The Bloody Baron of Brittany
Born into an illustrious and wealthy family, accomplished knight and brother-in-arms to Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, was appointed Marshall of France at the age of just 25 but his meteoric rise was mirrored by a ghastly fall. He is best remembered today as probably one of the most depraved and prolific serial killers in history.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was born into a powerful aristocratic family at the Château de Machecoul in eastern Brittany towards the end of 1404, although his place and date of birth cannot be confirmed. He could claim kinship with two of Brittany’s most renowned medieval knights, Bertrand du Guesclin and Olivier de Clisson. His father, Guy II de Laval, Baron of Rais, was doyen of the barons of Brittany and owned extensive lands in Brittany, the Breton Marches and in France. Orphaned at ten years of age, de Rais and his younger brother René, were sent, against the express wishes of their father, to live with their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, a wealthy feudal lord and Lieutenant General of the Duchy of Anjou. It seems that de Croan was not a good role model for the young boys; he indulged their whims and tantrums and fostered a conviction that might was right.
The young de Rais seems to have seen his first action at 15 years of age when he joined the de Montfort faction in supporting John V’s position as Duke of Brittany against the rival house of Penthievre and was rewarded for his role in laying siege to the Penthievre castles thus helping secure the release of the kidnapped Duke in 1420. At 16, he kidnapped and married his cousin, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou but the marriage was declared incestuous and annulled. However, a few months later they were absolved and legally married; a union that markedly increased his already substantial landholdings, making him one of the richest men in France.
Political alliances in medieval Brittany were constant only in their inconstancy and in 1426 de Rais seems to have followed John V’s brother, Arthur de Richemont, into the service of Charles VII of France and the following year is placed at the head of an Angevin army. With seven companies of men-at-arms maintained at his own expense, de Rais distinguished himself in the ongoing war against the English, notably recovering the castles of Lude, Rainefort and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe. With the appearance of Joan of Arc, de Rais was charged with ensuring her safety and fought alongside her at the relief of Orleans, the subsequent battles of Jargeau and Patay and was with her when she was injured in the trenches before Paris in September 1429.
The esteem in which de Rais was held is evidenced by his being amongst the favoured nobles chosen to bring the Holy Ampulla to Reims cathedral for the anointment of Charles VII in July 1429; a coronation which saw him honoured with the appointment of Marshall of France, one of the Great Officers of the French crown and a position he could reasonably expect to retain for life. Thus, at the age of just 25, de Rais seemingly had the world at his feet.
The year 1429 also saw the eight year old Henry VI crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey; he was subsequently crowned king of France at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1431. Although the war against the English would continue until the end of 1453, de Rais effectively withdrew from court and campaigning not long after the death of his grandfather in 1432.
Having expended a great deal of money in the service of the French king, a reasonable man might have taken stock of his finances but now in complete control of the family estates whose revenues were estimated at some 800,000 livres and without the moderating influence of his grandfather, de Rais indulged himself and made a point of publicly flaunting most of his excesses.
He maintained a permanent military retinue of 200 knights, along with their attendant squires, grooms, heralds and pages, who accompanied him wherever he went; his arrivals being announced by fanfare. From his private chapel at the Château de Machecoul he founded a chapter of canons and maintained a full choir and music school that was said to be fit for a cathedral and commissioned organs that could be carried on the shoulders of six men, so that he might enjoy music whenever it pleased him; in all, an ecclesiastical entourage of more than 50 people and as many horses. Such grand assemblies were more suited to royal rather than baronial status but these projections of grandeur and prestige were clearly important to de Rais’ image of himself.
Drama was another area of interest to de Rais and he would stage costly spectacles featuring hundreds of actors clad in bespoke armour or in the finest garments adorned with threads of gold and silver; such productions were usually followed by lavish banquets. In the summer of 1435 in Orléans, where his retinue filled every inn in the city, he was said to have spent 80,000 gold crowns while staging a series of elaborate re-enactments of the famous battle and his role in it.
With such enormous expenditure proving unsustainable, de Rais soon found himself having to sell some family treasures, estates and seigneurial rights, usually reserving for himself a right of redemption within six years. However, he spent money faster than he could generate it and he is estimated to have taken under two years to completely exhaust the 200,000 gold crowns he had raised from the sale of half a dozen estates to the Duke of Brittany. By 1436, his family appealed to Charles VII to reign in the profligate baron and while the king acquiesced and ordered that no one should enter into future contract with de Rais, the edicts of the French king held no sway in Brittany. Indeed, the following year the Duke of Brittany paid 100,000 gold crowns for two of de Rais’ most important estates.
In 1439, de Rais sold the Chateau de Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte to Geoffroy Le Ferron, the Treasurer of Brittany, but by the following year was intent of regaining this estate. However, Le Ferron refused to sell and in May 1440 de Rais resolved to take back the castle by force with a company of about 60 men-at-arms. The un-garrisoned castle was under the care of Le Ferron’s brother, a tonsured cleric, who was at his devotions in the local church when a bellicose and armed de Rais burst in, threatening to take his head if he did not cede the castle. The frightened cleric surrendered the castle to de Rais who thereupon had him clapped in irons and imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon.
Having violated ecclesiastical privilege and encroached on the rights of his sovereign, the Duke of Brittany, de Rais’ world began to unravel. He must have hoped to extricate himself from the inevitable reaction by the Church and Duke by exploiting the jurisdiction of powers; transferring his prisoner from Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte in the Duke’s territory to his own stronghold at Tiffauges in the Breton Marches outside the Duke’s control. However, the Duke quickly captured the former and his powerful brother, Arthur de Richemont, obligingly besieged the latter thus forcing de Rais to come to terms.
Upon hearing of the fall of Tiffauges towards the end of August, several of de Rais’ closest confederates deserted him and it seems that he either did not hear, or simply did not care, of the investigations that the Bishop of Vannes was making into him, following the sacrilege he committed at Saint-Étienne, as he travelled home to Machecoul from sojourns in Josselin and Vannes.
On 29 July, Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor of Brittany, issued a declaration stating that he and his commissioners had found that de Rais was publicly defamed for murdering many children, and was guilty of invoking demons with horrid rites, of entering into compacts with them and of other enormities. The seriousness of these allegations eventually prompted enquiries to be made by emissaries of the secular court in the following month.
Confident in their case, on 13 September, the ecclesiastical tribunal sitting in Nantes, indicted de Rais and nine of his followers for murder, sodomy, the invocations of demons, heresy and the offending of Divine Majesty. He was arrested at his castle in Machecoul two days later and, along with four confederates, brought to Nantes where he was housed in an upper chamber of the castle; his confederates being consigned to the dungeon. Proceedings were begun, with an initial focus on heresy, before the ecclesiastical tribunal, over which the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith presided; the secular court overseen by Pierre de l’Hôpital, President and Chief Justice of Brittany, would run concurrently. Perhaps de Rais initially thought that he had a reasonable chance of beating the charge of heresy as he paid the trail scant attention until forced to appear on 8 October when all 49 articles of the 15 page bill of indictment were presented to him.
Violating the sanctity of the Church at Saint-Étienne was now the least of his troubles; he was accused of being a “heretic, a relapsed heretic, a magician, a sodomite, a conjuror of evil spirits, a seer, a cutter of the throats of innocents, an apostate, an idolater, having deviated from the faith and being hostile to it, a diviner, and a sorcerer.” De Rais’ air of disdain for the proceedings quickly erupted into rage, he now refused to acknowledge the authority of the court, challenging and insulting the judges declaring that he would rather be hanged by the neck than acknowledge such scoundrels as his judges.
When he next appeared before the court just two days later, de Rais appeared a broken man; he was contrite and resigned. He tearfully asked the judges to forgive his insults, he admitted to the charges levied against him excepting the invocation of demons and begged to be allowed to enter a monastery. Over the next few days, de Rais sat in court and heard the testimonies of distraught parents and other numerous witnesses, even some given by his own confederates including his Italian alchemist and necromancer, Francesco Prelati.
According to his own testimony, de Rais turned his attention to sorcery and alchemy after the death of his grandfather; he sought the philosopher’s stone which would place unlimited wealth and power in his hands and revive his fortune. He devoted large rooms in his castles to the succession of sorcerers and charlatans that he hired from France, Germany and Italy. In May 1438, Prelati was brought to him from Florence but had no more success than his predecessors despite his claims to having a special link to a demon named Barron, whom he had no difficulty in evoking when alone but who stubbornly refused to appear in de Rais’ presence.
Attempts were made to invoke the demons Barron, Beelzebub, Belial and Oriens by means of fire, incense, aloes, myrrh and other aromatics but they refused to appear. After many failed invocations, Prelati eventually suggested making an offering to the demons of the blood and limbs of slain children and de Rais duly provided him with a child’s hand and heart in a glass in another futile attempt to secure his demonic pact for wealth and power. The court noted that de Rais “was never able to see the Devil or speak with him, although he did everything he could, to the point that it was not his fault if he could not see the Devil or speak with him.” Damning though such revelations were, after he and Prelati had corroborated each other’s confessions and were about to part, de Rais embraced his former sorcerer, earnestly hoping that they would, by Divine Grace, meet again in Paradise.
Although the charges brought against him claim that his murderous activities began in 1426, de Rais asserted that his first killings were not committed until after his grandfather’s death towards the end of 1432. He admitted the charges brought against him and that he acted “according to his imagination and ideas … solely for his pleasure and carnal delight.” However, Pierre de L’Hôpital was unsatisfied by this and demanded to know, in open court, why de Rais had killed so many innocents without reason but de Rais would not be drawn and refused to submit to the humiliation of a public confession, saying “Truly, there was no other cause, no other end nor intention, if not what I’ve told you: I’ve told you greater things than this and enough to kill ten thousand men.”
The court considered sanctioning the use of torture to encourage de Rais to offer a complete and frank confession but it was not necessary. Whether he was overwhelmed by the testimonies railed against him or overcome with a genuine desire to confess and secure redemption; whatever the reason, de Rais began to talk at length of his crimes. Only parts of the official record of the ecclesiastical trial have survived the centuries but what remains is harrowing. I will detail only a small proportion here from Georges Bataille’s account, Le Procès de Gilles de Rais (1965), who quotes directly from the official court transcript written in French and Latin:
“… these children had had their throats cut inhumanly, had been killed and finally dismembered and burned, and in other respects shamefully tormented; that the same Gilles de Rais, the accused, had sacrificed the bodies of these children to demons in a damnable fashion; that according to many other reports the said Gilles de Rais had evoked demons and evil spirits and sacrificed to them, and that with the said children, as many boys as girls, sometimes while they were alive, sometimes after they were dead, sometimes as they were dying, had horribly and ignobly committed the sin of sodomy and exercised his lust on the one and the other, disdaining the girls’ natural vessel.”
“… he stated and confessed that to prevent the children from crying out when he intended to have intercourse with them, the said Lord de Rais had a cord put around their necks beforehand and had them suspended about three feet off the ground in a corner of the room, and before they were dead he let them down or had them let down, asking them not to say a word, and he rubbed his penis in his hand, after which he spilled his seed on their belly; that done, he had their throats cut, having their heads separated from their bodies, and occasionally, after they were dead, asked which of these children had the most beautiful heads.”
“… occasionally the said Lord chose little girls, whom he had sex with on their bellies in the same way as he did with the male children, saying that he took greater pleasure in doing so, and had less pain, than if he had enjoyed them in their nature; thereafter these girls were put to death like the male children.”
“… he loved to see the children’s heads cut off after having had sex with them on their bellies, their legs between his own; and sometimes he was on their bellies when the heads were separated from their bodies, other times he cut them behind the neck to make them languish, which he delighted in doing; and while they languished it happened that he had intercourse with them until their death, occasionally after they were dead, while their bodies were still warm; and there was a braquemard with which to cut off their heads; if sometimes the beauty of these children did not conform to his fancy, he cut their heads off himself with a cutlass, whereupon he occasionally had intercourse with them.”
According to his valet, Henriet, de Rais “delighted in looking at their severed heads and showed them to him, the witness, and Étienne Corrillaut …, asking them which of the said heads was the most beautiful of those he was showing them, the head severed at that very moment, or that from the day before, or another from the day before that and he often kissed the head that pleased him most, and delighted in doing so.”
De Rais had boasted to him of taking “greater pleasure in murdering the … children, in seeing their heads and limbs separated, in seeing them languish and seeing their blood, than he did in knowing them carnally … and he gave way to contemplating those who had the most beautiful heads and members and he had their bodies cruelly opened up and delighted at the sight of their internal organs.”
There is no agreed figure for the number of children butchered by, or on the orders of, de Rais although the ecclesiastical indictment stated “one hundred and forty, or more, children, boys and girls” and the civil court spoke of over two hundred victims. However, some historians have argued that the figure could have exceeded 700 while others have even tried to argue that he was innocent. De Rais himself was unable to ascribe an accurate tally but he did not dispute any of the testimonies against him and confessed that “he killed children and had them killed in large numbers – how many he is uncertain”.
For the most part, de Rais’ victims were chosen from amongst the poor urchins who begged for charity around his castles. Often his servants would lure away a boy from his parents with the promise of employment and he even engaged two women who actively procured children for him from the neighbouring countryside. According to the testimony of his servant, when de Rais “was unable to find more children at his convenience, boys and girls on whom to practice his execrable debaucheries, he practiced them on the children in his chapel”, another servant added “but he did not kill them or have them killed, because they kept these things secret.”
At first, the victims’ bodies were dumped in rooms in the towers of whichever castle they met their sad end and witnesses’ spoke of once having to hastily remove the bones of some 40 children from one castle before the new owners arrived to take possession. Subsequently, de Rais had the bodies burned in the fireplace of his chamber and the ashes scattered in the castle’s rubbish pits and moats. The bodies of those children slain while de Rais was travelling were, more often than not, burned or dumped in cesspits.
During his public confession, he spoke of sometimes having wished to renounce his wicked ways and of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but did not know how to carry out his resolution and returned to his depravity “as a dog returns to its vomit.” De Rais also repeatedly addressed the onlookers, urging parents to strictly instruct their children in the ways of virtue and faith, for it was, he claimed, his unbridled youth that had led him to crime and a shameful end. He implored God’s pardon and that of the parents and friends of the children whom he “so cruelly massacred” asking all to pray for him.
On 25 October, de Rais was summoned for sentencing by the ecclesiastical court; two sentences were read. The first, in the name of both judges (the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith), condemned him guilty of “perfidious apostasy as well as of the dreadful invocation of demons”. The second sentence, rendered by the bishop alone as the Inquisition had no cognizance of these offences, judged him guilty “of committing and maliciously perpetrating the crime and unnatural vice of sodomy on children of both sexes”. For these acts and for his sacrilege and violation of the immunities of the Church, de Rais was excommunicated and told he had incurred other lawful punishments. However, before he is sent to hear his fate at the civil court, the judges asked if he wished to be reincorporated into the Church. On his knees, de Rais pleaded tearfully that “he had never known what heresy was, that he did not know that he had lapsed into and committed it” and begged re-admittance to the Church; the judges lifted his excommunication and appointed a confessor for his absolution.
The judges must have been very impressed by de Rais’ seemingly profound contrition as they also allowed his request for his body to be spared the purification of fire and even to choose his place of burial – the auspicious church of the Carmelite convent of Notre-Dame in Nantes. A location that was close to the Duke’s heart and one that benefitted handsomely from the Duke making good on a vow he made in captivity in 1420 to give his weight in gold to the convent once freed. Perhaps even more remarkably, the judges also agreed to de Rais’ request that the Bishop of Nantes and the men of his church arrange a general procession in order to ask God for his salvation.
At the civil court, de Rais was fined 50,000 gold crowns (appropriated in property), for having taken the castle at Saint-Étienne and sentenced to be hanged and burned for his other crimes; the sentence to be carried out on the following day. A day that witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the city’s clergy, followed by a mob of thousands who had once bayed for his blood, earnestly marching through the streets of Nantes to the field of execution, singing and praying for de Rais’ salvation.
As he and his servants, Henriet and Poitou, had committed the crimes together, de Rais asked that they face death together and that he should die first to show them the example of a good death and so that they would not think he had escaped and thus be cast into despair. Gathered at the gallows, all three expressed profound regret and contrition for their evil deeds and it is recorded that de Rais “made beautiful speeches and prayers to God, recommending his soul to Him”. As they swung from the gallows, the piles of wood were lit under them but when de Rais’ rope was burned through and his body fell, several ladies rushed forward to save it from the flames for burial. Henriet and Poitou’s bodies were allowed to burn and their ashes were scattered to the winds.
Several years after de Rais’ death, his family erected a propitiatory shrine some way from the field of execution which, over time, acquired a reputation for helping mothers produce milk for breastfeeding their children. One of the shrine’s statues was venerated as la Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait and was often visited by expectant mothers until its destruction during the French Revolution; the remains of the shrine itself were extant until the late 19th century. The Revolution also saw the destruction of de Rais’ tomb but his terrible legend lives on.
The Best Beaches in Brittany
Brittany, the westernmost part of France, can lay claim to having some of the country’s best beaches. The peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides; to the north by the English Channel, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the south by the Bay of Biscay. The beauty and drama of the natural environment and ecosystems change markedly as you meander along the region’s 1,800 miles (2,900km) of coastline. Follow any of the coastal hiking routes or roads and you will encounter innumerable picturesque estuaries, moody dramatic cliffs, historic maritime towns, little fishing ports and pretty small harbours. Offshore, a large number of the region’s 800 islands are accessible to visitors.
You will also discover hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful beaches; some stretch for miles into the distance while others are just 800 yards (730m) of picture perfect soft white sand and turquoise sea. With such a diversity of seascapes and landscapes; from grand La Belle Époque resorts to secluded coves visited only by seabirds and intrepid travellers, any list of Brittany’s best beaches can only be subjective and ephemeral.
With that important proviso, here is a brief run-through of what, I believe, are currently some of the best beaches in Brittany worth exploring. To make the journey easy to follow on a map, I have grouped the beaches within a short drive from the nearest main town.
Located in an area of the north coast known as La Côte de Penthièvre, the area around Erquy boasts some great beaches and I would highlight Plage Saint-Michel and Caroual Plage as worth visiting; both offer miles of soft white sand and are great for children. At low-tide, it is possible to walk from Caroual around the headland to the nearby beach at Saint-Pabu. The neighbouring beaches of Lourtuais, Portuais and Guen have a wilder, more secluded, feel and are also worth visiting. Towards the end of the large beach at Lortuais, there is a 550 yard (500m) strip (if you pardon the pun) where nude bathing is permitted.
To the north of Erquy, the stretch of coastline heading towards the dramatic cliffs at Cap Fréhel offers the visitor a series of beautiful, broad sandy bays to discover and, depending on tides, it is possible to explore a few from Sables D’Or Les Pins.
Also worth a visit are the beaches around Pléneuf-Val-André just a few miles south of Erquy but before you leave the seaside town, do take the time to enjoy the panoramic view from the Cap d’Erquy.
Along the coastline known as La Côte de Goëlo and just south of the historic town of Saint-Quay Portrieux is the beach at Binic and the picturesque Plage du Moulin, a soft sand beach that is ideal for children. North of the town, you will discover the beautiful La Plage du Palus, Plage Bonaparte and Plage Bréhec. These are large and usually uncrowded beaches.
A little further south along the coast is Rosaires beach which stretches for almost 1.5 miles (2.3km), it is a wide sandy beach which turns to shingle as you get closer to the abutting cliffs and is another beach that is popular with those with children.
North of Saint-Quay Portrieux, the north coast headed west towards the seaside town of Perros-Guirec possesses some stunning soft sandy beaches with beautifully clear sea and small bays peppered with picturesque islets and unique rock formations.
The stretch of coast between Plougrescant and Perros-Guirec will delight you with some wonderful beaches such as that at Port Blanc.
The resort town of Perros-Guirec sits on a scenic stretch of coast known as La Côte de Granit Rose after its unusual and striking pink rock formations and has three stunning child-friendly beaches that offer sea views that are just as pretty as the actual beaches themselves: Trestrignel, Trestraou and Porz Garo are particularly worth singling out.
Several miles to the south west are the great and often empty Plage de Maez-an-Aod and Plage de Goas Lagorn both of which are worth visiting. Naturists can enjoy an area to the right hand side of the former beach but be aware it can get rather windy on this stretch of coastline.
The historic medieval town of Roscoff boasts some beautiful beaches around it, in an area known as La Côte des Sables and the beach in the crescent bay at Pointe de Perharidi just west of town, looking over towards the Île de Batz, is a real delight. The Île de Batz is only a 15 minute ferry ride away and will reward you with several good, sandy beaches.
Continuing westward from Roscoff, the two main beaches at Cleder – La Plage de Kervaliou and La Plage de Kéradennec are well worth visiting, as is Dossen Plage at Santec which boasts beautiful soft white sand looking across at the Île de Sieck. From here, the coast westwards offers miles and miles of sand dunes, beaches and ocean colours that dance between the lightest blues and emerald-turquoise. The beach at Keremma is a particular gem.
The Atlantic coast is littered with beautiful coves and sandy beaches from La Plage Plougouri near Quistillic down to La Plage des Blancs Sablons near Le Conquet.
On the far west of Brittany, the Crozon Peninsula offers forests and forts aplenty as well as some beautiful coastal scenery. The area has dozens of picturesque beaches for you to explore, some only accessible on foot or at low tide.
La Plage de Kersiguénou is an impressive expanse of sandy beach as is La Plage de Lostmarc’h just a little further south. If you do not mind traversing a rather poor pathway, I would definitely recommend a trip down to La Plage de l’île Vierge; a secluded picturesque gem of a beach where you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the Mediterranean or Caribbean rather than Brittany.
Heading back east along the southern part of the peninsula, the oft-photographed beach at Morgat offers over a mile (1.5km) of soft, white sand that children and grown-ups will love. A few miles east is Raguénez and another sweeping sandy beach, La Plage d’Aber. The footpaths here give you a great view of Douarnenez Bay and the Île d’Aber. This small island is accessible on foot at low tide and is home to an abandoned 19th century fort.
Just under 2.5 miles (4km) away is La Plage de Trez Bellec; a wide sandy beach about a mile long with an area set aside for water sports and sand yachting. Similar sporting opportunities are available at the nearby La Plage de Pentrez, just outside the small town of Saint-Nic, which offers a 2.5 mile (4km) stretch of soft sand.
Heading further south, La Plage de Kermabec is a good place to access a stretch of sandy beach over six miles (10km) long; it is contiguous with the beaches known as La Torche and Tronoën and predominantly backs onto sand dunes.
Turning east along La Côte de Cornouaille on Brittany’s southern coast, La Plage de Kermor is a popular sandy beach; the first of a series of noteworthy beaches dotted around the resort of Concarneau with its quaint walled old town. While the town’s main beach, La Plage des Sables Blancs, is wonderful, it does get very busy particularly during the summer holidays. Unless vying for a car parking space and threading through crowds of sunbathers is your thing, I suggest that you explore the much larger and far less crowded beaches at Mousterlin to the west or Kerouini to the east.
Concarneau is one of the gateways to the Îles de Glénan, a stunning archipelago of islands about 10 miles (16km) off the coast which you can visit during the summer only.
Continuing eastwards, the 10 mile (15km) stretch of coast between the beach resorts of Guidel Plages and Larmor-Plage is very popular with surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers. Just across the Blavet estuary from Larmor-Plage is the resort of Gâvres which it the start of over 16 miles (26km) of sandy beaches that continue to Quiberon. About half-way down this strip of coast is la Plage de Kerminihy, a 1.5 mile (2.5km) stretch of beach where nudism is allowed.
Located on La Côte des Mégalithes, the Quiberon Peninsula offers the visitor a swathe of good scenic beaches to choose from, particularly on the western Côte Sauvage. Beaches that are perhaps more child-friendly, such as La Plage du Porigo and La Plage du Fort Neuf can be found on the southern and eastern coasts. The Grande Plage in Quiberon is a useful stopping point for lunch or for taking the ferry over to the wonderful Belle-Île and its many beautiful sandy coves and beaches, most notably Plage de Port-Donnant.
Although many people visit the south coast town of Carnac for a day out at one of its great sandy beaches, the town is better known as the home of the renowned Carnac Alignments and other megalithic monuments. Indeed, the main sites at Carnac contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 2.5 miles long.
Under eight miles east is one of the gateways to the Gulf of Morbihan, Locmariaquer. A small town with several beaches and another great megalithic site. It is worth visiting to see the remarkable Table des Marchands (a large dolmen with prehistoric decorations) and the Great Menhir (70 feet high and weighing 280 tons, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time – now, sadly, broken into four pieces). Excursions by boat are available to allow you to explore the Gulf of Morbihan; you can choose between cruises around the Gulf and its 42 islands or strike out to sea and on to the beautiful islands of Belle Île or Houat and Hoëdic.
If you are a fan of therapeutic body treatments or perhaps thinking of an unconventional day out while on vacation, you might wish to try one of the many thalassotherapy treatments that use seawater and seaweed to revitalise the skin and body. Thalassotherapy in the modern era was invented and popularised in Brittany and the region boasts the highest concentration of thalassotherapy facilities in the world.
Whatever your attraction to the sea and the beach, in Brittany you can be guaranteed to find one to match your every mood and to break open a smile on even the moodiest of days. Best of all – it is unlikely to be crowded!
Buccaneers of Brittany
Bounded to the north by the English Channel, to the south by the Bay of Biscay and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany has some 2,900km (1,800 miles) of coastline peppered with estuaries, busy ports, small harbours and naval bases. The sea has always played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; from the arrival of the early Christian saints in their stone boats to the departure of hundreds of vessels carrying men to join the Free French Forces in England in the final days of June 1940.
Maritime activities such as fishing and international trade were always key parts of the Breton economy. The peninsula was located on the main sea routes between the big trading nations of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands; in the 16th century, there were 123 significant working ports in Brittany and many, such as those of Saint-Brieuc and Brest expanded into international hubs.
The region also benefited from the expansion of France’s colonial empire and navy: the ports and shipyards at Saint-Malo, Brest, Nantes and Lorient were constantly improved; the latter was also headquarters of the French East India Company. A significant proportion of Brittany’s non-agricultural workforce were thus employed building, servicing and victualling its shipping industry.
With such a strong mercantile heritage, it is not surprising that Bretons came to constitute a leading component of the French navy and also played an important role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton sailors have left their mark on history.
Jean de Coatanlem, from the north coast town of Morlaix, is perhaps the most well-known Breton privateer of the late medieval period although his services at sea were licenced in support of the King of France rather than his nation’s sovereign. He seized a number of well laden English and Flemish merchant vessels in the English Channel from 1475 onwards and invested his prize money in new ships. Within a decade, his flotilla included about ten ships of between 150 to 250 tons and a large number of smaller boats from 30 to 80 tons.
There are stories that claim he mustered his forces to save his town when the port was raided by three English pirate ships in 1484 and that after defeating the raiders, he launched a punitive attack on the English west coast port of Bristol, destroying large parts of the city and taking several notable hostages.
Unfortunately, contemporary records are unable to confirm these events as they are first noted in a family deposition to a French tax investigation in 1539, claiming exemption from taxes due to the noble status inherited from a grandfather, Nicolas de Coetanlem. We do know that 1484 was the year that de Coatanlem entered the service of the King of Portugal whom he served with great distinction until his death in Lisbon in 1492; his exploits defending Portuguese shipping against the pirates of the Barbary Coast having earned him the title ‘Governor of the Sea’.
De Coatanlem’s nephew, Nicolas, was one of the Breton ship-owners most frequently employed by King Henry VII of England to transport men, weapons and supplies to his forces supporting Duchess Anne of Brittany in her battles with the King of France in 1489-91. De Coatanlem’s unstinting services were rewarded with a licence to import, under Crown protection, goods into England duty free.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was widely regarded as an area beyond rules and treaties; a wilderness outside the law. As such, the concept of piracy was vague and ill-defined and became especially opaque when rulers granted official sanction authorising men to raid the shipping of an unfriendly nation or recalcitrant noble.
The 15th century voyages of exploration and discovery, coupled with advances in navigation and cartography, quickly brought about vast changes to the fortunes and outlook of many nations. For the kingdoms of Europe, command of the sea was now no longer a case of protecting borders but of projecting influence and expanding opportunities for profitable trade. The distances and natural hazards involved in transacting such endeavours were great and many men, of all nations, saw opportunities for personal enrichment by helping themselves to the fruits of others.
The nomenclature surrounding such adventurers is rich and varied, particularly when the words thief or robber are all that are really required but a whole range of other descriptors have been used, such as Gentlemen of Fortune, Privateers, Freebooters, Corsairs and Filibusters to describe men, and it was usually men, who attacked and plundered targets with the approval of a state’s authority. Sometimes, that approval was deliberately vague and sometimes was conferred by a minor official completely out of touch with his government’s wishes; but it was nonetheless approval of sorts.
Pirates were essentially outlaws who attacked the shipping and settlements of all nations with no real pretence of serving under any flag but their own and risked the gallows in the event of capture. The term buccaneer was often used to describe both pirates and privateers. Often, the differences between pirates and privateers were, at best very subtle, and, at worst, a matter of subjective interpretation. Distinctions are further clouded by the fact that many men drifted between legitimate privateering and outright piracy and vice versa.
The practice of manning and arming private vessels to attack rivals’ ships is an ancient one and continues, in parts of the world, to this day. In Europe, over time, this practice was formalised with the awarding of privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque and reprisal’ that granted named individuals licence to seize the king’s enemies at sea and share the proceeds between the privateers and the Crown. Vessels and cargo seized by the privateers were sold at officially sanctioned auctions, with the Crown typically taking between 10 and 20 per cent of the proceeds and the ship’s captain and his investors receiving the remainder.
It could therefore be a highly lucrative enterprise. For the ship-owners and the men who financed such expeditions, fitting out privateers was an expensive business; the ship had to be supplied with stores of victuals, powder, shot and other equipment. It was also crucial that the captain could be trusted to declare all his plunder and not trade too much on his own account.
Licensing privateers during periods of war was widespread in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, representing a cheap and low-risk way of striking at your enemy. It also carried the benefit of gnawing away at their foreign trade and perhaps forcing them to divert resources into protecting their merchant ships or actively patrolling for privateers.
Born into a wealthy ship-owning family in the major privateer port of Saint-Malo in 1673, René Trouin aka Duguay-Trouin turned his back on the career in the Church that had been marked out for him and took to sea aboard a local privateering vessel at the age of 17. He was obviously a natural sailor and was given his own command the following year and successfully plundered many English cargo ships plying the Channel during the ongoing Nine Years War.
His skill in naval warfare brought him to the attention of the navy who gave him command of a 36-gun frigate in 1692 but his luck ran out when he was captured by English warships off the Scilly Isles in April 1694. However, the resourceful officer escaped and was safely home in Saint-Malo by the end of June. The following year and in command of a 48-gun warship, he captured an English warship after a two day running battle. A feat he surpassed in 1697 with the capture of a 15-ship Dutch convoy off Bilbao, earning himself a commission as a captain in France’s Royal Navy just as the Nine Years’ War concluded.
There was precious little peace in Europe at this time and five short years later the conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. It was during this period that Duguay-Trouin enjoyed his greatest successes; his scattering of a great Portuguese convoy in 1706 and the seizure of hundreds of vessels over the next few years saw him ennobled in 1709.
In September 1711 he led an expedition of 15 ships, a mixture of naval warships and privateers, against Rio de Janeiro. His fleet stormed into Rio’s harbour and after a series of engagements, secured the town nine days later. After looting the city and the 60 cargo ships at anchor within the bay, Duguay-Trouin demanded a large ransom to spare the city’s buildings, eventually receiving 610,000 cruzados. When his fleet, now augmented by two captured Portuguese warships, departs in November, they leave behind a devastated city but the expedition proves a disappointment for his investors, particularly as two of his largest and most heavily laden ships were lost with all hands (over a thousand men) on the journey home. Further promotions followed his return and Duguay-Trouin successively commanded the naval forces at Saint-Malo and Brest, being appointed Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies in 1728.
Like Duguay-Trouin, Robert Surcouf was also born into a ship-owning family in Saint-Malo who hoped that he would enjoy a life in the Church but young Surcouf had other ideas and ran away to sea. At 16, he enlisted aboard a slave ship that plied the routes between the Horn of Africa, Pondicherry, Mauritius and Madagascar; surviving a shipwreck in the Mozambique Channel in 1790 in which 400 slaves, chained below decks, perished. Despite the 1792 ban on slave trading, Surcouf continued his ghastly activities until 1795 when he took command of a privateer in Mauritius, capturing five British merchant vessels over the course of the year even though he had been refused a letter of marque by the Governor of Mauritius.
After a brief sojourn in France, in February 1798, Surcouf left Nantes in command of a 14-gun privateer and an official letter of marque. After re-supplying in Mauritius, he set out to hunt on the busy trade routes of the Indian Ocean, capturing some 17 British, Dutch, Portuguese and American merchant vessels before returning to Mauritius in February 1800. He set out again in April and, over the course of a year, captured a further 8 British, American and Portuguese merchant ships. Surcouf returned to France in April 1801 where his exploits were much acclaimed; in May 1802, he was awarded the Legion of Honour upon the founding of the Order.
In March 1807, he once again set out from Brittany in pursuit of prey and prizes in the Indian Ocean, capturing 13, predominantly British, merchant vessels during this, his final cruise. In July 1808, his ship was requisitioned into naval service and he was forced to purchase a damaged de-commissioned naval frigate for the journey home to Saint-Malo. He arrived safely, along with an estimated haul of 8 million francs, in February 1809 but his ship sank at harbour the day after he arrived. Surcouf never put to sea again but used his considerable fortune to expand the family business, outfitting almost a dozen privateers and, after 1815, a score of merchantmen. He died peacefully at home in 1827.
For over three centuries we have been entertained by the adventures of fictional and fictionalised pirates and privateers from John Silver to Jack Sparrow but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero would not have welcomed such romanticism; to him “a pirate is not included in the list of lawful enemies but is the common enemy of all; among pirates and other men there ought be neither mutual faith nor binding oath“.
The Black Death in Brittany
Unprecedented is a word that we have all heard many times since the scale of the current coronavirus disease pandemic became apparent. The authorities and the media talk of an “exceptional situation” a “unique threat” that is “unheard of in our country”. However, throughout our recorded history, contagions, epidemics and pandemics have been a regular feature of all human societies and often a source of instability and catalyst for change therein. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the magnitude of some earlier disease events and the resilience of societies when confronted with biological catastrophe.
Pandemics, such as the one we are currently enduring, have always been part of humanity’s lot; it is simply that it has, mercifully, been some time since we last experienced such a deadly outbreak. Perhaps the most infamous pandemic event and one that still holds a place in the popular imagination is the Black Death of the Middle Ages; a pandemic of bubonic plague that swept across the Near East, North Africa and Europe between 1347 and 1352. This was the first of a number of recurring plague epidemics between the 14th and 18th centuries known as the Second Plague Pandemic; the First Plague Pandemic having occurred in the 6th through to the 8th centuries.
Bubonic plague is a devastating disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents. Plague among humans arises when rodents, such as black rats, become infected. Once infected, it can take up to a fortnight before plague has stricken off an entire infected rat colony, making it difficult for the large number of fleas gathered on the remaining dying rats to find new hosts. After three days without blood, the hungry fleas turn to whatever hosts they can find and the infection is transmitted after a flea that has fed from an infected rat then bites a human.
From the bite site, the contagion spreads through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where the bacteria replicate, causing the nodes to swell to form buboes or painful tumours as big as an egg in the armpits, groin, neck or thighs. Victims initially manifested symptoms similar to influenza but the appearance of these buboes, which often suppurated and haemorrhaged, would typically have been quickly followed by gastro-intestinal problems, continuous vomiting of blood, gangrene of the extremities and the severe pain brought on by necrosis. The plague delivered a truly terrible way to die; delirium and death finally overtaking the victim within another three to five days. Estimates vary as to the mortality rates of those that caught the plague in the Middle Ages but even a figure of 75 per cent might be an understatement.
The plague was a very virulent and fast moving disease; from the introduction of plague contagion among rats in a human community, it could take just over three weeks before the first human death. The infected fleas travelled great distances, relatively swiftly, on rats aboard ships that plied the trade routes of the Mediterranean littoral and northern Europe. Once ashore, the fleas could find a host travelling inland and so the disease quickly spread exponentially. Even once the initial host had died, the fleas could live for up to a year, transmitting the disease from one generation of fleas to the next and laying up to fifty eggs per day, every day. Additionally, plague bacteria can sometimes spread to the lungs and cause a variant of plague (pneumonic plague) that is spread by infected droplets inhaled from the cough and sneezes of victims.
The plague first reached France, via the southern port of Marseilles, towards the end of September 1347 and quickly spread from this important commercial hub; northwards up the Rhône valley to Lyons and westwards along the coast to Spain. Ships from Bordeaux likely carried infected rats to Normandy where the plague arrived in April 1348 before reaching Brittany towards the end of that year.
At the time of the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, it is believed that some 90 per cent of the continent’s population were rural dwellers, powerless to act in the face of the deadly onslaught of the plague. Accounts regarding the impact of the Black Death in Brittany are very scarce as its arrival coincided with the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) but historians have discovered a remarkable consistency in mortality levels across Europe during the plague years. Recent estimates suggest that between 50 to 60 per cent of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death – a staggering 50 million people. After centuries of land clearance and population growth, hundreds of villages suddenly became virtual ghost towns and were abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.
The plague seems to have gradually diminished after 1353, spreading east of the Volga river and towards the Caspian Sea where it likely originated seven years earlier. However, the plague did not extinguish itself completely, the causal bacteria continued to leap across to humans and strike the people of Europe and beyond once or twice a generation for centuries. Few of the later outbreaks in this Second Plague Pandemic were as devastating as the Black Death but nonetheless are thought to have killed between ten to twenty per cent of the population with each deadly revisit.
The plague (vossen in Breton) returned to Brittany in 1404 and every decade of that century saw periodic outbreaks across the country with over a hundred outbreaks recorded between the years 1478-84 alone. In 1485, the last undisputed ruler of independent Brittany, Duke François II, created the post of Médecin des Épidémies (Doctor of Epidemics) based on the earlier models of specialist doctors created by the Pope and the King of France; the disease was still poorly understood and the medical establishment of the day struggled hard with how best to prevent its arrival and spread in their communities.
In time, the people became accustomed to living with the menace of the plague; it was now the new reality, the new norm. Prayers were widely offered to the 3rd century martyr Saint Sebastian who was held to possess the power to intercede to protect people from plague and special processions seeking his favour are recorded in several Breton towns particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 14th century Saint Roch was also popularly prayed to here in times of plague.
Periodic epidemics of the plague remained a constant feature of life in Brittany throughout the 16th century; in 1501-02 over 4000 people fell mortal victims in the city of Nantes alone and there were further outbreaks recorded in 1514-19, 1522-23, 1529-30, 1563-65 and 1567-70. In 1582-84, the plague made a deadly appearance in both the northern and southern parts of the region with the areas around the towns of Dinan, Dol-de-Bretagne, Nantes, Rennes and Saint-Malo being particularly hard hit. Towards the end of 1583, the authorities closed the busy port of Saint-Malo to shipping and banned foreigners from the city.
At the same time, in the southern city of Nantes, the authorities ordered, under penalty of a fine, that inhabitants clear the pavement outside their dwellings daily. The city authorities also ordered the establishment of new latrines and a more systematic clearing of the old cess pits. Other public heath ordnances were also issued: regular fires were lit at crossroads to purify the air; plague-stricken houses would be cleaned; the sick were instructed to always carry a white stick to mark their presence and their clothes marked, front and back, with a white cross.
Doctors and surgeons were also required to carry a white stick warning of their presence while out in the streets visiting the sick. Initially, the sick were taken to the lazarette or quarantine station, established outside the city walls during the previous epidemic in 1569, but this became too over-crowded even by 16th century standards. The white cross was also used in the city of Saint-Malo in 1584 and was daubed on the doors of contaminated houses as a sign prohibiting anyone from leaving or entering in order to limit the contagion.
The plague continued to spread through Brittany in the early 17th century; in June 1598, the north coast town of Morlaix was struck; in July and August over 300 people died in the central Brittany town of Pontivy. In September 1598 the people of the city of Saint-Brieuc were prohibited from trading with the nearby (just 7 miles/10km) town of Châtelaudren in an effort to stop the disease reaching their city. However, the city’s attempts at self-isolation ultimately failed and the city was ravaged in 1601-02, as was Lannion. At the time, many people thought that the plague was caused and spread by a miasma or bad air thus many people left their homes once the plague struck their city. Such a movement of people, of course, accelerated the spread of the disease and with the benefit of hindsight we should not be surprised to note the plague’s return in less than five years.
The south of the region was also hit by small localised outbreaks of the plague in the same year; the town of Quimper, still recovering from the loss of 1,700 people to an epidemic in 1594, was struck again in 1598 when about a third of the population were thought to have perished. There followed a relative respite for some twenty years before the plague re-appeared with an increased intensity.
In 1622, the Parlement of Brittany imposed a state of quarantine on Saint-Malo and three weeks of isolation were imposed on all people suspected of contracting the plague; it also ordered a ban on children from Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc, Dinan and Dol from entering the Breton capital Rennes (itself ravaged by plague from 1624 to 1632). An outbreak of plague in the south coast town of Port Louis in 1623 resulted in the nearby and more populous town of Auray imposing a state of quarantine; fishermen were banned from visiting or trading and people arriving by land were firstly held in isolation for three weeks. The authorities ordered the destruction of all stray animals; pigs and pigeons being specifically subject to strict confinement (previously pigs had been free to roam the streets foraging for scraps). Citizens were also ordered to keep the pavement outside their dwellings clean with harsh punishments for the lackadaisical.
Despite these efforts, records show that the plague struck two of the communes surrounding the town in 1630 before later breaking into the town and striking into all surrounding communes. As in other towns hit by the plague, large bonfires were regularly lit in the streets in an attempt to purify the air. This was also done in nearby Vannes where, in the same year, the authorities levied a small tax to pay for the removal of the city’s rubbish and transport it to offshore mudflats. In Auray, a lazarette was established outside the town and a rudimentary medical service organised by the local Capuchin community. Records indicate that the sanitary cordon around Auray was still in force in 1633.
Further along the east coast, the people of the city of Vannes also suffered significantly during the plague epidemics of this time, particularly in 1625, 1634 and 1638. To the west, the town of Quimper recorded scores of deaths in 1639; while, still further along the east coast, Nantes was hard hit by the disease in 1625-26 and 1631 and by this time, plague victims were no longer allowed to be buried within the precincts of the city.
One of the last appearances of the plague in Brittany was in Pontivy in 1696. Attesting to the importance of river traffic at the time, it is possible to track the spread of the disease down the course of the river Blavet to its mouth at Hennebont. Here in the summer of 1699, the plague claimed half a dozen people every day. With no medical solution to halt the spread of the disease, the townsfolk sought divine intervention and prayed to the Virgin to end the epidemic; committing to create a silver statue and undertake an annual procession in her honour (they had similarly promised to build a chapel in honour of Saint Roch during the epidemic of the early 1630s but this was never realised!).
It has been noted that instances of the disease in the town decreased rapidly after the town’s wish was announced, disappearing entirely by September 1700. To honour their pledge, the people of Hennebont commissioned the statue and inaugurated the public procession of thanks. Unfortunately, the statue was melted-down during the Revolution but it is today possible to see a substitute statue and participate in the procession held on the last Sunday in September.
The plague of Marseilles in 1720-1721, which resulted in some 87,000 deaths, is considered to be the last major plague outbreak in Western Europe but cases are still regularly reported in other parts of the world even today. The impact of almost four hundred years of intermittent but deadly plague outbreaks changed Europe forever; demographically, politically and economically. Equally profound were the changed mentalities brought about by the plague and other infectious diseases; governments and the governed appreciated the importance of public health and hygiene programmes, particularly effective sanitary measures.
While the plague and its dreadful death toll might have been consigned to history, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were responsible for extraordinary devastation in Brittany. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increases in population density, transport infrastructure and mercantile links were all key factors in giving diseases spread by cross-infection between humans powers of spread far greater than those seen in previous centuries.
It is too early to see where the current coronavirus disease pandemic will sit amongst the long history of pandemics but it is clear that the social and economic impact will be profound.
The Wolf in Brittany
There is currently some speculation that wolves are once again roaming wild in parts of rural Brittany. After an absence of over a century, their presence is now being greeted with a measure of acclaim but it was not always so. For centuries, the wolf was regarded as a figure of dread throughout the land and there are countless accounts of wolves destroying livestock and attacking horses, dogs and people.
In the 17th and 18th centuries it was often reported that wolves hunted men into the towns and villages of central Brittany, keeping the inhabitants virtual prisoners at night. The menace posed by wolves is frequently mentioned in the government records of the time; in 1796 the Commission of the Executive Directory noted that in southern Brittany: “The countryside is infected with ferocious ravenous animals. They already appear in bands of fifteen to twenty wolves. What will this winter be like during the snow?”
Similar concerns were raised in central Brittany where, in 1807, the prefect of the Department reported of “the presentation by the mayor of Rostrenen where wolves frequently show up in large packs in the vicinity of the town, threatening cattle and even the people.”
Wolves were regarded as a dangerous menace to everyday life and official bounties were offered to those who killed a wolf; this had been the case since a capitulary of Charlemagne in 813 ordered the creation of official wolf hunters who were charged with eradicating wolves and rewarded with a modus of grain for each wolf pelt submitted. By the late 15th century the French Court included a position known as the Wolfcatcher Royal and in 1520 François I revisited and formalised the old Charlemagnian bounty system but it would still be almost a generation before the laws of a French king held sway in independent Brittany.
In 1676, Louis XIII offered two denarii for each wolf and the records of these bounty payments provide a useful insight into the presence of wolves in Brittany at that time; for instance, in 1685, some 42 bounties were distributed in the town of Quimperlé alone. Abuses to the bounty system saw its abandonment in 1787 only for it be resurrected after the Revolution; in 1790 twelve new francs was set as the new bounty and in 1794 free powder and shot were also added as an incentive.
However, the scarcity of firearms at the time meant that take-up was very small, prompting the authorities to exhort to the regional prefects: “There are a thousand ways to capture wolves in the traps that are set for them; research these means, publish them, so that your fellow citizens’ profit and the territory will be purged.“
Some well-documented wolf attacks in western and central Brittany around this time include: in September 1773, near Rosporden, a wolf devoured two children and several head of cattle; in the same year, thirteen people in the village of Saint-Caradec were bitten by a rabid wolf. Twelve died, the thirteenth survived thanks to the bite not penetrating her heavy canvas clothes.
In 1777, wolves were reported ravaging charcoal-makers in the woods of Plounéour-Ménez; in Châteaulin in 1797 a wolf attacked three young men, opening the skull of one and permanently disfiguring another. Thankfully, the other man was able to hold the beast until the arrival of a fourth man armed with an axe. Near Bannalec in the same year, an eight year old cowherd was viciously attacked and maimed. At Huelgoat, in January 1811, a wolf attacked a labourer; a fierce struggle ensued in which the man was only saved thanks to his sickle and the energy of his brother.
Later the same month and just a few miles away, a young shepherdess had her face lacerated by a wolf who attacked her after killing one of her sheep.
At the time, many people believed that a rabid wolf only attacked livestock but records show that this was not the case. In 1715 a rabid wolf wreaked havoc around Concoret, biting over twenty five people, several of whom died. In 1849, a fourteen year old boy from Châteaulin was attacked by a rabid wolf whose bite had already resulted in the deaths of two neighbours; fortunately he subdued the animal with an axe. A few years later, in 1851, hunters managed to capture and kill a wolf thought to have been responsible for up to forty attacks in the woods around Quintin.
In 1872 in Plouguerneau, four cows were attacked by a rabid wolf, one of whom was almost completely devoured. When rabid wolves bit people it was popularly thought that they had only done so under the spell of a sorcerer.
In 1811, the bounty was increased to 18 francs, payable upon presentation of the carcass or simply the head to the local Mayor; some forty years later the bounty increased to 30 francs for a male and 50 francs for a female. It was then still common practice for a dead wolf to be paraded around the streets on a cart or wheelbarrow before being hung from a suitable oak tree near a forest away from town.
At times, the carcass of a wolf was depredated; paws were popularly nailed to doors as charms to keep the wolf at bay and teeth carried for good fortune. Other parts of the carcass were also of value. In 1702, a man from Concoret was condemned as a sorcerer and sentenced to public humiliation for having cast the spell of ‘knotting the needle’. This curse was widely held to prevent the consummation of a marriage and required the penis of a freshly killed young wolf. For the spell to work it was necessary to call out the name of the intended victim and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine was tied around the wolf’s member, leaving the new groom unable to perform.
By the late 19th century packs of seven or nine wolves were rare; groups of two to five being most commonly reported but the wolf menace was still keenly felt. The Welsh clergyman Edward Davies, in his account Wolf Hunting and Wild Sport in Lower Brittany (1875), noted: “It is only during a long-continued season of snow that the wolf, pinched by hunger, hardens his heart and becomes at once both a daring and destructive brute. At such a time it has been found necessary to light fires nightly at all the road entrances into Carhaix, Callac, Gourin, Rostrenen and other small towns in that vicinity, in order to save the cattle and even the dogs from the rapacity of the hungry wolves.”
In the year 1879, almost a third of the 555 wolves reported killed in France were slain in Brittany where local priests often blessed the pitchforks and guns of those setting out to kill wolves. While the popular perception might be of images of intrepid hunters armed with simple slow-loading firearms stalking the countryside, the more popular means of capturing wolves was by a covered pit trap and poisoned bait. However, from around 1880, the systematic use of strychnine in those areas known to be home to wolf dens precipitated a sharp decline in wolf numbers leading to its effective disappearance within a decade or so. Changes to the animals’ natural habitat such as deforestation and the construction of more and more roads helped seal the wolf’s fate in Brittany.
The last wolf bounty here was awarded in March 1891 to three hunters from the town of Milizac but it seems that the last wolf killed in Brittany was captured and destroyed around Ménez Hom in January 1903. However, a hanged man was allegedly devoured by wolves near Plouay in 1905 and a three-legged wolf was sighted near Brasparts in 1906 while other sightings were reported near Molac and the forest of Loudeac in the years leading up to the First World War.
Although wolf attacks were far from commonplace (just 81 deaths recorded from wolf attacks in Brittany since 1600), the threat to life and livelihood was very real for the rural farmer surviving on subsistence agriculture. Children, who were usually used as cowherds and shepherds, were unable to offer any useful defence against a determined wolf thus many cattle were lost; an expensive asset for a Breton farmer.
To keep the cattle or sheep secure in the summer months, it was therefore necessary for the men to sleep outside or to look after the cattle themselves thus diverting much needed labour away from the crucial seasonal tasks. However, the loss of a horse was often the farmers’ greatest worry and there are several pitiful accounts of people forced to become townsmen due to the loss of a horse. In 1796, authorities in the town of Retiers were asked to provide “a few pounds of powder and lead … to continue hunting these destructive animals which, in one year, destroyed in a single neighbouring commune over forty foals.”
Given the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in people’s imagination. For centuries, the wolf was the anti-hero or villain of countless folktales and legends which were passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were seemingly always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep and cattle or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after nightfall.
Brittany’s Best Festivals
Summer in Brittany is always very lively, being home to a diverse range of events and festivals. Take your pick from rock, jazz, opera, food, boats, Celtic music, literature, photography or traditional cultural events. There is sure to be something to suit everyone’s mood and taste here.
Brittany is home to many of France’s biggest and best-known festivals and celebrations. The Breton calendar is packed with local events and fêtes which draw international stars and spectators, so whenever you visit, you are likely to find something of interest going on. You will find detailed listings of forthcoming events online and in the listings magazines, so, this post will simply offer a brief run through of 25 festivals that are definitely worth your time exploring while in Brittany.
Panoramas Festival in Morlaix : 10-12 April 2020
Top names sit side-by-side with up and coming bands, making this a great event to attend if you want to dive into the French contemporary music scene. This year, the beautiful town of Morlaix sees some 50 acts coming together to deliver a festival packing a mix of rock, rap and electro. However, due to the social restrictions imposed as part of the efforts to control the spread of coronavirus some concerts have been cancelled while others remain in doubt.
Fête de la Coquille Saint‑Jacques in Erquy : 18-19 April 2020
The Bay of Saint-Brieuc lays claim to some of the best king scallops in Europe. To celebrate the end of the scallop fishing season, the ports of Saint-Quay Portrieux, Erquy and Paimpol take it in turns to organise this annual festival. This event is always a lot of fun; there is much to see and do, including boat trips, bustling arts and craft markets and cooking exhibitions. There’s lots of diverse music across a number of outside stages and, needless to say, there are tons of fresh scallops to enjoy! Sadly, this year’s event has just been postponed.
Classique au Large in Saint-Malo : 30 April-3 May 2020
A well-established festival focused on classical music with many free performances to enjoy in various venues both indoors and outdoors across the charming coastal town of Saint-Malo. Unfortunately, this year’s event, the twelfth edition, has now been cancelled.
Fête de la Bretagne (Festival of Brittany) : 15-24 May 2020
Over 300 events organised across Brittany and beyond showcasing Breton culture, from the most traditional of customs to the latest youth trends. There are a range of concerts, exhibitions, walks, street entertainments and artisan markets to dip into. Regrettably, this year’s event was cancelled earlier this week but next year’s festival will take place from 14 to 24 May 2021.
ArtRock in Saint-Brieuc : 29-31 May 2020
Not your standard music festival but an artistic celebration with dance, video, theatre, circus and contemporary arts sharing the limelight with the music. This year’s festival – the 37th edition – in the coastal city of Saint-Brieuc features over fifty concerts, several special exhibitions, and many dance shows, street art displays and new screenings.
A food festival – Rock’n Toques – runs concurrently, with the big names of Breton gastronomy offering visitors an amazing take on street food. As well as Michelin-starred chefs and other great cooks, the participation of so many pâtissiers, artisan boulangers and creative crêpe makers make this a real gourmet fest.
Hellfest in Clisson : 19-21 June 2020
This is one of the biggest heavy metal music festivals in Europe, boasting consistently impressive line-ups. Over 130 acts are set to appear this year. Although no longer, strictly speaking, in modern administrative Brittany, Clisson is at the heart of historic Brittany. Be warned, this is a very busy festival and the campsites for it are massive!
Lieux Mouvants (Festival of Moving Places) in Lanrivain : 14 June-30 August 2020
This quirky festival takes place over a dozen weekends in the heart of Brittany around Lanrivain and combines innovative shows, major performers and artists, naturalists and pop-up exhibitions. Events are staged in villages and gardens that are off the beaten track and quite magical. You can expect thought-provoking art installations and shows that have been created on-site or exhibited in highly unusual ways. The artists are most often present and are happy to discuss their works.
Fêtes Historiques (Historical Festival) in Vannes : 13-14 July 2020
A great opportunity to soak up the medieval atmosphere at the heart of a city full of character (there are almost 300 listed buildings within the town’s ancient ramparts). Enjoy the performances and side-shows as you meander through the rampart gardens and the cobbled streets of the old town. There’s also a vast range of medieval living-history on show, including smithies, cobblers, coopers, coin-makers, falconry displays and artillery demonstrations. As dusk settles, enjoy the spectacle as dancers, acrobats and fire-eaters take to the streets.
National Day : 14 July 2020
Known simply as ‘le quatorze juillet’. On France’s National Day you will find all manner of celebrations taking place, even in the smallest villages, and usually ending with a fireworks display and a Fest Noz (a night-time party with lots of live music). Or for something a little different, you might wish to head across to Mahalon for the World Wheeled-Bed Racing Championships.
Temps Fête Festival in Douarnenez : 15 to 19 July 2020
A great array of tall ships and other traditional vessels from all parts of the world form the backdrop to this long-running biennial festival. The quaysides of the town’s four ports are packed with entertainers and musicians, artisanal markets and food stalls, creating a convivial and cosmopolitan atmosphere. There are plenty of activities to get involved in such as tying sailors’ knots or climbing sail rigging.
In the years that this festival is not staged, a similar and equally impressive one, La Semaine du Golfe Morbihan, is mounted around the myriad of charming ports, islands and islets in the Gulf of Morbihan; the next event will run from 10 to 16 May 2021.
Les Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix-Plouguer : 16-19 July 2020
Now in its 29th year, this is France’s largest music festival. This friendly festival consistently boasts an array of international star names and bands just breaking through into the big time. The organisers seem to have the knack of creating a melting pot of musical styles and generations that suit the cosmopolitan audience.
Fête des Remparts (Festival of the Ramparts) in Dinan : 18-19 July 2020
Held every other year, this colourful festival takes in the pretty medieval town of Dinan. Lots of locals and visitors dress in quite elaborate medieval costumes adding to the fun atmosphere. It is a packed weekend with a big medieval market, jousting tournaments and a spectacular grand parade.
Jazz en Ville in Vannes : 20-25 July 2020
This is largely a free music festival with concerts and performances staged amidst the ancient town ramparts and in clubs and venues in the city centre. While the focus of the festival is strongly on jazz music, it also includes a line-up of folk, blues, soul and rock performers.
Festival Le Cornouaille (Festival of Cornwall) in Quimper: 21-26 July 2020
This is probably Brittany’s most important cultural event and certainly the most well-established. Some 180 concerts, shows and events featuring performers from all over the world, celebrate Breton music and culture. For the duration of the festival, the beautiful city of Quimper is filled with street performances, art exhibitions, market stalls and artisanal food & drink vendors.
Fest Jazz in Châteauneuf-du-Faou : 23-26 July 2020
This is a rather laid-back festival that attracts artists and spectators from across the world. The performances are usually stretched across five venues on the banks of the River Aulne; all of which are within easy walking distance of each other. The festival programme places emphasis on young musicians and lively, danceable jazz but other styles are well represented.
Festival Lyrique en Mer in Belle-Ile-en-Mer : 28 July-19 August 2020
Brittany’s answer to Glyndebourne takes place in the beautiful setting of Belle-Isle-en-Mer. Now in its 22nd edition, the festival grows from strength to strength and attracts the best international talents to its line-ups. This year’s varied programme is centred around Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Le Son et Lumière de Bon-Repos in Laniscat : 29 July-8 August 2020
Over two hours, the history of Brittany from the Roman invasion to the French Revolution is brought to life in eight vignettes. Projected onto a two hectare stage using the historic abbey walls as its backdrop, this state-of-the-art sound and light show uses almost 400 actors, 2,300 costumes and hundreds of chariots, carriages, horses and farm animals; accompanied by pyrotechnic special effects and music to deliver an amazing spectacle complete with jousting, battle scenes and the burning of a village!
Au Pont Du Rock in Maelstroit : 31 July-1 August 2020
The longest-running summer rock festival in Brittany is now in its 30th year. Staged in the historic town of Maelstroit, the event’s focus is on rock music but rap, reggae and electro also feature.
Festival du Chant de Marin (Sea Shanty Festival) in Paimpol : 13-15 August 2021
This is a biennial festival celebrating seafaring traditions and values. Hundreds of traditional sailing ships descend on the harbour, providing a backdrop for art and craft exhibitions, food and drink, music and dancing. There’s more than just sea shanties to be heard – the last event featured about 150 bands and international stars such as Marianne Faithfull have performed here previously.
Festival Interceltique (Celtic Festival) in Lorient : 7-16 August 2020
One of the biggest annual festivals in France – expect around 200 events and shows (over half of these are free!) and up to 5000 performers celebrating the best of Celtic culture. There’s truly something for everyone here, from bespoke harp workshops to a grand parade which regularly attracts over 50,000 spectators.
Fête du Bruit in Landerneau : 7-9 August 2020
Now in its 12th year, the young gun of the Brittany music festivals scene has quickly established a history of staging strong international line-ups alongside emerging talent. The organisers also run a sister festival in Saint Nolff, near Vannes, which this year runs from 10 to 12 July 2020.
Festival de la Saint-Loup in Guingamp : 18-23 August 2020
This is one of the oldest traditional festivals in Brittany with origins stretching back to the early 19th century. You can expect a real celebration of Breton dance and music featuring some 2,500 artists from across Brittany and the Celtic nations. There is a lot to see and do – Breton dance workshops, Breton games, parades and concerts run throughout the week, with the National Breton Dance Competition a real highlight.
Festival des Filets Bleus in Concarneau : 12-16 August 2020
Named after the blue sardine-fishing nets that once covered the quays of picturesque Concarneau, this vibrant and colourful festival has been around for over a hundred years. Wandering around, you can soak up the atmosphere of the performances, parades and food stalls. The music concerts are free and The Stranglers are performing this year. If you are feeling adventurous try a bout of gouren (Breton wrestling), a game of palets (boules Breton-style) or learn a few Breton dance steps. Be warned, parking is challenging at this town centre festival.
Route du Rock in Saint-Malo : 19-22 August 2020
Now in its 29th year, this is an internationally acclaimed alternative music festival staged in the picturesque town of Saint-Malo where big names and breakthrough acts share several stages. Kraftwerk 3D will feature on this year’s programme.
Fête de l’Oignon de Roscoff in Roscoff : 22-23 August 2020
The beautiful coastal town of Roscoff celebrates its famous pink onions every summer with a two-day festival. There will be food and music until the early hours and an interesting market spread along the quayside selling many different onion flavoured products, from tarts and sausages to chutney and beer.
Yaouank (Youth Festival) in Rennes : 6-21 November 2020
Now in its 22nd year, this festival continues to grow and evolve but its core aim remains to inject fresh blood into traditional Breton music. You should therefore expect lots of musical fusions! A fortnight of events and concerts culminate in the biggest Fest Noz in Brittany – from 5pm on Saturday to 5am on Sunday. It’s a great reason to visit the Breton capital, Rennes – a town which enjoys a wonderfully vibrant nightlife.
If you prefer to take the road less travelled, you could live like a local and drop-in on a village get-together. Signs you are likely to see on your travels around Brittany include Repas Jarret-Frites (usually roast pork shank and chips), Repas Moules-Frites (bowls of muscles with chips), Jambon-Frites (farm fresh ham and chips), Soirée Crêpes (often offering a wide choice of crêpes) and Fest Noz (a night-time party with plenty of food, drink, live music and dancing). These are friendly, convivial evenings where visitors are welcome.
If you should find yourself headed to a Jarret-Frites for the evening, be prepared. Some events include a cri du cochon, or pig-squealing championship, where contestants have to make different pig noises from the various stages of the pig’s life. Be warned – some folks take this quite seriously and there is even a national championship to aim for!
Brittany In Brushstrokes
In the latter part of the 19th century a small picturesque village on the south coast of Brittany between Concarneau and Quimperle became a home for artists from across the world seeking to draw inspiration from the rich colours and distinctive landscapes of a region then still relatively unknown.
The arrival of the railway, in 1862, opened-up the remote west of Brittany to travellers and artists keen to explore this wild periphery of France. One of the first artists to be seduced by the region’s charms was the American, Henry Bacon (1839-1912), then studying in Paris. In 1864 he spent much of the summer in the village of Pont-Aven and was so taken by its charms that he encouraged fellow artists Robert Wylie (1839-1877) and Charles Way to return with him the following year. With a growing reputation amongst the young artistic crowd, more and more artists sought to spend their summers in Pont-Aven; taking advantage of the fine scenery and the lower cost of living while the Paris studios were closed for the summer.
The variety of natural light, the diverse coastal and pastoral landscapes along with the Bretons themselves with their customs, superstitions and beliefs were a big draw for artists, particularly landscape artists and impressionist painters. Soon, the village would be a temporary home to artists from the USA, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, France, Great Britain and Ireland. Not all artists were seasonal visitors; some stayed for a season while others, such as Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895), stayed for several years; Robert Wylie lived in Pont-Aven for the eleven years prior to his death there in 1877.
There was thus a well-established artist colony in Pont-Aven when, in the summer of 1886, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) made his first visit to the area. Disillusioned with impressionist painting, Gauguin became revitalised during his spell in southern Brittany, he noted: “I love Brittany; I find wildness and primitiveness there. When my wooden shoes ring on this granite, I hear the muffled, dull and powerful tone which I try to achieve in painting.” When he returned for an extended stay in 1888-89 he was no longer content to reproduce reality but eager to explore the expression of sensations and emotions through painting. Shortly after his arrival in Brittany, Gauguin wrote to friend and fellow artist, Émile Schuffenecker: “Don’t copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, take art from it and concentrate more on creating than on the outcome.“
Other artists in search of fresh ideas, including Émile Bernard (1868-1941) who had first encountered Gauguin in Pont-Aven in 1886, are drawn to Gauguin and his new thoughts on art. Quite quickly, a new post-impressionist concept, subsequently known as synthetism, was developed. This was characterised by a focus on colour as an emotional expression rather than as a portrayal of reality, simply drawn contours and two-dimensional forms where detail and perspective were unimportant. The boundaries between synthetism and the style most attributed to Bernard, cloisonnism, are so minimal that the two names are often used interchangeably but the latter style is noted for the thick black outlines that surround forms and large swathes of vibrant colour in the composition. The Pont-Aven style of painting was therefore distinguishing itself as something radically different from the norm.
There is some controversy surrounding which artist initiated this new Pont-Aven style of painting; the well-known and well-established Gauguin took the credit but the unknown 20 year old Bernard considered the tribute rightfully his. Whatever the truth, the artists collaborated closely for a time and 1888 was a breakthrough year for them both; a year that they revolutionised contemporary art.
In that year, Bernard produced Breton Women in the Meadow; a striking composition featuring a background of an almost incandescent green which serves to emphasise the figures of the women. A little later in the year, Gauguin completed his now famous work, Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) in which he depicted the Biblical struggle of the prophet and the angel as a vision shared by a group of Breton women looking down upon a world where the grass is red.
It was not until 1893 that the term “Pont-Aven School” started to be used by critics and dealers but this neat catch-all encompasses a broad range of artists with markedly differing styles, such as Charles Filiger (1863-1928), Meijer de Haan, Henry Moret, Maxime Maufra and Paul Sérusier amongst others.
However, we can identify some principles common to the artists of the Pont-Aven School. They generally opted for the representation of an almost primitive Brittany, far from urban or refined motifs. They did not apply themselves to accurate depictions of reality, choosing instead to express emotions and imagination. Many of these artists also experienced art as a spiritual journey and drew inspiration from Brittany’s rich religious and cultural heritage. It was, according to Charles Filiger, a land of magic.
A few of the most well-known examples of the celebrated works of the Pont-Aven group during this time include: The Talisman by Sérusier, The Yellow Christ by Gauguin, The Landscape at Pouldu by Filiger and Pont-Aven Under A Red Sky by Maufra.
Frustrated by the increased numbers of tourists, partly drawn to visit Pont-Aven due to his notoriety, Gauguin left for a new billet in the summer of 1889, settling just 14 miles (22km) along the coast at Le Pouldu where he was subsequently joined by Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) and others. It was here that Gauguin profoundly influenced the young Sérusier who recounted one discussion with Gauguin whilst painting: “What colour do you see in these trees?” asked Gauguin. “They are yellow,” replied Sérusier. “Well, put on yellow. And this shadow?“; “Rather blue“; “So, don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible. What about those red leaves? Put some vermilion.”
Gauguin left La Pouldu in November 1890, leaving for Tahiti a few months later, but he returned for the summer of 1894 before finally quitting France for good. His time in Brittany may only have encapsulated a few years but it was a productive one; seeing the creation of well over a hundred new paintings and the art world turned upon its head.
Impressed by his experiences in La Pouldu, Sérusier regularly returned to Brittany before settling in Châteauneuf-du-Faou in 1893 when he declared “I feel more and more attracted by Brittany, my true country since I was born there of the spirit“. He lived in central Brittany until his death in 1927 and became renowned for his scenes of rural life and his religious paintings and frescos.
Charles Filiger first visited Pont-Aven in 1888, returning each summer before settling permanently in La Poludu in 1890 but after Gauguin’s departure became increasingly isolated from the remaining group of artists. Gauguin visited him during his return to Brittany in 1894 and found a man struggling with alcoholism. Filigier’s work was regularly exhibited in Paris but the removal of a monthly stipend from his patron put the artist in dire straits; he left La Pouldu in 1905 and after a spell in an asylum, settled at an inn in Gouarec for many years before eventually settling at another in Plougastel-Daoulas in 1915. He was found one winter’s day on the street with his writs slashed and died shortly thereafter on 11 January 1928. Thankfully, his corpus of work was re-discovered in the early 1990s and this talented artist has now been rescued from oblivion.
It was a visit to Pont-Aven in 1900 that inspired André Jolly (1882-1969) to abandon his studies and his father’s hopes to take over the family business and become a painter. He moved there permanently in 1904, declaring that the area boasted “a thousand patterns of landscapes, in all seasons.” Jolly produced a large number of portraits, rural scenes, landscapes and still-lives with a vibrant intensity, delineating his subjects with clear lines.
The artist colony of Pont-Aven survived until the outbreak of WW1 and saw a brief resurgence in the 1920s but never recaptured its late 19th century prestige. At one time of another, other towns in Brittany also hosted small artist colonies, such as Camaret, Concarneau, Douarnenez and Pont-Croix although these were relatively modest and short-lived groupings compared to Pont-Aven. The work of Henri Barnoin (1882–1940), who lived in Concarneau for many years, is particularly fine with its focus on some of the iconic scenes of Brittany.
The neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) was not enamoured with Pont-Aven, describing it as “a ridiculous country of small corners with waterfalls for English watercolourists. A funny nest for pictorial symbolism.” He was, however, captivated by Brittany and spent half a dozen summers there, taking inspiration from the area around Saint-Briac, Saint-Cast and other ports and harbours such as Lézardrieux that he would often visit from his boat.
Indeed, many locations across northern Brittany have long been popular with artists such as Camille Corot (1796-1875), John Sargent (1856-1925) and Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940).
The influential Maurice Denis (1870-1943) drew inspiration from the colours and striking forms found in the Ploumanac’h region and even bought a property in the then small fishing village of Perros-Guirec in 1898.
In 1924, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) spent the summer just a few miles along the coast on the Île-de-Bréhat.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) spent three summers in Brittany in the 1920s and produced dozens of paintings during his stays at the up-market seaside resort of Dinard, being particularly drawn to the theme of women playing on the town’s beaches. As you can see, his style changed markedly between 1922 and 1928 when such abstract forms were, for the time, revolutionary.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) spent two summers on the north coast of Brittany, producing over a dozen canvasses during his visits and while Renoir was first painting on the north coast, Claude Monet (1840-1926) was working on the island of Belle-Île off Brittany’s southern coast, where he produced almost forty paintings that explored water and light. Fascinated by the wild landscape, Monet sought to capture the atmospheric effects of a storm at sea.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) went there to paint in 1895 but was so overwhelmed by the colours that he came away after ten days without painting anything. He subsequently found the softer hues he was seeking further west along the Breton coast and returned to paint in Brittany several times.
Following these well-trodden footsteps, this part of Brittany was also visited and explored on canvas by renowned artists as diverse in style as Charles Cottet, Jean Hélion, Henry Rivière, Marcel Gromaire, Victor Vasarely and Lucien Simon (1861-1945) who maintained a summer house in south west Brittany.
Some other painters fascinated by the riches of Brittany who, through their art, expressed their love of the region include naturalist painters such as Jules Breton (1827-1906) and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929).
The artist often proclaimed as the father of the renowned Newlyn School, Stanhope Forbes (1857–1947) spent the summer of 1881 in Brittany and produced some fine work whilst here.
Similarly, the versatile Czech artist Tavík František Šimon (1877-1942) visited Brittany several times in the years preceding WW1.
For over two centuries, Brittany has been a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its landscapes and unique quality of light. Today, it remains one of the regions of France most visited by painters and art lovers; you can discover the same magical places and see the same vistas that inspired so many famous artists during their time in Brittany. Drop into one of the many quality fine art museums across Brittany, such as those in Brest, Landerneau, Pont-Aven, Quimper, Rennes or Vannes and admire the work of some of these iconic artists for yourself.
Brittany in a Glass
As with its food, Brittany has a wide range of distinctive local drinks that you really should try during any visit to this beautiful part of France. The Bretons are a most hospitable people and whether you spend an evening in a small local bar or enjoy a few drinks after a lazy dinner at a seaside restaurant, you will be sure to enjoy a convivial experience with good opportunities to explore the many wonderful local beverages.
The wines of Brittany, such as Muscadet, are covered in an earlier post, so, I will not cover them again here.
Almost half of all the cider made in France is produced here in Brittany, a region that has a long association with apples and cider making. Perhaps not as well-known as Norman cider outside France but it was only in the wave of post-revolutionary changes that cider was legally allowed to be exported from Brittany. Almost all the published accounts of 19th century travellers to the region make a point of noting the Breton affinity for cider. This historical attachment to cider is as much a question of geography as of taste. Apples grow well in this climate and, unlike hops, were widely cultivated; most farms maintained a modest apple orchard to provide the family with fruit and drink throughout the year.
Despite the rural exodus and changes in habits and tastes over the last century or so, hundreds of different varieties of apples still flourish across Brittany. Those cultivated specifically for cider making are tended in an ideal climate for apples and grow well in the rich Breton soil. While domestic production of cider is nowhere near as widespread as it once was, the principles that applied to home-made cider in years gone by are still upheld by those farms that produce cider commercially today. The cider here is made using only freshly pressed apples with no additives, preservatives or concentrates at all. This passionate attention to terrain and tradition, key to the French concept of terroir, produces cider with a quite distinct character; enjoying a light sparkle and a deep, rich flavour with the subtle aromas of fruits and flowers.
Rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and mineral salts, the local ciders that you are likely to find in the bars and restaurants here are characterised by their slightly sharp but fruity taste; the producers work hard to create a drink with the optimum balance between bitter, acidic and sweet flavours and you will find colours that can range from pale gold to rich tawny brown.
Unfortunately, the local industry has seen a massive decline in output over the last five years, probably linked to the rise in popularity of artisanal beers but cider remains a very popular drink here. There are many great tasting local ciders to tempt you but do try a bottle of traditional or farm cider while you are in Brittany; you will see it noted as cidre fermier on the menu and bottle. The cidre fermier designation can only be used by ciders made exclusively from apples grown on that producer’s farm.
There are a few other differences that might particularly strike visitors from North America or the UK about the cider here. Cider is classed more subtly than simply dry or sweet. A dry cider (Brut) contains little sugar and therefore contains the most alcohol by volume, typically between 4 to 7 per cent, and its slightly bitter taste makes it a good accompaniment to seafood dishes; semi-dry (Demi-Brut) is fairly sparkling with an alcoholic volume of around 3.5 to 5 per cent and popularly drunk, it also goes well with chicken; sweet cider (Doux) contains the least amount of alcohol, less than 3 per cent by volume, and is a sparkling, sweet and fruity drink well suited to complement crêpes or desserts.
Sometimes, you will see a cider described as ‘bouché’ on a menu, if you order this then you can expect a bottle that is firmly blocked with a strong cork and securing metal wire. Typically, this will be a cider that was bottled into a champagne-style bottle soon after its first fermentation and corked. The little residual sugar in the cider allows a secondary fermentation to take place within the bottle. More often than not, you will receive your glass of cider served at your table in a terracotta or china bowl akin to a broad tea cup known as a bolée. This is the traditional way of drinking cider in Brittany and harks back to the days when glass was uncommon and expensive in the countryside.
While production levels might have dipped in recent years, connoisseurs point out that Breton cider has continuously improved in quality over the last decade, with some cider runs coming together like a rare champagne for certain vintages. Of particular note is the Cidrerie Nicol’s Royal Guillevic, the only cider in France to wear the coveted Red Label. The Label Rouge is only awarded to those products that consistently deliver an item that consumers can expect to have a higher level of quality compared to similar products. On the other side of Brittany, the Domaine de Kerveguen produce organic ciders that grace the cellars of the Elysée Palace and are highly praised by Michelin starred chefs and celebrities.
Apples are the very essence of Pommeau de Bretagne, an alcoholic drink, about 17 per cent by volume, which enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée granting Brittany’s producers a little protection in using and marketing the name – and guaranteeing the buying public that the Pommeau’s terroir is really that of Brittany. Pommeau de Bretagne is a blend of two-thirds freshly-pressed unfermented apple juice and one-third local cider brandy, aged in oak casks for a minimum of 14 months. The drink, usually served as an aperitif or digestif, has a long tradition in Brittany and today there are 15 or so professional producers working with some 75 varieties of apples to help make their particular blend stand out. Try one of the offerings from Cidrerie Kerloïck. Depending on its age, you can expect an amber coloured liquid with a strong floral scent and an aromatic palette that fluctuates between baked apples or dried fruits and hints of almonds, caramel or honey.
Honey and apples are married together in another Breton speciality, Chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice. Traditionally, buckwheat honey is used and this helps develop the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance before becoming synonymous with the beverage. A distinction is sometimes made if the honeycomb is fermented in cider only, it is then usually known as chufere a word derived from chug ferv, the Breton for strong juice.
Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over and the old stories always attribute this to over-indulgence and inevitable intoxication. However, careful analysis of Breton honey in the 20th century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives in use on Breton farms were the basket hives that necessitated smothering a lot of bees in order to access the honey. It was the presence of bee venom, which attacks the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance although I am sure that intoxication might also have played a part. Nowadays, there is a wide degree of conformity in the production of chouchen which now typically contains between 12 to 15 per cent of alcohol by volume and is drunk as an aperitif or digestif. There are many options for buying a good bottle of chouchen but I would recommend that you support the local artisan producer and choose one that has been made as close to you as possible.
Undoubtedly, one of the finest local drinks that you will come across in Brittany is Lambig which is sometimes labelled as Fine de Bretagne. This is a rich cider brandy that enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation and is produced locally by a traditional process of distillation in a retort (lambig being the Breton word for a retort). Today’s lambig is a direct descendent of the ‘farm brandy’ of yesteryear; a time when only a limited number of people had permission to operate stills and neighbours would smuggle in their home-made cider to use the still covertly, beyond the eyes of the prying excise man!
As in times past, today quality local cider is heated until the alcohol evaporates, the vapours are condensed, recovered and diluted until the alcohol content is reduced to about 40 per cent by volume. The brandy is then aged in oak barrels for several years. During this aging process, the brandy’s interaction with the wood of the barrel develops the lambig’s unique character; its aromatic complexity developing a subtle balance of fruity and woody fragrances.
Lambig can be found clear or amber coloured but it is a drink that always delivers a smooth, fruity and satisfying taste and is an ideal digestif. As with most brandies, the bottles are marked to indicate the age and thus degree of refinement that you might expect from your bottle: VS for lambig aged for at least two years; Old/Réserve for that aged at least three years; VO/Vieille Réserve to indicate at least four years of aging and Very Old Reserve/Hors d’Age for lambigs aged at least six years. Personally, I would recommend Fine Bretagne Gilles Leizour but there are about twenty fine producers to choose from here in Brittany.
It may surprise you to learn that there are some decent Breton whiskies worth looking at. To be able to use the designation “Breton Whisky”, the whisky must adhere to certain quality standards surrounding the raw ingredients and production methods. While malted barley, smoked barley, wheat, buckwheat and rye are all permissible, the water used can only be drawn from Breton springs and the whisky fermented, distilled and aged in Brittany. The resultant whisky must be matured, in oak barrels, for at least three years and contain a minimum 40 per cent alcohol by volume.
There are currently eight distillers producing over 400,000 bottles of whisky a year in Brittany. A few of the more notable ones include Armorik, a highly regarded and award winning single malt whisky made with barley; Eddu, the only whisky in the world made from buckwheat; and Kornog, a peated single malt whose Roc’h Hir manifestation, aged in bourbon barrels and bottled at 46°, is a much sought after tipple and priced accordingly.
That most French of aperitifs, pastis, does not seem to have the same strong following here as in the rest of France but there is even a Breton pastis, Brastis, to try if you are feeling adventurous. Kir Breton is a popular aperitif in Brittany and consists of one part crème de cassis mixed with four parts of cider.
As for cocktails, you will find that the Spritz and Monaco are very popular here in the summer months but there are two distinctly Breton cocktails worth looking at. A relative newcomer is the Cidrito; a Breton take on the classic Cuba Libre cocktail – local cider is added to a decent measure of Bacardi rum over ice and garnished with a little fresh mint. Brittany’s most famous cocktail must be the Godinette; macerated local strawberries marinated in lambig for a day before being mixed with Muscadet wine and left overnight to develop and served chilled in a glass with a drop of strawberry liqueur.
Although Bretons have historically been cider drinkers, beer has been brewed commercially in Brittany since the early 17th century with production peaking in the late 19th century with thriving breweries spread across the region in places such as Saint-Brieuc, Morlaix, Brest, Landerneau, Quimper, Pontivy, Nantes and Rennes. Improved transport links and business consolidations saw the number of Breton breweries gradually decline until the last closed in 1985. By coincidence, this was also the year that the first micro-brewery was opened in France – in Morlaix, Brittany.
This brewery, Coreff (the Breton word for beer), was inspired by British real ales and soon developed a loyal following. Their early beers were amber, richly malted, unfiltered, unpasteurized and marketed as distinctly Breton. The brewery, now based in Carhaix, has expanded its range considerably and now offers over a dozen beers; white, blond, amber, red and brown, each with a distinctive taste. Still fiercely Breton, the brewer’s beer tents are ubiquitous at fetes and festivals across the region. If you attend a festival in Brittany, even a small local event, you will be almost certain to see them.
Established not long after Coreff, the Lancelot Brewery is another Breton brewer that started with a distinct offering – a honey beer flavoured with plant extracts and a beer brewed with barley and buckwheat – and now brews well over a dozen different types of beer, available in draught or bottles in bars and restaurants across Brittany.
Since the mid-1990s, Brittany has cemented its position as the centre of French craft beer and now boasts about 160 active micro-breweries producing over a thousand different Breton beers. There are now over half a dozen breweries who offer a range in excess of twenty beers; the brewery with the most extensive range is Saint-Brieuc’s La Guernouillette which offers around thirty different beers.
With so many local beers to choose from, you can either play safe and go with a type of beer that you are familiar with or try something a little different such as Lancelot’s La Blanche Hermine, an IPA with a strong taste of hops; or Brasserie La Belle Joie’s Gamme 56, a dark rich beer brewed with buckwheat; or Coreff’s Dramm Hud is a strong blond beer with a malty flavour.
If you prefer to enjoy soft drinks then you may be surprised to see that the multi-national corporations get a real run for their money here in Brittany. While bottled water from Perrier is, of course, widely available, you are just as likely to be offered the local bottled water from Plancoët. Similarly, lemonades and colas are not the sole preserve of Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo as both face strong competition from Breizh Cola, France’s first regional cola, a tasty refreshing beverage that has built up a strong following and decent market share over the last 18 years.
Whatever your taste and preference, you will be almost certain to find something to enjoy that gives you a taste of Brittany in any visit here. Please drink responsibly and raise a glass to the Breton saying that translates along the lines of : “A glass is fine; three glasses … it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine”.
Tastes of Brittany
Brittany is quite unlike other parts of France, its distinctiveness extends beyond the cultural and linguistic and manifests itself strongly in its culinary traditions. So, what are the flavours that a visitor really should sample in order to enjoy a true taste of Brittany?
With almost 1,800 miles (2,860km) of stunning coastline, it is not surprising that seafood should feature on any list of Breton culinary specialities and there are a few to look out for when you are here. Although, if truth be told, you will not have to look very hard!
The local oysters are world renowned and deservedly so; they are fleshy, delicious and deliver a pleasant subtle aftertaste. While oysters are widely farmed around the coast, the three best sites are widely regarded to be around Cancale near St-Malo on the Côte d’Émeraude in north-east Brittany, Prat-Ar-Coum near Lannilis on the Côte des Légendes in the north-west and Riec-sur-Bélon near Quimperlé on the Côte de Cornouaille in the south. Native flat oysters (huîtres plates) are a speciality of the two latter locations where many oyster farms also benefit from a combination of fresh and saltwater, giving them an enjoyable flavour with a light nutty taste. They can be eaten all year round but are probably at their best between September and June. Enjoy them with bread and a splash of lemon or red wine vinegar.
Mussels are very popular here and you will be sure to see them on the menus of bars and restaurants throughout Brittany. The two main types cultivated locally are the Edulis and Gallo mussels; the latter having a much larger shell containing a larger sized mussel with flesh that varies in colour from yellow to deep orange as opposed to the rich orange typically found with an Edulis. Some local mussels are farmed in the open sea in the Bay of Lannion, reared on a network of submerged ropes suspended from longlines several metres underwater. Growing while constantly submerged and feeding in the open sea gives their flesh a distinct iodised flavour. However, the majority of Breton mussels are bred on ropes entwined around large wooden stakes, called bouchots, driven into the foreshore, most significantly in large sites around the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel and the Bay of Saint-Brieuc on the north coast and the Vilaine estuary on the south coast. Feeding and growing with the tides gives these bouchot mussels a dense mellow flesh, rich in flavour.
You can expect to find fresh mussels between April and the end of October and while you will no doubt see them listed as a starter, you’ll see them most often on menus here as a main dish listed as moules marinière or simply moules frites; essentially, mussels steamed and served in a little broth made from shallots, herbs, butter and Breton Muscadet wine. More often than not, they will be delivered hot to your table in a large pot with a plate of fried chipped potato and an extra pot for the empty shells.
You’ll also find cooking à la marinière applied to another local delicacy, langoustines (sometimes also known as Norway Lobster or Scampi). The ports of Brittany are some of the biggest landers of langoustines in Europe and there is plenty of opportunity to see them unload the catches in the ports of Penmarc’h, Le Guilvinec, Lesconil and Loctudy on the south coast. The old maxim that fresh is best applies to all seafood, particularly langoustines and you will find lots of stalls selling offerings from the day’s catch if you fancy cooking some yourself. They are easy to prepare and can be pan-fried, poached, grilled or roasted; provided they are not overcooked, they deliver a delicate but tasty flavour of the sea.
Langoustines are fished all year round but they are mostly caught between April and October which, by happy coincidence, dovetails nicely with the scallop season here that runs from October to April. The particular scallop fished for off the Breton coast is the king scallop, known here as Coquilles Saint-Jacques. The largest reserves in France are today found in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc with the main catches brought ashore at the ports of Erquy, Saint-Quay-Portrieux and Loguivy and quickly auctioned. These auctions handle some 6000 tonnes of scallops a year and are open to the public although only as spectators. If you want to buy scallops direct from the boats you will need to head a little further west to Plougasnou on the neighbouring Bay of Morlaix, an area that produces less than 300 tonnes of king scallops a year. To conserve stocks, fishing – or more accurately, dredging – is tightly managed with the number of fishing boats and allocated fishing times (just 45 minutes twice a week!), both strictly regulated. This means that Coquilles Saint-Jacques are highly prized by restaurants and the wider public alike; the scallops of Brittany being renowned for their sweet, delicate flavour and meaty texture, and therefore best enjoyed simply pan-fried in a little butter.
An expensive delicacy in the early 19th century, demand for sardines surged with the improvements in canning technology which followed the opening of the world’s first large-scale sardine canning factory in Brittany in 1824. Almost two centuries later, Brittany remains by far France’s largest producer of sardines. For a long time, the west coast town of Douarnenez was the world’s foremost sardine fishing port and at the vanguard of industrial canning practises. While the numbers of fishing boats and canning factories have declined markedly from their early 20th century heights, the sardine is still an important catch here.
Small sardines, typically up to about six inches (15cm) long, are one of the most affordable fish you will find here and you’ll discover a range of fresh sardine dishes to choose from in lots of restaurants. Most sardines are landed between May and October but whether you choose to buy them fresh or canned, they are delicious when grilled or pan-fried.
In supermarkets, dedicated seafood shops and tourist boutiques, you will not fail to see shelves full of sardines canned in all manner of oils. It is worth noting that the expression “dressed in white” refers to sardines in extra-virgin olive oil whose silver belly is visible when the can is opened, while the term “dressed in blue” refers to sardines in vegetable oil whose blue-green back is visible.
Canned sardines keep for years, some connoisseurs insist that their taste improves over time, although many of these highly colourful decorative cans are bought never to be opened; purchased as a vacation souvenir or by an interested puxisardinophile. Yes, there’s a word for a collector of tinned sardines.
Sardines and their larger cousin, mackerel, are also available locally as a rillette, a type of rough textured pâté. A rillette made with either of these two healthy fish is usually eaten as an aperitif and served on tartines (small pieces of bread) or blinis. Whether you prefer yours lightly seasoned or flavoured with peppers, chili or mustard, these fish rillettes usually do not fail to impress; packing-in a lot of flavour within their rich texture and certainly worth trying if you enjoy fish.
Brittany, like other coastal regions of France, has its own traditional fish stew known as cotriade or kaoteriad. This is a fairly simple stew which is thought to have remained close to its origins from a time when trawlermen received a few bits of various fish from the day’s catch. Unlike Provençal’s bouillabaisse stew, cotriade did not traditionally contain shellfish, although they are often added nowadays, only fish such as eel, mullet, hake, mackerel and sardine were used together with garlic, onion and potato. So that each fish is properly cooked, care is taken to ensure that the different textures of fish are introduced into the pot at the right time. Once cooked, the stew is separated; the broth is taken first and then the fish.
Andouille de Guémené-sur-Scorff
The Guémené andouille is a smoked pork sausage that has escaped its roots in central Brittany and lost a lot of its character in its dalliance with the national supermarket chains and the industrial meat processing plants that tend to supply them. The lack of a protected geographical origin designation allowed the name to be applied to sausages that sometimes just do not quite match the texture and flavour of the artisanal original.
Recognisable by its black skin with contrasting beige/pink meat and its concentric rings, the result of a means of assembly which involves threading pigs’ intestines on top of each other, from the narrowest to the widest. Once assembled, the sausage is traditionally smoked over a beech wood fire for two days, losing half its weight; it loses another half of its weight while hung to dry for a further three weeks. If you are interested in tasting the andouille formerly made on farms in times past, there is one available that has been dried for nine months which should give you that “it’s been hanging in the fireplace for months” authenticity! The Guémené andouille is a smoky, salty sausage best eaten in very thin slices as a snack or a starter and hot, in thick slices, if served as a main dish.
While it may be surprising, I make no apologies for inserting a tinned meat into this list. Hénaff Pâté is sometimes described as ‘Brittany in a Box’ and like the crêpe, it has long since broken out of Brittany and conquered French hearts. Hénaff Pâté is made from the choicest pieces of pork such as tenderloins and hams, Guérande sea salt, pepper and a secret blend of spices, using a recipe unchanged in over a hundred years. The meat, which makes up 95% of the tin’s contents, is sourced exclusively from local farms and helps deliver a mature pâté that is high in taste and low in fat. A versatile food, Hénaff Pâté can be enjoyed on bread or toast, as a sandwich or snack but can also be cooked and eaten hot with rice or fried potato or diced into a salad. You will sometimes even see it sold in a pastry casing as a savoury pie. It’s worth trying just so that you can taste for yourself why this Breton product is the most popular pâté in France.
Crêpes & Galettes
You will be hard-pressed to find a town in Brittany that does not boast at least one Crêperie, serving up freshly made thin pancakes in a wide range of sweet and savoury forms. Crêpes are made with white flour and usually have a sweet filling such as sugar and butter, jam or Nutella and while often served for breakfast or dessert, they can be enjoyed at any time of day. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour and are usually served with a savoury filling such as cheese. They are a more substantial pancake and a galette complète, featuring ham, cheese and a fried egg, is a filling and tasty meal in itself. If you really get the taste for these treats, you will notice a difference in how the two pancakes are folded when served: galettes into rectangles, crêpes into triangles. However, if you buy from a street vendor or food stall, you will likely receive both crêpes and galettes folded into paper cones. Whether sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice or wrapped around a sausage or oozing with cheese; the crêpe is an omnipresent staple on the Breton menu.
Salted Butter Delights
Much of Breton cuisine is built upon the region’s creamy, rich butter made with coarse grains of natural sea salt harvested from the marshlands on the south coast of Brittany. I’ll not repeat an earlier post dedicated to this Breton icon but instead highlight in this list a few of Brittany’s most mouth-watering delicacies derived from its fabulous butter.
Firstly, salted butter caramels known as caramel au beurre salé in French. Possibly inspired by the Niniches de Quiberon (a popular caramel lollipop stick), a chocolatier from the same small Breton town of Quiberon perfected his recipe for salted butter caramel in the 1970s. Today, it is difficult to remember a time without this tasty treat whose heart of caramelized sugar, salted butter and cream is now enjoyed worldwide. Its versatility allows us to indulge our taste for salted butter caramel as a soft or hard candy, as a spread or as a sauce or even a pastry filling. Whether as confectionery or spread on a hot crêpe or crusty baguette or simply drizzled over a summer ice cream, do try some artisanal creations while you are here in the home of salted butter caramel.
Salted butter is also one of the key ingredients in two very popular Breton pastries; the Kouign Amman and Farz Fourn. The kouign amman (literally, butter cake in Breton) is hard to describe; layers upon layers of pastry are built up and folded-in, each smothered with salted butter and sugar and baked until very well caramelised. The result is a dense, sticky puff pastry-like cake with a crunchy golden crust, each flaky yet sticky bite delivers an intense salty, sweet, buttery flavour. Rich in texture, taste and calories! As if more flavour were needed, you will also find kouign amman made with apples, raspberries, cherries and all manner of other ingredients. Most good bakeries will make their own version of this cake which is best enjoyed warm.
You will see Farz Fourn (literally, baked far in Breton) often labelled under its French name Far Breton and you can often buy it by the slice in bakeries here. It is popularly made at home, as a dessert, and each family has its own ideas about what makes for a good far. As its heart, it is a rich, tasty thick-set creamy custard flan which is often found with prunes or apples added to the mix.
Plougastel in western Brittany has been producing strawberries since the 1740s when the South American white strawberry was first successfully cultivated in European soil. In time, this strawberry was cross-bred with the local wild strawberries to create the ‘garden strawberry’ that we know today. A thriving industry developed, Plougastel became the strawberry capital of France and one of the country’s wealthiest areas thanks to high-value exports to London and, following the arrival of the railway, Paris. Even up until WW2, about a quarter of all the strawberries grown in France came from this small area. While strawberry production in Plougastel, as across France, has fallen by half in the years since WW2, the town still produces about 2,400 tonnes of sweet berries each year.
Probably the tastiest variety of strawberry picked in Plougastel these days is the gariguette, a wonderful strawberry with an elongated body that smells as good as it tastes; a tender, juicy fruit with a sweet and ever so slightly tart taste. It’s sweet tasting enough to not need a dip into the sugar bowl, instead dip it into a bowl of fresh Chantilly cream.
This post was, of necessity, just a small taste of the unique and delicious fresh flavours that Brittany has to offer, so, there may well be a follow-up post one day.