Things to see and do - Brittany
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The Region Today
The Region Today
With 51 200 farmers, twice fewer than 15 years ago but on a larger scale, and 100 000 workers (of which a third are aged under 40), agriculture remains the most important economic activity in Brittany. This mainly involves the rearing of cows, pigs and poultry, as well as mixed farming. The region produces 20 per cent of France‘s milk, 33 per cent of veal, 50 per cent of pork, 38 per cent of poultry and 48 per cent of the country‘s eggs. Two-thirds of cereal-growing (corn, wheat and barley) is geared towards animal-feed. Most of France‘s vegetables (green beans, artichokes, potatoes, tomatoes) are grown here.
Brittany is responsible for 51 per cent of France‘s fish production where both large and small fishing concerns work side-by-side. Around 7 700 people are employed in the industry, which includes those who work in preparing the caught fish.
The agri-food industry has grown considerably here in 25 years. It specialises in the transformation of animal proteins (meat, fish, milk), vegetable production and animal food and is responsible for almost half of France’s meat and fish exports. More than 5 000 jobs have been created in this industry in the last ten years.
Brittany, whose other main industries are car-manufacturing (Citroën has a large presence in the region), ship-building and telecommunications, is one of the few regions in France which has seen steady growth in industrial employment since 1980. The tertiary sector is also buoyant, notably in the area of banking.
With more than 3 000km/1 184mi of coastline, 3 700km/1 678mi of footpaths, eight designated ’towns of art and history’, ten villes historiques and almost 1 000 monuments, Brittany is France‘s fourth most-visited region. Almost 50 000 workers are employed at peak season.
In 2006, the GDP was 78.3P billion (4.4 per cent of the national GDP), making Brittany the seventh wealthiest region in France.
Brittany has been a territory of France since 1532, and in 1982 the region became an administrative Région of the French Republic, with some devolved powers. There are four administrative divisions: Île-et-Vilaine, Côtes d‘Armor, Morbihan and Finistère. The capital of the region is Rennes.
The Région consists of two Assemblies: the publicly elected Conseil régional is responsible for regional politics and the Conseil économique et sociale régional (CESR) advises on regional matters. The president of the Conseil régional prepares and carries out decisions voted for by the elected members, the administration régionale puts them into practice.
The Conseil régional consists of 83 elected members from the four administrative divisions who are elected for a period of six years. They debate regional politics and meet once every trimester.
L’administration régionale has nine directorates, overseen by a directeur général, who carry out the decisions made by the elected members related to the following areas: educational establishments; higher education and apprenticeships; land and transport management; economic research and development; environment and tourism; culture; the promotion and evaluation of local politics. There are also directorates of finance, technology and human resources.
The CESR, made up of 113 representatives from the business world and the social and cultural sectors, meets four times a year to give its opinions on the dossiers put forward by the Conseil.
Food and Drink
Breton cooking is characterised by the high quality and freshness of the ingredients used, many of which will have been plucked from land or sea and brought almost directly to table after the briefest of interventions in the kitchen. You can find details of local produce, plus recipes, on the tourist board‘s website www.tastybrittany.com.
Seafood, Crustaceans and Fish
Shellfish, crustaceans and fish are all excellent. Particularly outstanding are the spiny lobsters, grilled or stuffed clams, scallops, shrimp, crisp batter-covered fried fish morsels and crab pasties.
Belon oysters, Armorican oysters from Concarneau, La Forêt and Île-Tudy, and Cancale oysters are all well known in France, but are not at their best until the end of the tourist season.
Lobster is served grilled or with cream and especially in a coulis, the rich hot sauce which makes the dish called Armoricaine or à l’Américaine (the latter name is due to a mistake made in a Paris restaurant).
Try also cotriade (a Breton fish soup like bouillabaisse), conger-eel stew, the Aulne or Élorn salmon, trout from the Monts d’Arrée and the Montagnes Noires, or pike and shad served with “white butter” in the district near the Loire. This is a sauce made from slightly salted butter, vinegar and shallots, and its preparation requires real skill. Finally, there are civelles (elvers), which are a speciality of Nantes.
Meat, Vegetables and Fruits
The salt pasture sheep (prés-salés) of the coast are famous. Breton leg of mutton (with white beans) is part of the great French gastronomic heritage. Grey partridges and heath-hares are tasty, as are the chickens from Rennes and Nantais ducks. Pork butchers’ meat is highly flavoured: Morlaix ham, bacon, black pudding, smoked sausage from Guéméné-sur-Scorff and chitterlings from Quimperlé. Potatoes, artichokes, cauliflowers and green peas are the glory of the Golden Belt. There are also strawberries and melons from Plougastel, cherries from Fouesnant and many other fruits.
Crêpes, Cakes and Sweetmeats
Most towns have crêperies (pancake shops) where these very flat pancakes, called crêpes, made either of wheat or buckwheat, are served with cider or yoghurt. In some of the smaller, picturesque shops, often decorated with Breton furnishings, you may see them being made. Crêpes are served plain or with jam, cheese, eggs, ham, etc. The buckwheat pancake (crêpe de sarrasin, also called galette) is salted and often served as a starter while the wheat pancake (crêpe de froment) is sweet and served at dessert.
Also worth tasting are the Quimper wafer biscuits (crêpes-dentelles), Pont-Aven butter biscuits/cookies (galettes), Nantes biscuits, Quintin oatmeal porridge and the far and kouign amann cakes. Among the sweets are the pralines from Rennes and berlingots (sweet drops) from Nantes.
Cider and wine – The local drink is cider (cidre), of special note are the ciders from Fouesnant, Beg-Meil, and Pleudihen-sur-Rance.
The only Breton wine is Muscadet, which in 1936, was granted the appellation d’origine contrôlée (A.O.C.), literally “controlled place of origin”. The people of Nantes guard it jealously and have founded a brotherhood, the Ordre des Chevaliers Bretvins, after la petite brette (little rapier), the nickname given to Anne of Brittany.
The grape, the Melon de Bretagne, has been cultivated since the early 17C, and gives a dry and fruity white wine which complements fish and seafood particularly well. Muscadet is produced in three distinct geographical areas, each with its own appellation: Muscadet, produced in the Grand-Lieu region; Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, produced south of Nantes; and Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire, produced in the Ancenis region.
Other Breton drinks worth tasting are mead, also called hydromel or chouchen strawberry liqueur (liqueur de fraises), a fortified cider apéritif (pommeau) and even a Breton whisky.
Language and Culture
The Breton Language
From a linguistic point of view, Bretons are more closely related to the Irish and the Welsh than to the French. From the 4–7C, Armorica (present day Brittany) was a refuge for Britons fleeing England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. From that time on, the Breton language rivalled French, a derivative of Low Latin. The annexation of the province to Frnach in the 15C and the French Revolution enhanced the trend in favour of French.
The two Brittanies – The map shows Upper Brittany (Haute-Bretagne), or the “Gallo” country, and Lower Brittany (Basse-Bretagne), or the Breton-speaking country.
French is spoken in the first, French and Breton in the second. Lower Brittany has four regions, each of which has its customs and brings shades of diversity to the Breton language – the district of Tréguier or Trégorrois, the district of Léon, the district of Cornouaille and the district of Vannes or Vannetais.
Modern Breton (brezhoneg), derived from Brythonic, belongs to the Celtic languages and manifests itself in four main dialects: cornouaillais (south Finistère), léonard (north Finistère), trégorrois (Tréguier and the bay of St-Brieuc) and vannetais (Vannes and the Golfe du Morbihan). Vannetais distinguishes itself from the other three, which are closely related, for example by replacing “z” with “h”; thus Breiz (Brittany) becomes Breih. In an attempt to overcome such differences, the use of “zh” has been introduced for the relevant words, thus Breizh.
Celtic and Breton Music
After World War II, Celtic music found a new audience with the creation of the Bogaged ar Sonérion, a marching band (bagad) playing traditional bagpipes of different sizes and shapes and percussion instruments, in the style of Scottish pipe bands. In the 1970s, Alain Stival, a musical instrument craftsman and major fan of the traditional festounoz (the Breton word for an evening of music and entertainment), popularised the Celtic harp and became a leading force in the new wave of Breton music. More recently, the artist Dan Ar Braz has contributed to revitalising traditional tunes. Today, Celtic music in Brittany is a lively mixture of the traditional and the modern; many groups perform around France and their recordings are widely distributed. Festivals abound, including the Transmusicales and Tombées de la Nuit in Rennes, the Festival de Cornouaille in Quimper, the Festival Interceltique in Lorient (marching bands from around the Celtic world attend to compete). Perhaps the most famous foot-stomping get-together is the Festival des Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix-Plouguer. The small town in central Brittany is suddenly home to a crowd of happy campers who dance the nights away in a carefree and anything-goes ambience.
In some places these manor farms add a great deal of character to the Breton countryside. This is the case in Léon, where they are numerous, and where Kergonadéac’h, Kerouzéré, Kergroadès and Traonjoly together form a background setting to Kerjean, pride of the province. Certain other châteaux, such as Rocher-Portail, were built later, and lack all appearance of being fortresses, but impress by their simplicity of outline and the grouping of the buildings; at such places as Lanrigan and La Bourbansais, on the other hand, it is the detail that charms the visitor. Landal is one of those that gain enormously from its surroundings; others take great pride in a well laid-out garden or a fine park – these include Bonne-Fontaine, Caradeuc and Rosanbo.
It is difficult to find any basis of comparison between the old towns with their historical associations and the modern towns. Nonetheless, while Dinan, Locronan, Vitré, Morlaix and Quimper, to name a few, as well as the marvellously reconstructed St-Malo, have an undeniable appeal, it is impossible not to be struck also by the planning and grouping of buildings in such towns as Brest and Lorient. The wide streets and huge, airy squares are elegant and have obviously been built to achieve harmony and unity. Visitors may well be surprised by certain buildings, but they will find something to admire in the upward sweep of a tall bell-tower, the simple lines of a concrete façade, the successful decorative effect of stone and cement combined. Above all, if they have some slight appreciation of colour harmony and go inside any building, they will be struck by the contemporary artist’s skill in lighting.
Traditions and Folklore
Brittany and Its Symbols
Like other French regions, Brittany (population 3000 558 million) has preserved its identity through the centuries by maintaining traditions. Costumes, religious observances, language and the arts all contribute to that identity. There is a special lifestyle in Brittany, a way of looking at the world: standing on a high cliff, leaning hard into the wind to keep your footing, listening to waves crashing below – this is the stance of the Breton people in the face of the modern world that values conformity and uniformity above all else.
More changes took place in the region in the first half of the 20C than had taken place in the two preceding centuries combined. Yet in the 1980s, a movement grew for the valorisation of the old ways, despite the diminishing population of the smaller villages and the inevitable changes brought about by modern trade and services, industrial development and tourism.
One symbol the visitor is not likely to miss is the Breton Flag, Gwenn ha du (white and black). Morvan Marchal designed it in 1925. The five black stripes represent the five original bishoprics of Upper Brittany (Rennes, Nantes, Dol, St-Malo, and St-Brieuc); the white bands represent those of Lower Brittany (Léon, Cornouaille, Vannes, and Tréguier). The ermine was the symbol of the Duchy of Brittany. In the 13C, ermine fur was worn by all of the Dukes of Brittany as a symbol of authority. Another symbol is the Triskell, an ornament in the form of a revolving cross with three arms or vortexes symbolising earth, fire and water. It is Celtic symbol, and has been found on old Celtic coins in the British Isles and Ireland, Denmark and even in South and North America.
Costumes and Head-dresses
Brittany possesses costumes of surprising richness and variety. The fine clothes passed down from one generation to another were to be seen at every family festivity. It was customary for a girl at her marriage to acquire a costly and magnificent outfit that would last many years. Nowadays the traditional costumes are brought out only on great occasions such as pardons, and sometimes High Mass on feast days. In spite of attempts to modernise the dress, and the efforts of regional societies over the last few years – and they have had some success – to make the young appreciate the old finery, the tourist who travels through Brittany quickly is not likely to see many of the elaborate traditional dresses made familiar by picture postcards and books on the subject.
The most striking and attractive feature of the women’s traditional costumes is their aprons which reveal how well off the family is by the abundance of their decoration. The aprons, of every shape and size, are made of satin or velvet and are brocaded, embroidered or edged with lace: at Quimper they have no bib, at Pont-Aven they have a small one, while at Lorient the bib reaches to the shoulders. Ceremonial dresses are usually black and are often ornamented with bands of velvet. The finest examples are those of Quimper which are adorned with multi-coloured embroidery. The men’s traditional costume includes a felt hat with ribbons and an embroidered waistcoat.
The most original feature of the Breton costume is the coiffe or head-dress, once worn mainly in Finistère and Morbihan.
One of the most attractive is the headdress of Pont-Aven which has, as an accessory, a great starched lace collar.
The Bigouden head-dress from the Pont-l’Abbé area is one of the most curious; it used to be quite small but since 1930 has become very tall.
In Quimper the head-dress is much smaller and is worn on the crown of the head; in Plougastel, where tradition is still strong, it has a medieval appearance with ribbons tied on the side.
In Tréguier, the plainest of materials is allied with the most original of shapes. The Douarnenez head-dress is small and fits tightly round the bun on the back of the head, that of Auray shades the forehead and that of Huelgoat is almost like a lace hair-net.
In order to get a complete picture of the richness and variety of Breton costume, the tourist should visit the museums of Quimper, Guérande, Rennes, Nantes, Dinan and Pont-l’Abbé, which all have fine collections of traditional dress.
The Breton pardons are above all a manifestation of popular religious fervour. They take place in the churches and chapels which may be consecrated by the tradition of a thousand years. There the faithful come to seek forgiveness, fulfil a vow or beg for grace.
The great pardons are most impressive, while the smaller events, though they may be less spectacular, are often more fervent. It is well worth a tourist’s while to arrange their trip so that they may be present at one of them. It is also one of the rare occasions when they will see the old costumes, perhaps slightly modernised.
Monsieur Saint Yves
Saint Yves is the most popular saint in Brittany. He rights all wrongs and is the patron saint of the poor. Son of a gentleman, Yves Hélori was born in Minihy-Tréguier in 1253. Magistrate and barrister, he acquired a reputation for dispensing justice quickly and fairly, achieving reconciliation, and pleading with precision. One day, a local notable came before the Magistrate with a complaint concerning a beggar who came to stand by his kitchen window every day, to enjoy the smell of the rich man’s meal in preparation. Yves jingled some coins and sent the man on his way saying “the sound of the money pays for the smell of the food”. This defender of the poor died in 1303 and was canonised in 1347.
The Saints of Brittany
Brittany, with its magicians, spirits, fairies and demons – both male and female – has also claimed more haloes than any other part of France. Its saints number in hundreds and are represented by painted wooden statues adorning chapels and churches. Truth to tell, those who were canonised by the Vatican authorities (St Yves for example) can be counted on one’s fingers. The most “official” among them were simply recognised by the bishops; the people themselves adopted others. Their fame goes no further than the borders of the province, or even the limits of the villages where they are venerated.
Healing Saints and Protective Saints
The Bretons have always been on trusting, friendly and even familiar terms with their saints.
There are saints who are invoked on all occasions. Innumerable others are invoked against specified ailments: rheumatism, baldness, etc. For centuries they took the place of doctors. Horned animals also have their appointed saints (St Herbot and St Cornély) – as well as motorcyclists.
Saint Anne became a popular figure around the time when the crusaders were returning home. With the encouragement of Duchess Anne of Brittany, she became the patron saint of the region. One of the most famous pardons is devoted to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray and another celebrates Sainte-Anne-la-Palud. There is a saying among the faithful in Brittany: “Dead or alive, every Breton will see Saint Anne”. Statues often represent her in a green cloak, the colour symbolising hope, either alone or teaching her daughter Mary.
Notre-Dame des Motards
The little villageof Porcaro (just 550 inhabitants) in the Morbihan region is known as the French capital of motorcyclists. Each year on the 14th and 15th August, thousands of bikers from across France come to pay their respects to ’Our Lady of the Bikers’, a statue of the Virgin Mary that the founder of the pilgrimage had brought from the shrine of Fatima. The event celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2008.