So many roads in the region lead to Rennes, it seems natural to learn this multicultural city, set on a hill between the rivers Ille and Vilaine, has been the capital of Brittany since 1561.
Art and history meet here and Rennes hosts a wide variety of renowned cinematic and performance festivals - notably July’s ‘Les Tombees de la Nuit’, besides being home to the impressively restored Parliament of Brittany building and Basilica Saint-Sauveur.
Many of Rennes’s wonderful medieval buildings were destroyed in a huge fire in 1720 but there are still fine examples around place Ste-Anne, rue de la Psalette, rue St-Georges and rue du Chapitre.
Head south from the Palais de Justice to the River Vilaine and cross to the south bank for a lively atmosphere. The giant Colombier Centre is a prime example of modern Rennes - a shopper’s delight, plus cafes and snack bars and with an amazing crystal model of itself in the main entrance hall. Prefer the atmosphere of a street market? Visit one of France’s largest held each Saturday at place des Lices, originally the venue for jousting tournaments.
This lovely walled city, one of Brittany Ferries’ arrival ports, has a magnificent rampart walk with fine views. It is a shopping paradise with a huge variety of boutiques, and cafes and restaurants abound .
Markets are held within the walls at Halle au Ble on Tuesdays and Fridays. Follow signs to the city’s magnificent Aquarium on the outskirts (check www.aquarium-st-malo.com for opening times) or visit excellent nearby beaches.
Walk to the island of Grande-Be at low tide to see the tomb of nineteenth century writer and politician, Chateaubriand, and learn of St Malo’s heyday as a major privateer stronghold in the Musee de la Ville, housed in the town’s castle near Port St-Vincent (open daily April-Sept, closed Mondays Oct-Mar).
Built on a huge granite ledge, Fougeres was once a heavily fortified frontier town guarding the old border between Brittany and France, its walls giving protection to Breton ‘salt smugglers’ in the Middle Ages.
The town’s spectacular position high above a loop of the River Nancon is reflected in streets that can plunge down several levels and lanes sometimes ending in flights of steps. Fougeres’s medieval castle which is open throughout the year (except January) is the largest in Europe. However, this didn’t stop it being repeatedly captured during its history, despite being backed by huge rock faces and having a protective moat with waterfalls and weirs.
A walk through successive tiers of pretty public gardens offers fantastic views of the ramparts and towers descending to the meadows beside the Nancon. Why not pay a visit to the Foret de Fougeres, towards Vire. The beech woods are beautiful, hiding long forgotten trails of druid stones.
Vitre, together with Fougeres to the north, was a border fortress with France before Brittany lost its independence in 1532. Its castle high above the River Vilaine, has great view points and houses the town museum in one of its 3 towers.
An historic heritage town with medieval streets, half-timbered houses, castle, museums and gardens, Vitre is certainly worth a visit. Make time to wander the delightful streets of the old town and look for wooden porches and carvings - some doors even have quotations from the bible above them. Much of the woodwork would have originally have been painted in bright primary colours.
The Tourist Office organises guided tours on Sundays in July and August at the romantic time of 10pm (must book). Children will enjoy a visit to Haute Vilaine Watersports Base north east of the town, and the whole family will be fascinated by a trip to a ‘living bee museum’ - Musee de l’Abeille Vivante - open daily except Monday July and August, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday April to June 1300 – 1830. Tour guides will show you colonies working in glass-sided hives.
One of Brittany’s first bishoprics in the sixth century, Dol-de-Bretagne lies close to the border with Normandy and has endured a turbulent history. The huge fortified Cathedral of Saint Samson, built in Gothic and Romanesque style, dominates the town including the main shopping area and cobbled streets and half-timbered houses in la rue des Stuarts.
Summer is a time for musical evenings at the Cathedral and July always has a programme of street events. Visit Cathedraloscope in the cathedral square - the first discovery centre dedicated to cathedrals - where you can time travel back to the Middle Ages and which has children’s workshops.
You’ll find plenty of places to eat by day or in the evening and market day is on Saturday. On the town’s seaward side, rocky Mont Dol - once an island monastery but now surrounded by marshes - resembles the granite outcrop of the more famous Mont St Michel, 30km to the east. Legend has it the Archangel Michael won a battle with the Devil fought on Mont Dol. You can either drive up the steep road or climb to a little chapel near the summit.
The charming, peaceful market town of Combourg is dominated by its fairytale chateau perched on a hillside and skirted by houses next to an enormous lake.
The original castle was built in the eleventh century and modifications continued from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. In 1761, the chateau was acquired by the Chateaubriand family and became the rather gloomy childhood home of France’s famous writer Rene de Chateaubriand.
Today’s fortress is a privately owned, imposing granite structure housing period furniture with towers at each corner enclosing a rectangular courtyard. Enjoy the beautiful gardens and a meal in one of several delightful lakeside restaurants.
The resort of Dinard is situated on the western side of the Rance Estuary across the water from picturesque St Malo.
There is a certain ‘Cote d’Azur’ feel about this elegant seaside resort with ‘belle epoque’ villas and casino, high profile social calendar and sub-tropical vegetation courtesy of the Gulf Stream. Dinard’s status stems from the taste and wealth of English and American visitors who ‘adopted’ this fishing village in the nineteenth century.
Enjoy Dinard’s pretty bay and charming Ecluse beach. Take a stroll along coastal footpaths dotted with boards displaying reproductions of artwork actually painted along the route, by artists such as Picasso. Head east up to the Pointe du Moulinet for spectacular views over to St Malo and visit nearby ‘Rance Barrage’ dam.