As I travelled South-West, I crossed into Morbihan (56). Once part of Brittany proper, as the name indicates – “little sea”, in Breton, named after the gulf of Morbihan. The place names now have a definite Breton feel to them, beginning in ker- (meaning “fortified farm” in Breton, similar to the Welsh “Caer”) or ending in -ec or -ac. Diphthongs are common too: Plancoët, Ploërmel. Dotted around are megaliths, dolmens and menhirs (standing stones) who stubbornly keep their mysteries. But I would argue that it is the new area of marches, where both trade and friction exert their competing pulls.
The name of the forêt de Brocéliande links it to King Arthur, his sister the queen Morgan, the wizard Merlin, the fairy Melusine. You can see how in the Middles Ages this forest was impenetrable, hostile, mysterious, and the object of fantasy. Nowadays, it turns out to be quite a monotonous forest of pines and birch, where tracks are straight and muddy – the water is just under the surface, even with the many ditches. There are no car parks in the forest itself. Walking and cycling trails are few, and badly signposted. Tourists, like the pilgrims of old, are funnelled to Paimpont, the town in the middle of the forest, and its abbey.
The town is sick with tourism in more ways than one. Small shops sell tasteless plastic figurines. Restaurants all exploit the Arthurian links. The decorations of Disney-like tangled vegetation are neither true to vernacular, simple but solid breton style, nor to the Celtic patterns. Clearly, in summer, the town is overrun by tourists by the coach-load. In the low-season, the locals clearly breathe a sigh of relief, and appreciate their entre-nous (“between-us”). Trade and friction.
Travelling onwards, the forest opens up and gorse grows between the trees…