It is a permanent impressionist exhibition here; you only have to put your nose outside the door when the weather is fine: it’s Monet all over: violet overalls, green land, orange sky, blue trees, violet, red and pink boats etc. It’s enough to make you mad.— Emile Bernard
If you should ever want to re-enter the primary-colored world of your kindergarten days, come to Brittany. I discovered Brittany last month, the picture book landscape that I had always suspected must really exist somewhere and now, finally found. In northwest France I delighted in a royal blue sea set with white sailed skiffs, red and white lighthouses, and red, blue, green and yellow fishing boats gleaming in the sun like enlarged Brio toys. The 18th century cliff top homes have the boxy, symmetry of children’s blocks, making the coastal scenery here one of simplicity and cheer.
This is not what I had expected.
I had mistakenly thought Brittany to be a blustery cold place of gray houses and bleak skies. Yet, everywhere I went, I was taken with the bright, bold beauty of a sunny land filled with traditional delights for the visitor.
I first got a taste of these delights on my arrival. From Paris I used my France Rail Pass to travel to Brittany’s capital, Rennes. Two hours and one coffee later I arrived and I felt was not only not in Kansas anymore, I was not in France anymore. With a revival of Brittany’s Celtic culture, there are radio stations entirely in the Breton language and as if to cement the solidarity with their neighbors across the Channel, the twisted medieval streets of half-timbered houses sport Irish pubs and Irish street musicians. I stayed in Rennes only for a lunch and a stroll, then made a beeline for the museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts with its lovely Art Nouveau and Modern pieces and my very favorite painting on the planet, Georges de La Tour’s, The Newborn Child.
From Rennes, it’s a brief train ride to perhaps the most breathtaking of French cities: St. Malo. This walled seaport perches at the edge of the Atlantic. The setting is spectacular. From the 16th century mile-long ramparts you breathe in the brisk air smelling of iodine. You can look far across the water to several little islands crowned with ancient forts. White and pink-sailed yachts and fishing boats ply the waters and ferries, white and high as wedding cakes sail to and from England. On the cliffs across the way, you see the stately resort town of Dinard with its extravagant English houses and long, wide beach. St. Malo is celebrated as a city of adventurers and privateers. It was from here that gentlemen pirates made life hell for English sailors and it was from here that Cartier sailed when he discovered Canada.
St. Malo blends 18th century elegance with 16th century provincial port. The surprise however is that St. Malo is new. Destroyed by the Germans in World War II, St. Malo was painstakingly re-built stone by stone so that today it is a perfect but poignant replica of itself. The town’s heart is the elegant Place Chateaubriand, fringed with nautical-themed cafés. On the surrounding streets you can buy some lovely, unique gifts. At Vent de Voyage, two women recycle the sails from yachts to make chic totes and handbags with the steel clew holes as handles. Beyond buying the delicious cookies and caramels made with Brittany’s famous salted butter, you must of course do what every single tourist to St. Malo does, buy and wear a striped nautical tee shirt. Not only the Malouins (the citizens of St. Malo) sport these jaunty blue and white or red and white striped shirts but so does every man woman and child who visits. It’s charming yet amusing for all these horizontally striped tourists can have the odd effect of making the town look like some kind of retreat for prisoners.
The essential thing to buy in St. Malo, and in fact in all of Brittany are the galettes. A galette is no more than a crepe made with buckwheat flour and filled with something savory. In St. Malo, at the charming bow windowed crêperie, I learned about ordering one’s galette with ham, cheese and fried egg “oeuf miroir” so that cutting into it, the yolk spills deliciously around the crepe. For dessert, I had a crêpe (not a galette) as it was made with wheat flour. It was filled with the Breton specialty, a warm caramel sauce called crème de Salidou made with that surprisingly delicious salted butter. There are no words to describe how sensual this tastes. Buy a jar to bring home. Move over Nutella!
Now, there’s something about France that makes you hungry all the time and in Brittany this phenomenon is no exception. There are so many gastronomic discoveries and they’re so easy to come by, that even after I’d eaten, like a greedy child, I was eager for another. I went to Cancale, a quaint fishing village, a mere 15 minutes from St. Malo. If the name of this village sounds familiar, it might be that you have seen the word on menus in the brasseries of Paris. It is in Cancale where more than 80% of France’s oysters are farmed. The eponymous oysters feed naturally on the plankton-rich waters of the Breton sea and this is said to give make them especially delicious. Men with knee high rubber boots, yellow slickers and weathered faces drive tractors up from the beach that are loaded high with oysters. You buy them directly --- a dozen large cancales for 3 euros. Squeeze a drop of lemon on one (if it contracts it’s alive) then scoop it with your fingers and drop it into your mouth. It slides down the throat in sea-salted silkiness. To enhance the experience, look at the horizon. If you’re lucky with the weather as I was, you will see the awesome Mont. St. Michel rising in the distant mist like a ghost abbey.
Now you have what the French call an embarrassment des choix.
For me there was no question. I would travel with my rail pass south to Quimper, pronounced “camp pair.” Quimper lies gracefully along the Odet river. It is an endearing town of about 100,00 souls. The lively, medieval center is gathered around the cathedral of St. Corentin which has a chancel that is completely crooked so on entering the church the aisle gives the impression of a derailed train. Quimper is a fun, vibrant city with a terrific art museum and loads of charming restaurants. It is said to be the most Celtic town in Brittany. In Quimper, you can still see ladies with the tall white lace hats and in fact you can buy handmade lace here from a stand in front of the cathedral.
But I came to Quimper for an entirely different reason; I came as on a pilgrimage.
Quimper boasts the oldest company in France H. B. Henriot and it is to this company that I journeyed. For more than 30 years I’ve been collecting the painted pottery that H.B Henriot has been making continually for nearly 400 years. Quimper ware often painted with images of the Breton peasant, is collected worldwide and sold throughout the United States. I took a tour of the workshops where dishes, figurines and literally hundreds of objects are hand-painted on the metal glazed earthenware. The factory has an enormous gift shop with excellent savings whether you’re tempted by a 12-euro egg cup or a 4000- euro Italianate platter.
Quimper is the place to buy not only Quimper ware, but local specialties: algae liqueur (yes!) mustard with algae, the fine flower of the salt, the“fleur de sel” in pretty purple sacks from the marshes of Guérande, soft, rich Breton butter cookies called palets, the Kouign-amann, the dense butter cake to be washed down with cider, and my favorite, Far Breton, a flan studded with velvety prunes.
To cap the trip, I used my French Railpass to Quimperlé then it was a short bus ride to Pont Aven. American realist artists began flocking to this picturesque village on the River Aven in the 1860s. Later, the Impressionists came. Then, in 1886 Pont Aven’s most famous inhabitant arrived: Paul Gauguin. The seduction of the mysterious and even primitive Celtic culture set against a legendary coastline drew him to Brittany.
In Pont Aven, Gauguin developed a new technique of painting called Synthecism, an Expressionist style of vivid colors, and figures outlined in black. Above all, Gauguin developed a startling new idea which he advised others to take up: to paint what you feel, not what you see. Soon, all those young men of Europe who were bored with merely optical delights of Impressionism, came to Pont Aven to learn this shocking new way of painting and so began the Pont Aven School including the well known: Paul Serusier, Emile Bernard and by correspondence, Van Gogh. The group, known for their wild carousing, later moved on to the nearby seaside hamlet of Le Pouldu. Many critics think that Gauguin did his finest work not in Tahiti, but in Brittany. He and his followers certainly put Breton culture “on the map.” Their vivid, stylized depictions of Breton peasant women in their foot high lace caps. black dresses and wooden clogs have become icons for the Pont Aven School and have intrigued viewers with the unique customs and activities and products of these hardy fisher folk: gathering seaweed and algae, fishing for oysters, painting pottery, making lace and celebrating Catholic rituals infused with Celtic mythology. Perhaps most important the non-realist techniques of the Pont-Aven painters led the way to abstraction and thus, modern art.
Pont-Aven has more than 80 galleries as well as very good museum. The neighboring village of Le Pouldu offers the art lover a more intimate experience. One of the highlights of my trip was visiting the Inn of Marie Henry in Le Pouldu. Marie Henry was the beautiful, unwed mother who owned the tiny inn in which Gauguin and other artists lived and painted. In lieu of rent, they not only gave her paintings, they painted her inn. Today you can visit a perfect reconstruction. You will find the walls, ceilings, mantel, doors and windows entirely covered in fine works by Gauguin as well as more than 100 works by Pont-Aven artists. In Le Pouldu, too, you can take the “La Route des Peintres,” a scenic walk through farms, pastures and along the beaches and cliffs, stopping at the exact scenes that the artists painted. Images of the paintings are shown along the route with explanations and as you ramble, you discover how today the countryside looks pretty much the same as it did when painted more than 100 years ago. From either Pont Aven and Le Pouldu, you can ramble into the romantically-named forest, the Bois d’Amour where the painters would gather to paint. In these woods they found mystery and solitude The woods contain the ancient Trémalo chapel whose altarpiece inspired Gauguin’s masterpiece,“The Yellow Christ”
Near Le Pouldu is a golf course with panoramic views of the sea. In fact this area is called the Emerald Coast and is studded with magnificent golf courses. There is also sailing, kayaking, fishing, swimming bicycling and hiking, camping, horseback riding and tennis, casinos, thelassotherapy and a host of other sea spa treatments for which Brittany is renowned.
I fell in love with Brittany and I fell hard. Both for the “big” cities of Rennes, St. Malo and Quimper but also for the little nooks, unknown to Americans. I took to my heart the tiny seaports of Bénodet and San Marine. In these wee places, the pace slows and it’s awfully good to dine outside on garlicky lobster while gazing on the same Breton sea that Monet called “incomparably beautiful.” This is Cape Cod as you might want it to be— but isn’t. It’s Brittany and whether in city or hamlet, you will, as the French say, amuse yourself well.
For information on visiting Brittany:
Western France Tourist Board
444 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10022
Tel: : 1 41 02 86 83 10
Fax : 1 21 28 38 78 55
For information on French Railpass:
Rail Europe: 1-888-382-7245
Picks of the Trip
Rue de Montalembert (off Rue du Bac)
The chicest and most comfortable hotel on the Left Bank
Terrific location for sights, shopping and open air markets
4 star hotel with hip bar. See and be seen.
To kick-start your arty tour of Brittany, take advantage of their “Art deVivre” package including 2 nights in a double room for 650 euros plus breakfast plus a 3 course meal with wine for two and a one day pass to all Paris museums. Other great deals available on hotel’s website.
Reasonably priced, centrally located and with a cozy restaurant
6 Grand Rue Intra Muros
Tel: 02 99 40 87 70
Fax: 02 99 40 47 57
Hotel St. Pedro
Cute, 2-star with 12 quiet rooms, situated at the top of the fortress
Inexpensive with terrific sea views
1 rue Sainte Anne
Tel: 02 99 40 88 57
Fax: 02 99 40 46 25
Crêperie du Corps de Garde
Right inside the old seawall itself
Authentic 18th century house serving the terrific crêpes and light meals
3 Montée Notre-Dame
02 99 40 91 46
Boutique Vent de Voyage
Chic sailcloth totes and ethereal plastic jewelry by Anne Limbour
3 rue Saint-Thomas
02 99 20 17 91
H. B. Henriot
Extensive and dazzling array of painted pottery
Faïenceries de Quimper
Rue Haute. BP 1219
La Fleur de Sel
Beautiful Asian inspired restaurant
with much original art.
Sophisticated meals for lunch and dinner
1 Quai Neuf, Cap Horn
02 98 55 04 71
Les Ajoncs D’Or
Basic 2-star hotel
Friendly, fine food and location
1, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
Fax: 02 98 06 18 91
Tel: 02 98 06 02 06
Galerie Le Breton
Fine selection of French and International art
2 rue des Meunières
Tel: 02 98 06 18 46
Breton Butter cookies and cakes packaged in beautiful gift tins.
1, Quai Théodore Botrel
Hôtel Restaurant du Pouldu
Inexpensive family run inn with half board available,
Peaceful setting facing the water in a homey atmosphere. Try the stuffed clams: les palourdes farci
Tel: 02 98 39 90 66
Fax: 02 98 39 99 64
Café du Port
Wonderful seafood restaurant, scenically located at the mouth of the Laïta river.
Picturesque view of Bénodet from outdoor terrace
You don’t need an address: everyone’s there.