The Celtic Lands of France
Trip Start Mar 25, 2012
12Trip End May 01, 2012
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The cultural region of Brittany is situated on the north-western coast of France. Its traditional population is unique in that, unlike any other French demographic, it descends from Celtic ancestry. Usually we associate Celtic culture with Great Britain and Ireland, but in the 4th and 5th centuries a number of tribes immigrated across the English Channel and settled in the region. Brittany was also its own independent kingdom before it was annexed into France in 1491. As a result, there is strong Breton pride for its independent past and you will see the black and white flag of the region flying everywhere.
I had only planned on using the city of St. Malo as a base to take day trips to other cities in the region. It was just a place to sleep, not a major stop on my itinerary. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that the coastal city was fast becoming one of the highlights of my time in France. The beautiful city center is surrounded by massive medieval walls that tower over the harbor below. The ramparts were built to keep out those pesky English from invading and for hundreds of years protected the city from destruction. During WWII that streak ended with the allied bombing campaign to liberate France. During the conflict, American bombs were responsible for the destruction of eighty percent of St. Malo.
Even though most of the buildings date from 1945 or later, the beautiful French architecture built within the surviving walls helps the city retain a wonderful 17th century feel. Looking over the top of the walls you can actually see the fortified islands built to protect the bay from British ships. It is experiences like this that brought me to Europe. Visiting a museum falls well short of actually standing upon a landscape that still reflects its storied past so well.
As I said, St. Malo's location made it ideal for day trips to other areas of Brittany. Here are a few of the other places I visited within the Celtic lands of France.
This small village remained untouched in WWII and its medieval buildings are perfectly preserved. I spent the better part of a day walking its cobble-stoned streets, admiring the town's beauty. Strikingly different from St. Malo, its small river port and charming wooden facades felt a thousand years away from our modern world.
This is a much larger city with a major university and a bustling atmosphere. Despite a good collection of well preserved architecture, I wasn't thrilled with Rennes. In many ways it reminded me of Milan, but with less upscale shopping. Located in an area with so many beautiful towns, it seems to be a city that has chosen to focus on industry over retaining its traditional charm. That's not a bad thing, it just makes for a lousy tourist destination.
Mont St. Michel
Technically it is apart of Normandy, but it stands on the boundary with Brittany so I included it here. The Abbey of Mont St. Michel has been a pilgrimage site since 708 A.D. Look at the photos and you can see why. It sits on an island connected by a two mile causeway to the mainland. While planning my trip to France I took one look at a picture of the Abbey and decided that I had to see it for myself. I'm glad I did. Despite the incredible crowdedness (it draws more than 3.5 million visitors each year), it is a marvel to see and a breathtaking combination of both natural and man made beauty.
Next, a short train ride took me north of Brittany to an area of France that is known for two invasions that changed the course of history. One in 1066 and one in 1944. Updates should be arriving much quicker now that I have actually arrived back home. Stay tuned!!