The little town of La Roche-Bernard, set on a rocky spur along the River Vilaine, takes its name from the days when a Viking chief - Bernhardt - saw its potential as a safe anchorage and created a settlement.
La Roche-Bernard is now a popular harbour for yachtsmen and ‘La Petite Cite de Caractere’ favoured by tourists. Stroll around its picturesque streets, visit the museum of maritime history at Place du Bouffay or take a trip on a traditional sailing barge down the Vilaine estuary to the barrage d’Arzal.
La Roche-Bernard has an excellent culinary reputation so make time for lunch in the old town or around the port.
Vannes, 20km east of Auray, is one of Southern Brittany’s key tourist towns. Modern Vannes is prosperous and cosmopolitan but it’s the picturesque old walled town of Vieux Vannes that is of particular interest to visitors with its focal point of Porte St-Vincent, gateway to a busy little square at the northern end of the long canalized port.
Inside Vannes’s ramparts, the old town is mostly pedestrianised and charms visitors with quaint streets around the cathedral. Outside the medieval quarter, the place de la Republique has the grandest of the public buildings including the Hotel de Ville, guarded by a pair of fine bronze lions.
Visit Vannes’ Musee Archeologique, said to have one of the world’s finest collections of pre-historic artifacts. The modern aquarium in the Parc du Golfe claims to have the best collection of tropical fish in Europe including a Nile crocodile found in the Paris sewers in 1984 that shares its tank with a group of piranhas.
Josselin is instantly recognisable by the 3 ornate towers of its vast fortress of a chateau. The duchess’s collection of dolls, housed in the Musee des Poupees behind Josselin’s castle, makes for a special visit or stop at the Basilica Notre Dame du Roncier with its wonderful architecture.
Josselin is full of medieval splendours, from the gargoyles of the basilica to the castle ramparts, and the half-timbered houses in between.
Josselin has a busy centre where you will find shops, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes as well as a cinema and lively Saturday market. In summer, the town holds festivals and exhibitions, such as the free weekly concerts staged outside the town hall in July and August, and there are also guided tours of the castle in English mid-July to end August.
If you enjoy walking, the shores of the Quiberon Peninsula are a must. The west side of the Quiberon Peninsula is known as the Cote Sauvage, ‘the wild coast’, where the sea collides with the shore – excellent for surfing. The sheltered eastern side has safe, calm sandy beaches perfect for sunbathing or family days out.
Quiberon itself is a lively port and has a mini golf course, bars, restaurants and good clothes and antiques shops.
Enjoy the cafes dotted along Quiberon’s long bathing beach and a visit to the old-fashioned Café du Marche is to be recommended.
Port-Maria - Quiberon’s fishing harbour and the departure point for the islands of Belle-Ile, Houat and Hoedic - tends to be the busiest part of town and has a good selection of restaurants. Port-Maria was once famous for its locally canned sardines.
A favourite today with sailing enthusiasts, the sheltered harbour of Trinite-sur-Mer in the inner reaches of Quiberon Bay was the port for nearby Carnac in the thirteenth century. Its inhabitants made a living from fishing and salt farming.
Keenly fought sailing races between fishermen laid the foundation for Trinite-sur-Mer’s Society of Regattas founded in 1879 and the important regatta events such as the Spi Ouest-France which now take place here annually attracting top sailing names.
Many famous sailors have visited Trinite-sur-Mer’s prestigious marina which has become one of the largest on the Atlantic coast with 150 moorings and 1,050 pontoon berths plus space for up to 80 visitors’ boats. See some wonderful transatlantic racing vessels moored along the quays
Those keen to join the action can take boat tours and hire boats or go sea fishing, sea kayaking, windsurfing and diving. There is a sailing school at Societe Nautique de la Trinite, tel (00 33) 2 97 55 73 48.
Take the footpath to Trinite’s child-friendly main beach of Kervillen which has a children’s club, or hire bikes and cycle along the trail to nearby Carnac to visit the standing stones. The old salt marshes at Brouel Kerbinhan are now a bird sanctuary.
Auray is well placed for exploring Carnac, the Quiberon Peninsula and the Gulf of Morbihan but first explore the beautiful town itself. The centre of Auray is the place de la Republique, with its eighteenth century Hotel de Ville and, in a neighbouring square, the seventeenth century church of St Gildas has a fine Renaissance porch. A covered market adjoins the Hotel de Ville and you can pick up some of the finest fresh local produce at the open-air Monday market.
Auray features the picture-postcard ancient quarter of St-Goustan, with its delightful fifteenth and sixteenth century houses. A bend in the River Loch was a natural setting for the little town and it soon became one of the busiest ports in Brittany. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin landed here on his way to seek the help of Louis XVI in the American War of Independence. A visit to Auray is sure to delight with numerous restaurants, bars and places to sit and watch the world go by.
Hennebont is an old walled market town on the banks of the Blavet where the salty water of the river estuary mingles with fresh water from upstream. Places of interest in Hennebont are the Abbaye de la Joie, Broerec’h Gate and sixteenth century church of Notre-Dame-du-Paradis with its showy porch and bell tower. One of France’s 20 national studs - haras nationaux - has been at Hennebont since 1875. Visit horse shows there in July and August. Call (00 33) 2 97 89 40 30 to ask about visits and guided tours.
Pontivy makes an ideal touring base located in Central Brittany at the point where the Nantes-Brest Canal diverges from the River Blavet. Old Pontivy has medieval origins with overhanging houses crowding narrow winding streets.
Visit place du Martray for the Monday market and fifteenth century Chateau de Rohan overlooking the River Blavet on Pontivy’s northern hillside.
Napoleon redesigned part of the town when it was scheduled to become the main administrative centre along the Nantes-Brest inland waterway (completed in 1842) in recognition of the inhabitants’ republican sympathies.
Briefly an imperial military base and twice known as Napoleonville, the wide regimented avenues of lower Pontivy and town hall built in the mid 1800s make a striking contrast to the medieval centre.
Call the local tourist office (00 33) 2 97 25 04 10 for details of guided tours of the town, Chateau - which has events and exhibitions in summer – churches, including St Joseph’s contemporary stained glass, and Les Recollets mill museum.
Le Faouet is a charming town in Central Brittany famous for its ancient timber-framed market hall topped by a beautiful bell-tower. A food market is held here on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.
Fifteenth century St Fiacre Chapel nearby has beautiful stained glass windows and a 1480 rood screen, and Sainte-Barbe Chapel overlooking the Elle Valley holds its ‘Pardon’ - traditional Breton religious festival with processions and music - on the last Sunday in June each year.
Built on a large natural harbour on the estuary where the rivers Scorff, Ter and Blavet meet the Bay of Biscay, Lorient is Brittany’s fourth largest city and best known for its Inter-Celtic Festival held each year from the first Friday in August to the second Sunday - the largest Celtic event in Brittany and possibly the world.
A major port for trade with the Far East (l’Orient) in the mid seventeenth century, Lorient suffered intensive bombing in WWII. Its rebuilding included a major fishing port and harbour for pleasure boats.
The University of South Brittany is located in Lorient, shopping is good and there is beautiful countryside nearby.
Visit the Ile de Groix off the coast which has beaches and a nature reserve or take a boat trip up the estuary to Hennebont.
Carnac comprises Carnac-Ville and the seaside resort of Carnac-Plage and is extremely popular with holidaymakers in July and August. If you can, visit in late spring or early autumn when Carnac is less crowded.
Carnac’s 5 beaches extend for nearly 3km in total. The 2 most attractive - usually counted as one - are the Plages Men Du and Beaumer, which lie to the east towards La Trinite beyond Pointe Churchill.
Carnac town and seafront are well wooded, offering shade from the hot beach, and the tree-lined avenues and gardens are delightful. The climate in Carnac is mild enough for evergreen oak and Mediterranean mimosa to grow alongside native stone pine and cypress.
A ‘must’ to visit are the Carnac Stones, over 2000 stone megaliths (stone alignments) dating back over 4000 years BC. A pleasant walk from the beach into the town brings you alongside these awe-inspiring standing stones believed by some to have been an observatory for the motions of the moon.
The charming medieval town of Rochefort-en-Terre, set on a rocky promontory overlooking the Gueuzon valley, is known for its picturesque floral displays. Cobbled alleys of sixteenth and seventeenth century wisteria clad houses centre around Porche Street, Puits Street and Halles Square.
Browse the little artisan and antique shops for holiday souvenirs and enjoy traditional Breton food in local creperies and restaurants. In summer, geraniums bloom everywhere since painter Alfred Klots bought and restored Rochefort-en-Terre’s ruined chateau in 1911 and introduced a competition for the best display.
Take an evening stroll from June onwards when the whole town is illuminated. The fortified castle high above Rochefort-en-Terre is open for guided tours daily July and August, afternoons June and September, and weekend afternoons April and May.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Tronchaye Church with its sixteenth century Calvary has its ‘Pardon’ - religious festival - on 15 August and Rochefort’s street festival of jazz and rock music - Les Loustiks de l’Akoustik - also takes place in August.
The town of Malestroit, founded in the tenth century, is located on the River Oust and became famous for its leather, linen and hemp.
When Napoleon ordered the construction of the Nantes-Brest Canal, it enabled the town to import and export local goods. Boats or barges can be hired to explore the waterways.
The main square of the town has several cafes and restaurants and, in July and August, local Breton bands play live music. In the nearby village of St. Marcel (2km), there is a museum dedicated to the Breton Resistance movement sited on the ground where a battle was won by the resistance fighters. Open daily except Tuesday mid Sept to 1 April.
For more information contact:
The Tourist Office
17 place du Bouffay
Tel: (00 33) 2 97 75 14 57