Cycling Through Brittany by Canal
At 365 kilometers, the Canal Nantes à Brest is among the longest canals in France, if not the longest. To put this into perspective, the iconic Canal du Midi runs a mere 240 kilometers. To be fair, the Canal Nantes à Brest specialized in combining several naturally flowing rivers to form one continuously flowing body. As a result, only about 70 kilometers of the canal is manmade. Regardless, it took engineers 45 years to complete their work in its entirety. Once finished, the canal reached across Brittany and almost perfectly bisected the region. This was the goal. Initially, the motivation was economic interdependency, but it took a strategically military focus to initiate such an initiative. Napoleon was concerned with uniting the naval strongholds of Brest, Lorient, and Nantes with an independent inland route. The result was 238 locks to traverse the landscape. While some sections may no longer be navigable by boat today, the entire length is bike-able. A path alongside the canal allows for a wonderfully transparent and relaxing view of Brittany’s interior. If traveling to see the Tour de France, in Brittany, the canal often correlates to the stag route, making for plenty of opportunities to see both the race and enjoy biking along the canal to see other sites like the Abbaye de Bon-Repos. For more on biking the Canal Nantes à Brest, check out this article by Wendy Mewes on Freewheeling France.
A Garden with a View
The Breton frontier town of Fougères may be best known for its extensive medieval castle, but this sprawling, diverse geographic wonderland of rocky crags and outcroppings offers gems in the most unlikely of places. The best way to get such an overview is in the city’s unimposingly beautiful public garden. Located immediately behind (west) of the Eglise Saint-Leonard, the garden is a small but impressive, not to mention calming, place to understand the history of Fougères from a broader perspective. Start out on the upper tree-lined terrace in the “new town.” Here, you are perched nearly forty meters above the iconic Chateau. The perspective from this spot gives one a rare fortress overview, for the 10th century fortress was constructed on the solid rock foundation of the low ground to exclude the common offensive tactic of tunneling under fortified walls. With the chateau firmly in our sights, proceed down the narrow, flowered paths and into the more formal garden. Be sure to slow down, perhaps with a picnic lunch or snack, on one of the garden’s benches. The garden seems to transcend time and space, not quite in the old town and not fully in the new town, its tall hedge-rows enclose the garden in its own world and functionally cut off the view of the chateau yet are topped with their own bushy turrets that give a nod to the town’s most famous landmark. At the opposite end of the garden, continue down the stair and steeps path to the old medieval town, right along the banks of the Nançon and its old stone mills. In all, Fougères’s public garden and its paths are an excellent way to see this medieval town and its diverse history, architecture, and character.
The town of Landerneau lies on the Élorn estuary, a tributary that runs into the harbor of Brest some 18 kilometers downstream. Given its easy access, Landerneau developed into a prosperous linen manufacturing and trading port. As such, it developed a rich architectural history that is tremendous for such a small town. Divided by the uniquely developed Pont Rohan, old town Landerneau stretches on both sides of the Élorn. In 1921, three American architects from New York traveled much of France and illustrated excellent examples of Small French Buildings, among which were townhouses. Chief among this typology, Landerneau stuck out with four fine examples. In general, these historic townhouses were built in the mid-1660s and represented a type of Gothic residential urban housing illuminated by several notable features. The house known as Notre-Dame de Rumengol on the Élorn’s south bank is a beautiful example of these characteristics. For one, its warm yellow stone called Logonna comes from the quarries of nearby Logonna-Daoulas, 13 kilometers to the south. After the materials, the not so subtle, but intricate ornamentation is expressive. From the curved primary door to the elaborately carved dormer and of course the saintly statuette elevated on the building’s corner. Overall, these elements, from the differently weathered stone to the mis-matched window openings and statue give the building a strangely attractive asymmetry that accentuates the appeal. Only a block to the west is another great example, with features that mimic gargoyles on a Gothic cathedral. Both sides of the Élorn features such architectural marvels. See how many you can find.
Ancient Traditions, New Approaches
Locronan literally means “the place of Ronan.” Who’s Ronan? Ronan is both saint and legend that exemplifies Brittany’s connection with Celtic culture and heritage in a physical form. An Irish priest by birth, Ronan voluntarily left the Emerald Isle late in life to commune with God. He settled in what would become known as Locronan and thus, the beginnings of one of France’s greatest and oldest religious pilgrimages originated. Every six years in July, residents in the area gather for the twelve-kilometer march around and up Montagne de Locronan for an event known as the Grande Troménie. The procession marks the symbolism and legend of Ronan, who is believed to have lived in the sixth century, a peer of St. Patrick. Further investigations into this event, place it in the even older tradition of Celtic Lughnasa festivals. Throughout the Celtic world, Lughnasa marked the beginning of the harvest season, a time to give thanks and come together to ask for fertility in life and crop. Over time the Catholic Church sanctioned retaining such holidays and so both the Grande Troménie and Irish Croagh Patrick, both in July, retain important elements of paganism that center around significant land masses, all while incorporating elements of Catholicism. Led by the community’s youth, the procession still takes place in traditional Breton dress and with relics of the Saint. Along the way, food is served, prayers are said, and alms are given. The next Grande Troménie will be held in 2019, but a smaller Troménie is held annually – each second Sunday in July.
Sailing Further in Brittany
Between Brest and Lorient, Brittany has some of the best harbors in France. While Brest’s Naval presence remains strong, Lorient’s commercial shipping has always thrived while its military influence has waned over the years. Nevertheless, Lorient takes pride in this legacy and has adopted interesting methods to present this past, present, and future in the Keroman district, south of the city. The establishment of the French East India Company in the Lorient area during the mid-1660s and then the arrival of the Royal Navy some thirty years later solidified the port’s significance. In 1941, following Germany’s occupation of France in June 1940, it began to establish coastal defenses and bases. In Lorient, among seral other places, U-boat strongholds were constructed. The Germans started the imposing Lorient Keroman U-Boat Base in 1941 and by 1943, it was the largest on the Atlantic. Built in a concrete Brutalist style, this is an underwater base of the early James Bond-era. Overhanging Lorient Harbor, its seven docking bays are covered, making this a protected and mysterious homeport for U-boat operations. Following the war, the French Navy utilized the facilities until closing them for good in 1997. The area has been re-developed to illustrate the city’s navigable history. The sub base is now home to the Cold War-era French submarine Flore, as well as the beautiful and hands-on Cité de la Voile Éric Tabarly. Named after the legendary French sailor, this museum is a relatively new addition to the site and is the only museum dedicated to off-shore sailing. Spend enough time around here and you’ll want to charter your own vessel to explore the vast coastal environs of Brittany.
Côte de Mûr de Bretagne
In cycling-fanatic Brittany, there are a few places where the lore of legends rise to the top more than the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne. The 2018 Tour de France climbed this shrine twice in a loop around the town of the same name. Finishing on the Côte, a short but demanding 7.5% average gradient, this may be the first stage where we see a hint of the modern Tour leaders. No doubt, there will also be plenty of spectators along the roadside to witness the battle that is sure to ensue. The climb is a mere 1.6 kilometers long but rises an astounding 138 meters in that span. The Côte is featured in countless local races, but its Tour de France past is long and dignified. It was the highlight of the 1947 Tour along the longest-ever Tour individual time trial. During that day, Frenchman Jean Robic climbed into podium position and went on to win the Tour. In 2011, Cadel Evans won at the top on his way to winning the General Classification and in 2015, Frenchman Alexis Vuillermoz again conquered the Côte. To this day, however, Robic remains the favorite of town residents and presents big shoes to fill until a Frenchman again wins on its slopes to take Yellow and win the Tour overall.
Brushing up on Your Impressionism
Pont-Aven is one of those timeless locales that you might expect to see in a movie or painting. Indeed, the town is an artist’s haven and has been for almost 150 years thanks to its pristine beauty and rustic charm. Surprisingly, it all started when Massachusetts-born Henry Bacon literally stumbled upon Pont-Aven along his travels after serving in the American Civil War. Studying art in Paris, he was struck by the Pont-Aven’s immense beauty and famously exaggerated its “fourteen mills and fifteen houses.” The feeling, though, was quite accurate. This combination of agrarian and light industry set on a scenic stream would come to be Pont-Aven’s visual claim to fame, albeit a not altogether unique in Brittany. This was a small flour and cider port well before Bacon arrived. Bacon told others about his find and by 1870, only six years later, artists flocked to a growing fifty-member enclave. They were an international bunch, representing America, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and of course France, among others. Soon, Pont-Aven became synonymous with a school of impressionistic art called synthesis. In 1886, two relatively unknown artists named Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard arrived and the Pont-Aven School exploded with creativity. For Gauguin particularly, Tahiti may have been his final calling, but Pont-Aven always held a special place in his heart and work. Today, this communal arts community thrives in Pot-Aven, and the town remains a major tourist draw among artists and art-lovers.
The First Breton King
The history of France, not to mention its interrelation with other nationalities, is truly remarkable. Redon typically marks a visitor’s first foray into the modern Region of Bretagne, 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
Brittany is a unique place within a unique country, containing its own distinct language and culture. Indeed, an ancient Celtic presence can be seen and felt throughout the Golfe de Morbihan, especially the Rhuys Peninsulais, as 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 small town of Sarzeau alone. 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.