From one neglected corner of France to another – this week I want to talk about Brittany, the fiercely independent peninsula jutting off to make up France’s northwest corner. I spent three nights exploring, but definitely could have used more time, so I wanted to share with you my three(ish) top sights of my time to help convince you to add it to your next France itinerary.
1) Mont Saint-Michel – this first sight should be no surprise to anyone (unless you thought it was in Normandy, which it maybe, technically, is - it's on the border & they fight over it!). This incredibly famous pilgrimage site, with the church spire rising up off a little island out in the water, really is one of the main symbols of France. What’s strange is that before this visit I could have sworn I’d visited back in my student days on some sort of field trip from Paris, but when I arrived this time (back in June of 2015), I knew I’d never had the privilege. There’s no way you can forget the first time you see the iconic silhouette as you approach across the grassy moors. Chills! At about four hours from Paris, I suppose it is possible to visit it as a day trip, but I strongly urge you NOT to choose that option. Combine it with a day on the Normandy beaches, if you much, but what I do STRONGLY recommend is that you avoid visiting the island in the middle of the day. There are all sorts of people who DO visit for the day from Paris, so you can imagine that from about 10-3 (give or take) it is just jam packed with tourists. As a pilgrimage site, there’s really only one path to follow, and if you’re with hordes of people, out in the weather or packed into the different church buildings/rooms, I imagine that it would be unpleasant. We timed our visit perfectly, after a full day exploring Normandy’s beaches, and arrived at the end of the day – around 5pm. This meant that, though we were a feeling a bit rushed as we arrived and took the shuttle bus over the new causeway, and then hurried up the steeper “shortcut” up to the ticket office, the rest of our visit was completely crowd-free and pleasant. Plus, our visit only took an hour or two. In fact, we loved it – and I know some people come away from the Mont quite unhappy, mostly due to the crowds. To me, the history and engineering feats are what make it so impressive. Of course, I wasn’t visiting during a time where the high tides rush in and completely enclose the entire island, which I imagine is unbelievable to see. But the views out over the massive bay were still impressive, even at low tide in less-than-perfect weather. Here are a few pics up through the abbey complex, and back down through the main street of town for your visual journey to Mont Saint-Michel:
2) Lighthouses! Because Brittany is a peninsula, and a rocky one at that, there are of course TONS of lighthouses all around. We became slightly obsessed with finding as many as possible, dreaming of dramatic photographs of water crashing over them. I’ll save you the confusing drives on endlessly curvy streets through neighborhoods and direct you to three points on the western edge that will give you drama and lighthouses, though for the crashing of waves I think you have to be a bit luckier than us (it was incredibly still and misty for most of the time we were out on the western point). So, in order of “coolness”, I give you:
a) Pointe St-Mathieu – this one “competes” with a few others to be called the western-most point on mainland France. The actual westernmost point is just north of here, but there’s no lighthouse there, so – who cares! ;) Pointe St-Mathieu is about a half hour outside of Brest, in this teeny little village, and it boasts not only a lighthouse, but also a ruined abbey, a little old church, and an old fort for your viewing pleasure. The views out over the sea and down towards the headland of the next peninsula jutting out are nice and sweeping, but not quite as impressive as my next two spots. (Potentially to blame: the rain we had during our visit). Here are a few pics for you:
b) Pointe du Raz – this is the more popular entrant to the “westernmost point” contest, but it misses out by a smidge. It must be a popular tourist destination though, because there are huge parking lots and a variety of shops and eateries and such when you arrive (and I think you even had to pay for parking!). There was basically nobody there when we were (a theme in Brittany), but the site is large enough that even if you did encounter groups, I think there would be trails a plenty to explore the STUNNING views without problems. Located about an hour west of Quimper, there is actually a bit of a walk, at least 15 minutes or so, from the parking area out to the point, but it’s flat and well maintained. There is some sort of observatory and lovely statue, but come on – it’s the views! Just look!
c) Pointe de Penhir - If you’re going to go to just ONE lighthouse and westernmost point though, I urge you to go out onto the peninsula in the middle – the little tongue sticking out of the dragon’s mouth (what I think this end of Brittany looks like), past the cute town of Crozon to the Pointe de Penhir. We arrived late in the afternoon (after driving endlessly on our lighthouse search that particular day), and were the only people there. Fine, the weather wasn’t great, but even that couldn’t dim our enthusiasm. GORGEOUS. There’s nothing out there but a large and strange statue, and lots of little snails along the rocks, but it is just one of the more lovely spots I’ve seen on this earth. It might be the most difficult to get to, about an hour from either Brest or Quimper, but you can park in dirt lots right there and wander until your eyeballs get tired. We could have scrambled around the rocks for hours, but we were losing light and getting hungry - this is one place I'd suggest coming earlier to be able to fully enjoy the scenery. See what you think!
3) Golfe du Morbihan – this area was a complete and total surprise to me, and frankly was planned as just a stop on the way out of Brittany, but everything around the Gulf of Morbihan was SUCH a surprise. Yes, it is more peninsulas and water, but this time it was way less rugged and severe somehow… chock full of little marinas with small boats bobbing on the calm water, and yet - just as beautiful as the rugged northern end of Brittany. Once we’d visited the standing stones at Carnac which were surprisingly interesting (even compared with some of the stone circles I’ve seen in England), we were just giddy with the lovely scenery that accompanied us on our drive to our B&B. The fresh seafood dinner we had during sunset over the bay was not only gorgeous, but also delicious (as were they ALL during the visit). The town of Vannes, just on the north end of the gulf, was adorably charming (as are most of the villages we saw – more on them in another post!), complete with half-timbered houses, stone churches, and even its own lovely marina. Other than biking, eating, and boating, there probably isn’t much specifically to pull you here (unless you are obsessed with the phenomena of prehistoric standing stones), but there’s no way I could talk about Brittany and NOT include it. Here are some shots from around the area:
In short- you've probably heard of Mont Saint-Michele, and even considered adding it to your trips to France, but hopefully this post convinced you to go a bit further, and find these more hidden treasures of Brittany. Up next, I'll help you decide where to stay!