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The Rough Guide To Brittany And Normandy

by Greg Ward
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Rough Guides
  • Publishing date: 10/09/2001
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9781858287119
  • ISBN: 1858287111

Synopsis

INTRODUCTION

Of the many strongly individual components that make up the French nation, Brittany and Normandy rank among the most distinct. That sense of a separate identity - in cultures and peoples, landscapes and histories - is undoubtedly a major aspect of their appeal to visitors. A journey through the two regions enables you to experience much of the best that France has to offer: wild coast and sheltered white-sand beaches; sparse heathland and dense forests; medieval ports and evidence of the prehistoric past; and, every bit as important, abundant seafood and (especially in Normandy) a compelling and exuberant cuisine.

BRITTANY

Brittany is the more popular of the two regions, with both French and foreign tourists. Its attractions lie most obviously along the coast, which, speckled with offshore islands and islets, makes up over a third of the seaboard of France. In parts of the north, and in the western region of Finistère, the shoreline can be nothing but rocks and cliffs, its exposed headlands buffeted by the full force of the Atlantic and swept by dangerous currents. But elsewhere, especially in the sheltered southern resorts around the Morbihan and La Baule, it is caressed by the gentlest of seas, the sands rambling for kilometres or nestled into coves between steep cliffs.

Thanks to the sheer extent of the Breton coastline, it's always possible to find a spot where you can walk alone with the elements. Although in high season it can be hard to find solitude on the sandy beaches or in the small bays with their sun-struck swimmers, there could never be enough visitors to cover all the twists of the Finistère coast. As well as exploring the mainland resorts and seaside villages - each of which, from ports the size of St-Malo or Vannes down to little-known harbour communities such as Erquy, Le Pouldu, L'Aber-W'rach or Piriac-sur-mer, can be relied upon to offer at least one welcoming, characterful little hotel or restaurant - it's worth making the time to take in at least one of the islands. Boat trips out to these sea-encircled microcosms can be among the most enjoyable highlights of a trip to Brittany. The magical Ile de Bréhat is just a ten-minute crossing from the north coast near Paimpol, while historic Belle-Ile, to the south, is under an hour from Quiberon. Certain other islands are set aside as bird sanctuaries, while, off Finistère, the Iles d'Ouessant and Molène in the north, and Sein to the south, are as remote and strange as Orkney or the Shetland Isles.

The Celtic elements in Brittany are inextricably linked with its seafaring past. Anciently the land was known as Armorica (from the Breton for "the land of the sea", ar-mor), and it was from fishing and shipbuilding, along with occasional bouts of piracy and smuggling, that its people made their living. The harshness of the Breton coast and the poor communications with its interior and with "mainland" France enforced isolation. Christianity took time to establish itself, strongly but idiosyncratically, in a region where Druids survived on the Ile de Sein until Roman times. Only in 1532 did the territory lose its independence and become a province of France. Even then it was a reluctant partner, treated virtually as a colony by the national government, which until well into the twentieth century felt it necessary to suppress the Breton language and traditions. In recent years there has been something of a reversal, with the language and culture being rediscovered and reasserted. If you are a Celt - Welsh, Scots or Irish - you will find shared vocabulary, and great appreciation in their use. For everyone, though, the traditions are active, accessible and enjoyable at the various Inter-Celtic festivals, the largest of which takes place at Lorient in early August.

Times even before the Celts are evoked by the vast wealth of megalithic remains scattered across Brittany. The single most famous site is Carnac, whose spectacular alignments of menhirs may have been erected as part of a prehistoric observatory. Lesser-known but equally compelling remains include the extraordinary burial tumuli on the island of Gavrinis, in the gulf of Morbihan, and at Barnenez outside Morlaix in the north. Not all such relics are found near the sea; the moors and woodlands of inland Brittany, too, conceal unexpected ancient treasures. This is the realm of legend, with the forests of Huelgoat and Paimpont in particular - left-overs from Brittany's mythic dark ages - identified with the tales of Merlin, the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. In the Little Britain of King Arthur's domain, an otherworldly element still seems entrenched in the land and people.

NORMANDY

Normandy has a less harsh appearance and a more mainstream - and more prosperous - history than its neighbour. It too is a seaboard province, colonized by Norsemen from Scandinavia, and colonizing in turn; the ruthless Norman formula for success was exported first of all, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to England, Sicily and parts of the Near East, and later on to Canada. Normandy has always boasted large-scale ports: Rouen, on the Seine, is as near as ships can get to Paris, while Dieppe, Cherbourg and Le Havre have important transatlantic trade. Inland, it is overwhelmingly agricultural - a wonderfully fertile belt of tranquil pastureland, where most visitors head straight for the restaurants of towns such as Vire and Conches.

The pleasures of Normandy are perhaps less intense and unique than those of Brittany. Many of the region's better-known stretches of seaside are a little overdeveloped. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the last of the Napoleons created a "Norman Riviera" around Trouville and Deauville, and a somewhat pretentious air still hangs about their elegant promenades. However, the ancient ports - Honfleur and Barfleur especially - are visual delights, and numerous coastal villages remain unspoilt by crowds or affectations. Even if you just plan to visit for a weekend break from England, lovely little towns are tucked away within 20km of each of the major Channel ports - the Cotentin peninsula around Cherbourg is one of the best, and least explored, areas - while the banks of the Seine, too, hold several idyllic resorts.

Normandy also boasts extraordinary architectural treasures, although only its much-restored traditional capital, Rouen, has preserved a complete medieval centre. The attractions are more often single buildings than entire towns. Most famous of all is the spectacular merveille on the island of Mont-St-Michel, but there are also the monasteries at Jumièges and Caen; the cathedrals of Bayeux and Coutances; and Richard the Lionheart's castle above the Seine at Les Andelys. Bayeux can in addition boast its vivid and astonishing Tapestry. Many other great Norman buildings survived into the twentieth century, only to be destroyed during the Allied landings in 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, which has its own legacy in a series of war museums, memorials and cemeteries. These are hardly conventional sights, though as part of the fabric of the province they are moving and enlightening.


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  • Info...liberally seasoned with author's high self-opinion
    From Amazon

    I bought this book in anticipation of visiting Normandy. On first glance, it looked ideal for my purposes (traveling alone with lots of time to meander). Once into the book, I saw that few of the towns have maps--even maps of cities'-centers would be helpful.

    More than that, though, was the condescending tone he used when discussing holy places (i.e., referring to the devotion to Saint Thèrése of Lisieux as "a cult"). The author's inflated sense of self was reflected in nearly every section of this book, and I soon relegated it to the bottom of my suitcase: I wanted information; not editorializing. For the rest of my trip, I did quite well with small town maps (free at any tourism office).

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