In the last two weeks I crossed from the pretty Normandy to the beautiful Brittany. Before I write on, a disclaimer; I consider myself a Breton as much as a Parisian. I may be a more than a little biased.
Brittany is a headstrong piece of land, at the western end of Eurasia, that refuses to be washed away by the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, it is defined by it. Great sailors, its people travelled and traded widely.
But they also had to define themselves against their nearest land neighbours. To this day, Brittany has a strong regional identity (I the living proof!). As soon as you cross over into Brittany (and that includes the region of Nantes, now attached to the Pays de Loire), you will see the breton flag everywhere. Stickers on cars and letter boxes, flags on town hall, restaurant or shop logos show the black and white stripes with the ermines. Even in areas where Gallo, a local dialect of French was spoken, nowadays the town names are displayed in both French and Breton, (and only sometimes Gallo) such is the revival of the Breton language.
Brittany used to be a kingdom – think of King Arthur, King of the Bretons/Britons!. Then it became a duchy. In the Middles Ages, the dukes kept on switching allegiances between the King of France and the King of England/Duke of Normandy, in order to preserve the independence of the province. The Duchess Ann of Brittany, who entertained a brilliant court in Nantes, campaigned vigorously to keep Brittany jealously independent from the Crown, remains a popular figure. It took an episode of the Hundred-years War, and three marriages to Kings of France (two by Ann, one by her daughter) to eventually attach Brittany to France in 1532.
Les Marches de Bretagne, like any Marches, were an area of friction, conflict, but exchange and trade too. Traditionally, this covers the north-east of Brittany, where, in Fougères (named after the plant, “bracken”), Vitré, Dinan, impressive castles still stand. In grey sandstone or granite, they are stark but elegant, with their pointed slate roofs. They speak of centuries of competing ambitions and switching alliances, when you never knew who tomorrow’s enemy would be. But war wasn’t all, and the beautiful medieval houses are testament to the wealth of the merchant class too.
Rennes, the capital of Brittany, looks both ways, to Brittany and France. Precious few ancient buildings remain, after the Allied bombardments of the Second World War. But the Parliament of Brittany does. It is a surprising building, of Renaissance-classic style, but with a Breton twist: the steep slate roof, topped with a little golden crest mixing Breton’s ermine and the French monarchy’s fleur-de-lys.
As I travelled South-West, I crossed into Morbihan (56)…