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Bed and Breakfast in Brittany

If you were looking for a guide to the best Bed and Breakfast establishments in beautiful Brittany, I am afraid to say that this is not it. Instead, today’s post offers a little look at the unique beds and breakfasts that were once commonplace throughout much of rural Brittany until around the time between the two world wars.

a Breton cottage interior
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The main item of furniture in the rural houses and farms of Brittany was once the closed bed, known as the lit clos in French and the gwele kloz in Breton. Made from local oak or sometimes chestnut, these closed beds were, more often than not, intricately carved and well decorated; making them statement pieces and a source of pride for the householder. Often, the bed and associated storage chest would form part of the wife’s dowry upon marriage.

For all intents and purposes, the closed bed was a multi-function piece of practical furniture that combined the functions of bed, wardrobe/cupboard, storage chest and seating bench and was usually the principal item of furniture in a rural dwelling. 

closed bed and fireplace
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As you can see from the illustrations, the closed bed was essentially a small double bed on a raised platform, surrounded on all sides by wooden enclosing walls. Access to this sleeping chamber was afforded by an opening on one of the two main sides which was covered by either one or two sliding doors, a regular hinged door opening laterally or simply a pair of curtains. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) described it thus :

“On one side of the ample fire-place was the invariable box bedstead. This is ‘de rigueur’ in a Breton cottage. On the side of the fire-place farthest from the door there invariably stands a huge dark oaken piece of furniture, which would have the exact appearance of a clothes-press, were it not that in the side next the fire there is a square aperture, which discloses a pile of mattresses reaching nearly to the top of the machine. This is the bed of the master and mistress.

Very frequently a similar box on the opposite side, but exhibiting a less monstrous pile of bedding, is the resting-place of the maid, or of any other member of the family.

The aperture, which is left as the sole means of access to the interior of this retreat, is furnished with sliding doors, generally—as well, indeed, as the whole of the front of the bed— handsomely carved. So that the occupant may, if he so please, entirely shut himself in.

This is termed a ‘lit clos’, for which I should think ‘a close bed’ must be a very appropriate translation. Indeed it is marvellous how the owner of a handsomely furnished ‘lit clos’ can breathe in it, or even get into it at all, so great a proportion of the enclosed space is occupied by mattresses and beds, piled one on another.

… In front of this bedstead is seen, almost as invariably as itself, a large oaken chest, the same length as the bed, about twenty inches high and as much broad. This is always the seat of honour and serves also as a step to assist mine hostess in mounting to her exalted couch.”

Decoration and ornamentation were mainly reserved for the sliding panels of the bed with the main decorative features being intricate rosettes on cartwheels formed from carved wooden spindles, often in galleries. Sometimes, brass or copper nails were hammered along the edges of the panels or were arranged to form inscriptions such as the names and the date of marriage of the owners.

Some have suggested – rather fancifully – that the closed bed was born from a need to protect the occupants of the house from predatory animals such as wolves or as protection from the animals that typically shared the domestic living space; neither explanation really holds much water.

The rural dwellings of yesterday’s Brittany usually consisted of just one or two rooms, housing the entire household, and so the closed bed allowed a little privacy and helped keep the occupants warm during the colder months. The beds were either arranged in a row against the side walls near the open hearth or immediately against the wall of the back of the fireplace; this room (where it existed) was known as ‘the room at the end’ and was thus completely separate from the cows and chickens that usually shared the room containing the main fireplace.

The bed was raised in order to avoid the unhealthy dampness of the compacted earth or clay floor which was then common; a linen storage chest of the same length served not only as a bench but also as a step to access the top tier bed. Typically, the beds measured as wide as 1.7m (about five foot, seven inches) inside; a tight fit even allowing for the size of the Bretons of yesteryear! The beds could be on two levels; if this was the case, the children or young people slept on the upper tier.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounts, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars, (The Horse of Pride, 1975), that he himself was born in a closed bed in 1914 and that those who possessed such a bed took a great deal of pride from them:

That box-bed was .. a double-decker crate in which my father and his brothers – all four of them – had slept until they left home. But during family reunions I myself had slept in it with three others. ..The enormous crate would creak all over every time anyone turned in it. You’d also hear the straw crackling and the bales of oats rustling. ..One time the two uncles on top deliberately rammed their backs against the straw mattresses, threatening to make the whole top collapse onto the two occupants below (one of whom happened to be me), who in turn banged their fists up against the boards to make them keep still. I was a bit frightened when it creaked too much but the crate was strong, so on we’d go!

The importance of the bed was not dimmed by the death of its owner, Hélias notes that, after a death : “The bed was fixed-up for the lying in state. If it was a box-bed, sheets and cloths were hung on the inside of the enclosures, or if not, on the walls around it. It had become what we call a ‘white chapel’.

The closed beds of Brittany fell out of use gradually but were effectively abandoned in the years between the two world wars of the last century. You do not need to visit any of the local museums to see examples of this furniture in Brittany as you will regularly see them for sale in brocantes (second hand shops that usually also sell an assortment of antiques) for about a hundred Euro. Some are still set-up as intended but many have long-since been converted into bookcases or A/V units.

So much for the bed, what of breakfast? Traditional Breton cooking was, and remains, simple and wholesome and most rural dwellers began their day with either a wheat gruel or a humble pancake cooked on a hot plate or skillet over the cottage’s open fire. Typically, these would be cooked in batches once a week rather than each day. Usually made with buckwheat flour, known as sarassin in French, these thick pancakes known as crêpes or galettes (depending on which part of Brittany you were from) were either eaten with butter or stuffed with cooked eggs, or slices of pork sausage or sometimes just some baked apples.

Contrary to what the name implies, buckwheat is not part of the wheat family but of the sorrel family; flowering plants cultivated in Brittany since the 12th century, producing seeds rich in proteins and minerals. Nowadays, the designation crêpe is often applied to sweet-filled pancakes made with white flour while galette is applied to heavier, buckwheat-made savoury filled pancakes. In times past, the distinction was also noted that the former were made with milk and butter, while the latter were made using only water.

crepes from Brittany
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Although a feature seemingly born in medieval Brittany, the closed bed was also found in parts of western Great Britain particularly Wales and similar bed furniture is known in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. As for the breakfast pancake; crêpes have long since moved from the rustic Breton kitchen, becoming a staple and tasty fixture across France and indeed, the world!

Bread and Butter in Brittany

One of the main events in every Breton town is the regular open-air street market which is as much a social event as a shopping experience. Once or sometimes twice a week, the town centre is taken over with every conceivable type of stall – from fresh fruit and vegetables, pâté and cheeses being sold directly by the producer, to beds being sold out of a van or live chickens in cardboard boxes. If you prefer your chickens a little more prepared, there are usually stall-holders selling spit-roasted birds, pork and potatoes.

No market worthy of the name will fail to feature one or two stalls selling artisanal bread, each offering an abundance of fresh loaves and you will find such stalls even in small towns with two or three independent boulangeries of their own.

While the number of traditional boulangeries in Brittany, as in the rest of France, has declined markedly over the last decade, thanks, in part, to the relentless march of the national and international supermarket chains; you can still find a boulangerie in most villages. The good ones are usually noticeably busy and fairly easy to spot; in rural villages you’ll notice cars constantly stopping nearby and in towns and cities, there will be queues, sometimes quite long ones.

There are other pointers to look-out for when searching for the best traditional baguettes, rye breads and pastries in Brittany. The best bakers who handle what the French call “the art of bread” will display a sign identifying themselves as an Artisan Boulanger (literally Craftsman Baker). This is a tightly controlled designation with heavy sanctions under French law for those who falsely claim craftsman status.

To be called a boulangerie, a bakery must actually bake the bread on the premises; setting it apart from a Depot de Pain, a shop that simply sells bread that was baked elsewhere. You may find some Depot de Pain have close ties to well-known busy boulangeries but generally most produce bread from frozen dough or by part-baking industrially made frozen loaves.

fresh bread Brittany
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Once inside a popular boulangerie, your senses are immediately assaulted with the scent of fresh, crunchy baguettes and often a staggering variety of other freshly baked breads, rich viennoiseries and tempting pastries. It can sometimes feel quite overwhelming deciding what to buy with a lot of impatient customers waiting in line behind you. So, here are a few quick pointers on just some of the most popular types of bread you’ll find in Brittany’s boulangeries.

Staple of most French breakfasts, the baguette classique or baguette ordinaire is a popular cheap and cheerful choice here. It is the bread that most people nowadays identify with France and you will see these long loaves stacked horizontally on shelves or displayed vertically in large open drums. The classic baguette can contain additives such as ascorbic acid and gluten; preservatives and colouring agents are also permissible in its manufacture.

These items are all prohibited in the baguette de tradition. The baguette tradition or pain traditional Français appeared after the Firs World War and its production must adhere to some strict guidelines, namely: no deep-freezing treatment during preparation; no additives which would facilitate or shorten one or more stages of its creation; only contain water, wheat flour, yeast or natural leavening agent and salt.

This baguette costs more than the classique but you’ll notice the difference in the taste and texture of the bread which takes around five hours to make. Be aware that some boulangeries name their baguette tradition after their baker or locality. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Similarly, it is quite acceptable to ask for a crisp, well-done crust (bien cuite) or a soft (pas trop cuite) one.  Both the classic and traditional baguettes are sometimes labelled and sold as a Pain Déjeunette; it’s about half the size of a baguette and often sold with fillings such as cheese and ham.

baguettes from Brittany
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You’ll also find Pain Flûte which is essentially a larger version of a baguette and almost twice as weighty.  At the other end of the scale is the Ficelle, a long thin loaf that is shorter than a baguette and half the weight. All these breads are best enjoyed on the day of purchase as their quality deteriorates quite quickly.

Up until the end of the First World War, the Boule de Pain or Pain Boule was the bread most closely associated with France in the public consciousness. A rustic, round shaped loaf that can be made of any type of flour, its ball shape helps retain moisture making it slow to dry out and thus stay fresher longer than elongated breads such as baguettes.

A loaf with a similar shelf-life is the Pain de Campagne sometimes called Pain Paysan. This bread is sold in a great variety of shapes and sizes; it’s a hearty loaf with a thick crust and an airy texture usually made with white or whole wheat flour or a mixture of the two. Some boulangeries add sourdough to their recipe but you will usually see sourdough bread labelled as Pain au Levain. Another type of bread that is widely seen in various shapes and sizes is the Pain Complet; a hearty and tasty whole wheat bread.

There are two other common signs that you will see on the bread shelves of the boulangeries here; firstly, Pain aux Céréales or Pain Campagrain which are fairly generic names covering a broad range of high fibre multi-grain loaves. The mix of ingredients varies according to the whims of the baker but you can usually expect between two to five grains and some seeds, most commonly the grains are wheat, malted wheat, rye, barley and oats with a mixture of sesame, sunflower, brown flax and yellow flax seeds.

bread shop in france
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A large number of boulangeries also offer Pains Spéciaux, specially created breads made with walnuts, garlic, olives or even sausage. In parts of north west Brittany, you can find Pain de Roscoff, a bread made with the famous pink Roscoff onions and smoked sausage; this delivers an intense flavour which is heightened by the red wine used to marinate the onions and make the dough. Another speciality bread of the region is often referred to as Pain Breton, made with sel-gris (unrefined local sea salt) and sarrasin (buckwheat flour); a tasty bread which needs only Breton butter for augmentation.

You will not have to spend much time in Brittany before you appreciate how seriously they take their butter here and there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, Brittany is no stranger to rain, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. The French have a word – terroir – which means something akin to the history of the soil and is a term often heard when discussing wine but this one word sums up a concept that is central to French food and wine. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat as it manifests itself through their milk – rich soil equals rich-tasting dairy butter.

breton salted butter
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It is not just the terroir that makes Breton butter so special; it also has a high fat content. Butter is mainly milk, particularly cream and Brittany is a big dairy producer. It needs to be, as it takes over 10 litres (2.6 gallons) of cow’s milk to make 450 grams (almost a pound) of butter. While most countries use 80 per cent butterfat in their butter, the French use at least 82 per cent and while this difference may not seem great it does have a noticeable impact on texture and taste. Additionally, in the past, the region was exempt from the Salt Tax and this fostered a culture where foodstuffs were heavily salted to aid the preservation of foodstuffs.

Today, Brittany’s butter is best when it is heavily salted with large flecks of coarse grains of sea salt that crunch when you bite into them but there are versions that do not contain as much salt and even those than omit it entirely. So, there is something to suit all tastes and all are simply delicious when spread on a baguette still warm from the boulangerie. 

The old walled city of Saint-Malo is home to the Museum of Butter but the real attraction here is the attached Creamery and Cheesemonger, La Maison du Beurre, owned by Jean-Yves Bordier, one of France’s most renowned artisanal butter makers.

flavoured butter from Brittany
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If you do find yourself in Saint-Malo, it is worth visiting just to try some of his flavoured butters such as smoked salt or seaweed or even garlic and chili.  There are also butters flavoured with vanilla and raspberries and even butter with chocolate and shards of cocoa beans but the one to take home is surely Beurre de Baratte a l’Oignon de Roscoff – hand-made butter infused with the, justly renowned, tasty pink onions from Roscoff. A wonderful combination delivering great texture and taste especially if spread generously on a slice of fresh bread!

Christmas Traditions of Yesteryears Brittany

Each country marks Christmas in its own way; even countries that are geographically close such as France and the UK have very varied traditions surrounding the celebration of this festival but there are also notable regional differences too. The folk customs and traditions regarding Christmas differ from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.

Once widespread across much of Europe, the tradition of a Yule Log manifested itself in Brittany in the “Kef Nedeleg” (literally, the Christmas trunk in Breton). As the name suggests, this was usually a massive log or even a stump of oak or some other slow-burning local hardwood such as beech or poplar that had been specially selected and set aside for the purpose. Once hauled into the hearth, a prayer was said before the log was sprinkled with salt and water from a sacred fountain. A few 19th century accounts note that some families embellished the log with branches of evergreens but this does not appear to have been a custom widespread in Brittany.

If the household contained children, the fireplace was usually scrubbed clean in honour of the anticipated nocturnal visit by the Infant Jesus who would descend the chimney to leave a gift rewarding good behaviour over the previous year. It was believed that Jesus entered the house via the chimney because the doorway was habitually used by those stained with sin whereas the chimney was constantly purified by fire. Santa Claus was almost unheard of in Brittany until around the time of the Second World War.

Lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Kef Nedeleg would burn over several days; some traditions say that it should burn until the Solemnity of Mary or, even longer, until the Feast of the Epiphany. The embers of the burnt log were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead.

Yule Log
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A number of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were closely associated with Christmas Eve in Brittany:

  • Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
  • During midnight mass, the animals in the stables were able to speak to each other in the tongues of men.
  • Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
  • As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
  • Upon returning home from midnight mass, the farmer would give a small piece of bread to his animals to ensure their good health over the year ahead and protect them against the bite of a rabid dog.
  • While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. A menhir outside Pontivy was said to drink at the nearby Blavet River, its momentary absence revealed a hidden treasure. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.
  • The bells of midnight mass on Christmas Eve marked the end of the parish priest’s ability to metamorphose into an animal; an ability he was often held to possess during Advent.
  • On Brittany’s north coast, the Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a magnificent lost city which could be glimpsed through a fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be resurrected, if someone was bold enough to venture into the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and swift enough to re-emerge before the sounds of the twelfth bell had died away.

In some families, it was customary to have the Christmas meal after mass on the night of Christmas Eve; this feast usually consisted of a pork stew that had been steadily gaining flavour in the cauldron set-up in the hearth.

The holiness of the night was considered so sacred that no evil spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being the night of Saint John’s Day and the eve of All Saints’ Day) where the community of the dead, the Anaon, of each region gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable, a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living.

The ethnographer Anatole Le Braz in his La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), described it thus:

On Christmas night, we see them parading by the roads in long processions. They sing with soft and light voices the song of the Nativity. One would think, to hear them, that it is the leaves of the poplars that rustle, if, at this time of the year, the poplars had leaves.

At their head walks the ghost of an old priest, with curly hair, white as snow, with a slightly hunched body. In his emaciated hands, he carries the ciborium. Behind the priest comes a small altar boy who rings a tiny bell. The crowd follows, in two rows. Each dead man holds a lighted candle whose flame does not even flicker in the wind. This is the way to some abandoned chapel in ruins, where no more masses are celebrated than those of deceased souls.

The abandoned Chapel of SaintMathurin

While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas) will fill them with gifts. Just a few generations ago, the children would have left their heavy wooden clogs by the open granite hearth where blazed the Yule Log.

Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Piety and Pride in Brittany

It has been said that most 19th century travellers to Brittany were often struck by three key aspects of the distinctive local culture; an ancient language thriving in daily use, widespread Catholic piety and a notable reverence of the dead. Then as now, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage was the Parish Close (Enclos Paroissial) an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany, particularly west of the Saint Brieuc – Vannes axis. Typically, such enclosures consist of a church, a monumental gateway, a calvary, an ossuary and an enclosing wall.

Originally, enclosing walls were built in order to create a marked delineation between the secular and the sacred. This demarcation seems to have begun in the early Middle Ages and allowed for control of access to the churchyard, an area that was very much the social hub of a Breton village where people would meet, play and attend to business. Regular markets were often held in churchyards, some housed communal bread ovens and it was not unknown for people to actually live there. The wall separated the sacred precincts; limiting access for villagers and, importantly, preventing entry by the dogs, pigs and cows that often disturbed the churchyard graves.

ossuary and calvary Brittany
Monumental Gateway, Ossuary and Calvary at Saint-Thégonnec

Entry to the sacred space was through an ornate monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch. Use of this gateway was usually reserved for special days in the church calendar and for noteworthy local events such as weddings and funerals. Access to the enclosure was otherwise by means of small, stepped openings in the wall. Some of these gateways, such as that at Sizun were massive structures; the gateway at La Martyre is topped with a calvary, while others like the one in Guengat were rather more modest affairs.

Inside the close was an ossuary where the disinterred bones from the graveyard were housed [futher details on the development of ossuaries can be found here]. In time, some ossuaries developed into funerary chapels such as the one in Saint-Thégonnec which has an altar, while the ossuary in Guimiliau also features an external pulpit.

Parish Enclosure Brittany
Monumental Gateway and the Ossuary at Sizun

Another key element of the parish close is the calvary or at least a crucifix or cross.  These can vary in style from a simple stone cross such as that at Rochefort-en-Terre, to monumental structures like that at Guimiliau which has over 200 figures carved around its base.

Perhaps the earliest example of one of these monumental calvaries is the late 15th century external pulpit outside the church at Pleubian; a large circular granite structure, richly sculpted with scenes from the Passion and resurrection of Christ, the flight of stone steps leading up to the raised pulpit are flanked by holy water fonts. There is another, albeit smaller and less ornative, across the Jaudy Estuary in Plougrescant. Tradition has it that these calvary pulpits were raised to honour the stay of Saint Vincent Ferrier who preached in these parts at the turn of the 15th century but the towns never enjoyed the wealth needed to subsequently develop a parish close.

Some calvaries simply depict the crucifixion of Christ often flanked on another level by the two robbers crucified at the same time. Others also feature carvings or statues of the Virgin Mary with carved scenes depicting episodes from the life of Christ around the base of the monument. The congregation at Guimiliau must have either been extensive or keen on open-air preaching as its calvary has a bespoke platform allowing the priest to better press home the biblical references in his sermons to his mostly un-educated parishioners.

Calvary Brittany
Guimiliau Calvary

The churches that became the centrepiece of these closes almost always display an elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum, bell towers with lanterns and spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles, sometimes many being grouped together at varying levels for maximum visual impact.

The interior of these churches was not overlooked and the rich ornamentation – highly crafted carved beams, cross beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces – were often highlighted with gold paint with dazzling shades of blue and softer shades of red and green set against brilliant white or blue.

ornate ceiling painting
Detail from the ceiling of Locmélar church

The construction of these parish closes seems to be concentrated in the 16th and 17th centuries; an era that coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in linen, canvas and flax. This wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended & embellished and simple crosses replaced by more decorative calvaries.

It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a parish close.

The development of the parish church in Guengat offers a useful illustrative timeline typical of so many parishes in western Brittany at the time. The church itself was rebuilt in the 15th century, with two further chapels added in the following century. A monumental gateway and enclosing walls appeared in the second half of the 16th century, which was further embellished by a calvary and an ossuary towards the end of the century. We see a similar timeline some 22 miles south in Argol; here the church was re-built in the mid-16th century, a calvary raised in 1617, a monumental gateway and walls enclosing the churchyard added in 1659 and a discrete ossuary in 1665.

Parish Closes
The Calvary at Plougastel-Daoulas

Such fine (and expensive) building works completed to the glory of God were a source of much local prestige. Unfortunately, pride’s bedfellow is envy and a form of inter-parish rivalry soon developed with parishes vying with each other to build the finest enclosure. This de facto competition for the realisation of the most beautiful architectural ensemble ensured decades of work for architects, builders, sculptors, glassmakers, cabinet makers, artists and craftsmen from across Brittany and further afield.

Alas, the decline in the linen trade in the 18th century effectively ended the development of parish closes and this helps explain why there appears to be a uniformity of appearance in the various closes. Unlike churches that move stylistically from Romanesque to Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic et cetera, the parish closes were frozen in time; maintained but not re-developed.

Today, Brittany’s parish closes attract visitors from across the world and it’s quite feasible to visit as many as five or six in a day. However, today’s travellers do not enjoy the same visual impact as the visitors of yesteryear but a few towns are now offering tantalising glimpses into the past by measured illuminations. For instance, the calvaries at Guimiliau and Plougastel-Daoulas are treated to coloured lighting, pushing aside the dull granite hues with vivid shades of blue, red and ochre; reminding us that these structures were originally polychrome. After all, these were works that served a pedagogical purpose and were designed to inspire awe amongst the parishioners.

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The five most well-known parish closes in Brittany are ranged in a relatively small area south of the north coast town of Morlaix, namely at Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau, Saint-Thégonnec, Plougonven and Pleyben.

Each is well worth visiting as each boasts its own unique features. For instance, at Guimiliau, the massive calvary contains 200 figures, many clad in 16th century garb. The glory beam at Lampaul-Guimiliau features a striking procession of gilded & painted carvings enacting scenes from the Passion of Christ. The calvary at Saint-Thegonnec features a caricature of King Henri IV, while the church contains stunning ornamental carvings. However, experts have identified a further hundred parish closes across Brittany ranging from the smallest forgotten sites with a demolished ossuary and just a small wall and simple cross to the highly elaborate and oft visited places.

The parish closes are unique to Brittany and offer a fascinating testament of an artistic tradition at the service of religious fervour in the 16th and 17th centuries. Travellers to Brittany should make a point of exploring the great closes in the Élorn Valley south of Morlaix but there are also many hidden gems to discover.

Twelve Christmas Markets You Should Visit In Brittany

With under six weeks to Christmas, towns across Brittany are starting to hang their Christmas lights and festive decorations. Many are also gearing-up to host Christmas markets; there certainly seems a lot planned this year. With so many to choose from, it can be difficult deciding which ones to visit as some can be a little underwhelming, especially if you’ve travelled from afar. So, to help you avoid the turkeys, here are 12 Christmas markets and outings that will give you a wonderful festive experience.

Rennes : 22 November to 31 December 2019

As you would expect from the largest town in Brittany, there are several Christmas markets taking place in the run-up to Christmas this year. The largest of which, with about 45 stalls, is on the Mail François Mitterrand and runs from 22 November to 31 December. There are a range of great dining options here and a special gourmet market every Wednesday.

Rennes - Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Rennes Photo: Philippe Cherel

For a great view of the Breton capital, take a ride on the illuminated Ferris wheel that dominates the market. A quick stroll through the bustling town centre bedecked with festive lights & decorations takes you to the Place du Parlement de Bretagne where you’ll find the monumental Palace Carousel; a unique ten meter high, two-storey carousel open from 30 November to 5 January. This year, the Town Hall’s facade will be brought to life by a Sound & Light show inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Son et Lumiere runs every evening from 20 December through to 5 January. 

Le Domaine de Trévarez : 23 November to 5 January 2020

The grand Château de Trévarez stages a Christmas spectacle throughout the festive period and this year will transform itself into the palace of a thousand and one splendours as it showcases its take on the Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. The castle along with its beautiful formal gardens will be illuminated with spectacular colours & lights, leading you to discover oases, magical fountains, hidden princesses and genies.  Let your imagination roam and expect the unexpected!

Rochefort-en-Terre : 29 November to 5 January 2020

A picture postcard perfect village regularly ranked among the most beautiful villages of France and recent winner of the coveted title of ‘Favourite village of the French’; this is a village that knows how to display itself to best effect and at Christmastime it does so spectacularly. There seem to be tastefully hung garlands & decorations wherever you look. The streets and alleyways are beautifully illuminated with the sparkling of tens of thousands of pretty lights.

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Rochefort-en-Terre Photo: Alessandro Gui

A visit here at Christmas is a feast for the senses. The shop fronts vie for your attention with sumptuous displays that draw even the most jaded eye, enticing you in. Your sense of smell will be bombarded by roasting chestnuts and freshly made Breton delicacies like crepes and kouign amann. Tasty homemade spiced cake and hot mulled wine will ensure your taste buds get a thorough work-out too as you stroll through the ancient streets soaking in the festive spirit. 

Saint Malo : 30 November to 5 January 2020

You’ll find St Malo’s Christmas market at Le Jardin des Douves, set out at the base of the impressive ramparts of this historic old walled town. There will be about 35 chalets selling handmade toys and local handicrafts and food stalls selling tasty festive goodies such as fresh pretzels, roast chestnuts, gingerbread and nougat. Don’t worry about the calories as you’ll be able to burn them off on the large outdoor ice rink across the road!

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany

Vannes : 1 December to 5 January 2020

If you like your Christmas illuminations set against a stunning backdrop then the medieval city of Vannes will deliver; from the projections on the massive ramparts to the curtains of light spread over the cobbled streets of the old town. It’s a wonderful time to visit this beautiful city. A large ice rink, along with a smaller ice garden set aside for toddlers, will be set-up in Place Maurice Marchais from 20 December to 5 January.  On this same square, there will be stalls cooking fresh crepes & waffles and serving hot chocolate and mulled wine.  Take Santa’s Little Train down to the marina where you’ll find the Christmas market, featuring about 25 stalls. If you visit on 15 December then you’ll be well placed to greet the arrival of Santa Claus’ boat!

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Vannes

Dinan : 6 December to 24 December 2019

The pretty medieval town of Dinan exudes seasonal charm at Christmas and the switching on of the Christmas lights on 29 November heralds a month of festive activities. The Christmas market at Place Duclos will have about 30 chalets as well as a range of food stalls.  This year, there will be an outdoor ice rink set-up in the centre of the market.

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Dinan Photo : Monique Descaves

On 14 December, children will love the fairy show ‘the Dream of Herbert’ while a pyrotechnic show on the following evening is sure to entertain older children. The following weekend sees a spectacular ‘fairy parade’ through the historic centre of the town on 21 December and a fireworks display from the castle on 22 December.

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Dinan

Locranon : 7 December to 5 January 2020

One of the real beauties of Brittany, the picturesque small medieval town of Locranon is decked with lights and festive illuminations guaranteed to envelop you in seasonal cheer. The narrow cobbled streets, courtyards and town centre buildings are adorned with lights and decorations creating a delightful atmosphere in which to wander around this beautiful town. This year, a monumental 45m² crib, previously on display at Notre-Dame-de-Paris, will also be on show.

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Locranon

The Christmas market is expected to have 30 chalet-style stalls selling handicrafts, handmade toys & games and local produce. There will also be crepe stalls, roast chestnuts, mulled wine and cider to keep out the winter chill. Street performances and horse-drawn carriage rides will also add to the festivities.

Saint Brieuc : 7 December to 26 December 2019

This year, the town boasts a staggering 6km of garlands, 220 street decorations and over 190,000 Christmas lights. Follow the illuminated pathways to the Polar Village at Parc des Promenades, here amongst the illuminated firs you’ll find a magical realm of ice where igloos, penguins and polar bears surround Santa’s Grotto. Take a carriage ride as dusk falls and take-in the festive lights as you browse the food stalls. Towards the pedestrianised centre of town, you’ll hear the sound of music coming from one of many planned performances and discover creative illuminations, Sound & Light shows and a 25m toboggan run!

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Saint Brieuc

Street bands will be performing around the town centre on 15, 16 & 22 December before reaching the Polar Village. On 15-16 December, don’t be surprised if you come across two massive, fully articulated Indian cows. Part puppet, part machine, these massive creatures seem alive thanks to the talents of their team of manipulators. Enjoy the spectacle as they sway to the music or interact with each other and the public! As if two crazy machines were not enough, the afternoons of 22-23 December will see the Mekanibulle (imagine a steam-punk velocipede driven by Chaplin & Keaton and you’re about there!) loose in the town centre.

Quimper : 7 December to 31 December 2019

Historic Quimper is a beautiful setting for a traditional Christmas market set-up amongst the half-timbered buildings surrounding the Place Terre au Duc.  Festive lights and decorations form the backdrop for wandering carol singers, street entertainers and vendors of hot chocolate, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. An ice rink, located in the Espace Évêché, will be open from 13 December to 5 January and there’s a Christmas circus staged between 11 and 15 December.

Morlaix : 8 December to 31 December 2019

Under the shadow of Morlaix’s landmark 62m high viaduct will be found the Christmas market at Place des Otages. Featuring a range of stalls selling a variety of handicrafts & local produce, the market is the centre for a host of activities and games such as making Christmas wreaths, fir decoration contests and treasure hunts. Entertainment for children is the main focus here with readings of Christmas fairy tales and Santa’s Grotto.  Next to the market will be a small children’s fun-fair and an outdoor ice rink suitable for all ages. Carriage rides and circulating carol singers are guaranteed to add to the festive feel. On 22 December, a Christmas tale for children will be projected onto giant geometric structures, nicely setting-up the main event – the arrival of Santa Claus, abseiling from the top of the viaduct!

Abseiling Santa - Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Morlaix

Auray  : 13 December to 31 December 2019

On the south coast, Auray is offering visitors and locals a range of festive treats centred around a Christmas Village, including: animated displays, games, musical performances, an outdoor ice rink, horse-drawn carriage rides and even a special Escape-Game. The Christmas market runs from 13 to 31 December and about 80 stalls are anticipated

Christmas lights - Christmas markets - best - Brittany
Auray Photo : ludo.passionphotos.over-blog.com

Santa Claus will arrive, by boat, at the picturesque harbour of St Goustan on the evening of 13 December, just in time to join the grand parade the following day! There’s also a fireworks display on 21 December.

Abbaye de Bon-Repos : 22 December to 5 January 2020

Renowned for its spectacular summer Sound & Light shows, the 12th century Abbey of Bon Repos showcases the year’s main artistic installations; the captivating 7 metre high Celtic ‘Wish Tree’ sculpted out of wicker branches and ‘Stellar Dreams’, a re-imagining of the legend surrounding the founding of the Abbey crafted with over 30km of strained yarn. There will be special exhibitions, readings, puppet shows and childrens’ workshops between 26 December and 4 January. As dusk falls, wander the grounds as the abbey is transformed with lights and effects.

This is, of necessity, just a tiny snapshot of the many Christmas markets and fairs being staged here throughout the festive season; most are beautifully paired with delightful festive illuminations. So, keep your eyes out for signs to a ‘Marché de Noël’ and drop in; some of the small village markets are great fun and very welcoming to visitors.

Brittany is Different

It is France but somehow it seems not. It is the same as Wales or Ireland but it is not. It often feels like an independent nation but it is not and has not been for several hundred years. Brittany (Breizh in Breton or Bretagne in French) is different! Lazy comparisons are too easy to cast about and a measured analysis would take a decade or more and still leave us scratching around for an agreeable descriptor. So, let us just agree to say that Brittany is unique.

The traveller to Brittany will see signs of this uniqueness all around, it is not just the (predominantly) bilingual road signs or the omnipresent bigoudène-adorned figure on the backs of cars that make Brittany different from the rest of Metropolitan France or elsewhere. Although both are probably the biggest public manifestation of that especial difference.

So, what else helps contribute to Brittany’s uniqueness? The Breton language certainly, although, for a variety of reasons, it’s quite unusual to hear anyone between the ages of 20 and 70 speaking it in the street. The spoken French, in terms of accent and tonality, is different too but, thanks to television, markedly less so nowadays in the younger generation. The culture is assuredly distinct and there is a strong sense of national identity entwined with this: a shared pride in the uniqueness of Brittany’s rich cultural heritage.

What has, despite the odds, fostered and nurtured a distinct and thriving Breton culture into the 21st century is a fascinating subject but probably unfit for the limited confines of a blog such as this. Instead, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the noticeable things that, for me, make Brittany interestingly different from other places. You can therefore expect postings on cultural events, festivals, food and drink, folklore and legends, history, geography and landscapes.

I am no expert, so, please feel free to share your thoughts. Let us try and add some real colour to the Brittany travel guides and feature the best of Brittany for today’s inquisitive traveller.

Brittany
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Thank you!

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