A Francophile’s Guide to Brittany | France
I wanted off the beaten path. I wanted a gorgeous coastline. I wanted somewhere I hadn't been before, somewhere the guidebooks hadn't written about to death. I wanted low season.
I've been to many of the tourist destinations in France: Paris, Cote d'Azur, Provence, Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Languedoc, the Alps. Your favorites are my favorites, I'm sure. They are popular for a reason. But I can't help but wonder, where are the destinations that have yet to be favorites? Can this even exist in a country like France, the number one tourist destination in the world?
For Americans, the answer is yes. The place we landed on, Brittany, or as it is called in its French tongue, Bretagne, is an old friend to the Brits, but is relatively unexplored by Americans. British visitors can easily ferry over to the region for a short holiday. For anyone traveling by plane, however, it's a bit of pain to arrive in Brittany. You can easily access Dinan, a quaint medieval town on the river, by train, but it's not a direct high speed route like it is from Paris to Provence. If you want to venture further into this northwestern region of France, you have to dedicate precious time on getting there. Quimper, an artist colony and home to Paul Gaugin for a time, requires an additional two and a half hour drive from Dinan, which already is five hours from Paris. In a country that can take less than five hours to travel from the north to south, seven hours is a long time to dedicate, especially with so many other great places to visit, new or not.
Brittany peaked my interest, though. It was hard to find pages dedicated to it's offerings in the standard travel guides, Rick Steve's recommending only Dinan. Others captured the whole Brittany region in 15 pages or less out of a 300 page book dedicated entirely to France. I had to see what was there - for all I knew the next Cinque Terre lay within it's borders, too far from transit at the moment to gain popularity as a tourist destination.
The town of Dinan started as a port town along the River Rance in medieval times (large churches started being built in the 1200s and the castle was built in the 1300s). Nowadays, the port brings tourists from Dinard and St. Malo to see the town that has retained it's medieval charm, mainly a result of avoiding World War II bombs. There are no grand museums or "must sees", but that's part of the charm. Here is town you can simply enjoy without stressing out about a "to see" list. Dinan is best for those of us who enjoy a slower pace, the detail of old buildings, and a great place to sleep. The best time to visit is late Spring to early Fall when all the restaurants, shops, and sights are open. Our March time frame made for a cheaper vacation, but also meant that many places were closed until high season.
What to Do in Dinan
BOAT RIDES | A popular way to access Dinan in the summer is to take a ferry from Dinard or St Malo. You'll arrive at the old port and just like the many merchants before you, you'll walk up the steep cobblestone Rue du Petit-Fort up to the main square.
TAKE A STROLL ALONG RUE DU PETIT-FORT | Once the main point of entry from the River Rance to the town center, Rue du Petit-Fort is lined with charming homes, creperies, restaurants, bars, and shops.
GALETTES & CIDRE | Brittany is known for their galettes (a type of crepe) and their alcoholic cider. Sit down and enjoy one of these buttery treats in the town square (Place des Merciers) avec cidre, straight from the tap.
WALK THE REMPARTS | Dinan is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Brittany having avoided bombings during WWII. It is also home to the oldest remparts in the region, which make for a great starting off point to seeing this historic town. A 1.8 mile loop (start at the castle) encompasses the town and provides views of the surrounding countryside.
Where to Stay in Dinan
The best part about Dinan was our hotel. We stayed at La Maison Pavie and it was everything I hope a boutique hotel to be. Old building (built in the 1500's) renovated in perfect style with nods to it's past, and a friendly proprietor with three well behaved dogs. We drank Parisian tea in the afternoons and enjoyed breakfast at a long wooden table in the dining room with other guests in the mornings. Originally the home of Dinan's explorer of the East, Auguste Pavie, the building now serves as a five room bed and breakfast. Statues and furniture imported from the countries that Auguste Pavie explored are sprinkled throughout the rooms, each bedroom themed and named after somewhere that Auguste Pavie visited. We stayed in the top floor in the Angkor room.
MONT ST MICHEL
Dinan is only a one hour drive from Mont St Michel, the second most visited place in France (behind the Eiffel Tower). Our host said we must go, and I'm glad we followed his advice. The island only has 44 permanent residents, but thousands of people from all over the world come to visit each year. The draw? An abbey perched on a small island, previously only accessible during low tide. It's as close to a fairy tale as this world gets. If you are in the region, we highly recommend a visit, despite the crowds (the streets are about as wide as five people shoulder to shoulder - it felt slightly claustrophobic in March, so I can only imagine what it is like in August!). My favorite part was seeing the school groups out on the vast tidal flats learning about the landscape and the abbey.
What to Know Before You Go to Mont St Michel
There are no cars allowed on the island, so if you are arriving by car you'll park and have three options to arrive at the base of the Mont. The two free options are either walking or taking the bus. We chose the bus route and I was personally tickled to find that the buses were wood paneled to match their garages. Tres chic et francais, n'est pas? The buses are equipped with steering on both ends so that once the driver drops passengers off at one end of the bridge they simply get out of the bus and go to the other end to drive back - no U-turn required. If you don't want to go the free route, the last option is the horse drawn carriages. These sound charming, but have you riding in the wake of the horse poo bags. The free options are better.
Where to Stay in Mont St Michel
While you can stay on the Mont, it's cheaper to stay just across the bridge and offers you sunrise and sunset views of the Mont. Of course, you can also do what we did and take a day trip (many places offer day trips from Paris as well). No hotels really stand out as exceptional places to stay, so I won't list them here, but the most well known is La Mere Poulard.
COTE DE GRANIT ROSE (PINK GRANITE COAST)
And now, to the highlight of Brittany, the undiscovered gem. The Pink Granite Coast, or Cote de Granit Rose en francais, is an area of coastline from Trebeurden to Perros-Guirec littered with pink granite boulders and charming fishing towns. The homes are built with the same rosy rock that inhabits the coastline, accented with white trim and stone roofs. The restaurants draw inspiration from the waters at their shores, serving seafood almost exclusively. The people are friendly and welcoming. I have to believe that if this place were more easily accessible, tourists would flock here. As it stands, this is still relatively undiscovered. Visit it now before it gets overcrowded and looses it's cozy charm.
What to Do on the Pink Granite Coast
WALK THE SENTIERS DES DOUANIERS | Pick up hiking route GR 34 anywhere from Trebeurden to Perros Guirec and walk along the coast from town to town along the coast. This is the true highlight of a visit to this region - the pink granite boulders against the turquoise blue water is both unique and breathtaking. The Ploumanac'h Lighthouse and the marina of Tregastel are cherries on top of the cake.
BIRD WATCH AT THE SEPT ILES | During the summer months, take a boat ride out to the Sept Iles, a group of seven islands (hence the name) home to 27 species of birds, including adorable puffins. Regular departures from Perros-Guirec and Tregastel.
What to Read While You’re There
by Anthony Doerr | The story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intertwine during World War II. A large portion of the book takes place in the town of St Malo in Brittany.