The Cottages of the Brière
After leaving the beachside resort of La Baule-Escoublac, the 2018 Tour de France heads north to Guérande and almost immediately turns into the pristine Parc Naturel Régional de Brière. This 548 square kilometer park (211 square miles) lies just to the northwest of the Loire River outlet. As a result, this is a wetland estuary that is home to unique landscapes, natural habitat, and a surprising architectural heritage. It is important to know that a French Regional Park is a voluntary designation by a community who seeks to protect a shared natural and cultural heritage. In the Brière, the latter is equally important as the former. Over the thirty or so kilometers that the peloton will weave through the Park and its twenty municipalities, spectators and riders will notice a distinctive type of small, thatched-roof residential cottages that may have some questioning the country of origin. Perhaps these types of abodes are more well-known in the English country-side like the Cotswolds. Yet the Brière has some 3,000 such structures. A perfect place to see this history interpreted is the Village of Kerhinet, right off the Tour’s route. Here, traditional crafts are maintained in the original settings of a craftsman’s house, inn, and workshops. The cottages are either exposed stone or covered in white plaster with steep, thick thatched roofs and limited colorful doors and windows. For a more natural communal view of these buildings, head just a little further east, around the preserved marais to experienced some of the original isles. The l’île de Fédrun is of particular note, where several hundred historic homes remain literally in an island among the marshland. It’s no beach, but this quiet setting will have you forgetting about modern troubles all the same.
The First Breton King
The history of France, not to mention its interrelation with other nationalities, is truly remarkable. The 2018 Tour makes its first foray into the modern Region of Bretagne at the city of Redon, at the confluence of the Oust and Vilaine Rives. It is at such a juncture that we are afforded a rare opportunity to travel back in time to explore the origins of Brittany’s proud history. It all started in the early 800s when a man named Nomenoë rose in the political ranks and made Duke of Brittany. With the rise of Charles the Bald’s growing empire, however, Nomenoë fought back and held the region of Brittany independent in the face of mounting imperialism. Thus, Nomenoë became the father of Brittany and the First Breton King. In Redon, his legacy is evident at the stately Abbaye Saint-Sauveur. The abbey was founded in 832 under the patronage of then governor Nomenoë. Over time, Redon became important to the Breton father. Just north of the town is where he first pushed back the forces of the French King Charles. Here, on the border with France, is where Nomenoë concentrated much of his power and defenses. The abbey occupies a beautiful site overlooking the Vilaine River and is today a sprawling complex of buildings that expanded over time, starting with the original Romanesque arches and tower, as well as the later Gothic bell tower and cathedral. Its grandeur and location were special to the Kings of Britain and is no more evident by the resting place of Nomenoë and two of his successors, making Redon a fantastic introduction to the ancient history of this culturally independent region.
A Castle to Interpret Brittany
Here on the Rhuys Peninsula, the 2018 Tour de France Stage 4 triumphantly returns to Brittany for the first time in several years. Brittany is a unique place within a unique country, containing its own distinct language and culture. Indeed, the ancient Celtic presence throughout the Golfe de Morbihan is immensely strong as is evident by the numerous prehistoric monoliths and menhirs in the area. In fact, there are at least two such remnants within a six-kilometer radius of the finish in Sarzeau. Even with the steady decline of the use of Breton language, the bilingual approach has come back in the last twenty years throughout Brittany, but especially in Sarzeau, where a bilingual school is trying to bring back regular use of the language. It is fitting, therefore, that only three-kilometers outside of town is the Chateau de Suscinio. This is only one of at least five chateaux within a thirteen square-kilometer area, but it’s also perhaps the most important in this area of the Morbihan. Built over a span of several centuries beginning in the 13th century, it is a classic example of a medieval castle, albeit in a unique beachy environment. With its moat and circular towers, the castle was a defensive stronghold with a large courtyard. This was the epitome of feudal economy, protection, and recreation. The Dukes of Brittany conceived of the property as a hunting lodge that could also double as an agricultural outpost. Today, the castle is open to visitors year-round and rounds out any visit to the Morbihan and Vannes region.