts from Britain moved into the area to seek refuge from the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the 5th and 6th centuries. It is from this event that Brittany derives its name. Over the next 300 years the Celts were converted to Christianity by missionaries from the British Isles.
During the Middle Ages, Brittany fought to become and remain an independent duchy. It was first united in the 9th century under the rule of Nomenoë, Brittany’s national hero, who revolted against the Carolingians. By repelling the Norse invaders, his successors were able to keep the independence he had won. In the 10th century the ruler of Brittany took the title of duke and located his capital at Rennes. In the following centuries the dukes not only had to assert their power over rebellious vassals but also faced a threat to their existence from their neighbours, the powerful Norman dukes. In the late 12th century the duchy was brought into the Angevin empire but eventually came under the control of the Capetians, the ruling French dynasty.
Brittany became a part of France when Anne, heir to Brittany, married two successive kings of France, Charles VIII and Louis XII. In the formal treaty of incorporation into France in 1532, the province was guaranteed local privileges. Over the next two centuries it resisted the crown’s efforts at centralization. At the time of the French Revolution, Brittany contributed to the agitation that led to the calling of the Estates-General. From 1793 to 1799 the Chouans of Brittany were in revolt against the Revolution’s reorganization of the Roman Catholic church.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Brittany remained a conservative area of France, maintaining old social and religious practices. A separatist movement affirms that the Bretons are still conscious of the uniqueness of their province. (source)
First stop on our Brittany meandering was Dinan, about an hour southwest from Le Mont Saint-Michel. Pretty medieval historic center, even if it is full of simple restaurants and souvenir shops for us tourists.
While simply charming today, Dinan was once a formidable city — a residence of the duke of Brittany, a strategic port on the English Channel, and a trading center with powerful guilds and good connections with England and Holland. In the 13th century, ships outgrew its river port, the harbor action migrated to nearby St-Malo, and the town center moved uphill and behind defensive fortifications.
The heart of Dinan’s historic center is Place des Merciers, still lined with picturesque half-timbered buildings, many sporting ground-floor wooden porches. They date from the time when property taxes were based on the square footage of the ground floor. Medieval shopkeepers started with small ground floors, then expanded outward into upper floors, while selling their goods in front of their homes under the shelter of their leaning walls. On some of Dinan’s narrower lanes, the roofs lean out across the street far enough to nearly touch. (source)
We selected this tiny village as our home base for a couple nights, largely because it is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France). This is a real distinction, a combination of local pride and touristic magnetism. At the moment, there are 168 of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. That’s a lot of Most Beautiful! Fortunately, from our experience so far, they are in fact rather beautiful.
Rochefort-en-Terre is a tiny place, really just one stony street. We visited in April, weeks before the full-on tourist season. A few shops were open, but not all. The atmosphere was quiet and spare. We had the marked feeling that without tourists the place isn’t much more than a shell. A little sad.
We found a charming bed & breakfast right on the main street. About which, a note of the TMI persuasion: You may know that it is customary in French homes and in older hotels for the toilet to have its own little room. You don’t go to the bathroom to go to the toilet! In our hotel “room” in this 16th-century building, the toilet had pride of place in a little round room — in that projecting tower with the pointy roof. Fortunately, there is modern plumbing beneath it.
Auray & the port of Saint-Goustan
Our third Breton town has a medieval character similar to Dinan. It also has an upper town and a lower port town along a river. The lower, port town is called Saint-Goustan.
In the 13th century, the Dukes of Brittany built a bridge, a port and a castle in Saint-Goustan. Two districts were thus created: the port, at the foot of the fortress, and the upper town overlooking the port. Today, there is no trace of the fortress, but the Saint-Goustan district has preserved its authenticity and medieval architecture. (source)
This is a tidal port along the estuary that connects the Trauray river and the Gulf of Morbihan. The difference between low and high tides is about 3 meters / 10 feet. Twice a day, boats are left high and dry on the muddy estuary bottom.
To our surprise, we found out the Saint-Goustan hosted a notable (although tiny) moment of French-American history: Benjamin Franklin slept here! Although, he hadn’t planned on it. Here’s the story:
On 26 October 1776, a month after being named an agent of a diplomatic commission by the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin set sail from Philadelphia for France. His mission was to negotiate and secure a formal alliance and treaty with France. (It ultimately took about 18 months for him to succeed.) The planned arrival port for Franklin’s ship was Nantes, which is located about 130 km / 80 mi from Saint-Goustan by land. In the 18th century, Nantes was perhaps Europe’s largest and most active port. Unfortunately, it was also Europe’s most active port related to the slave trade between Africa and the Americas. Anyway: Franklin’s ship couldn’t reach Nantes because of stormy weather. It found refuge in the estuary port of Saint-Goustan. Franklin spent the night, and then proceeded to Nantes by road.
From all the mentions of Franklin around the little port village, you’d never know that his presence was accidental and incidental. The waterfront is Quai Franklin. You can grab a beer or cider at Bar Franklin.
Auray and Saint-Goustan have another connection with America, the region around New Orleans in particular.
In 1632, Richelieu encouraged the settlement of Acadia (North America). He placed at the disposal of Isaac de Razilly, governor, four ships on which embarked 300 elite men from Touraine [region east of Nantes], Poitou [region south of Nantes] and Brittany. They left Auray on July 4, 1632, heading for the port of La Hève [in today’s Nova Scotia]. (source)
These French emigrants were known as Acadians. At first, they settled in what is today New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. However, because of French and British territorial confrontations, many Acadians had to emigrate once again.
Acadia was also the target of numerous wars between the French and the English. Ultimately, the colony fell under British rule. Many Acadians were subsequently deported away from Acadia…. The deportation process, once instigated, lasted from 1755 to 1762. The Acadians were put into ships and deported to English colonies along the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia. Some eventually found their way to Louisiana and helped found “Cajun” culture. (source)
Alas, we didn’t find any cajun food in Auray!
L’Auberge Limerzelaise, Limerzel
Sometimes the simplest food is the most satisfying!