If you are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of tourist towns and want to discover a part of France where time can seem to stand still and no-one is in any kind of a hurry – you need to head for Morbihan in Brittany.
In rural Morbihan is you can hear the clock ticking in the farmhouse three kilometres away. That’s a slight exaggeration; the farm is only one kilometre away.
But the fact remains that here the sounds of silence are no paradox, it really is tranquil and as far removed from the hullaballoo of townie gabble as can be.
I first arrived here by mistake; taking the road for Brest as I drove around Rennes, instead of waiting for the Lorient exit.
The result was a pleasing if unplanned trans-country route through the remnant forests and farmland of the Landes de Lanvaux, and diminutive hamlets where the average age of its inhabitants was probably seventy at least.
Even when I hit the, by comparison, metropolae of Plescop and Mériadec, the pace of life was slower than slow.
A father and three wobbling daughters on bikes, the signs and paraphernalia of road works but without a workman in sight, and a stooped, elderly lady who scowled as I drove by and must have been thinking that my black Volvo was a hearse bound for one of her few remaining friends.
Towns in Morbihan
There are large towns here, of course; well, just two. Vannes, population around 50,000, and Lorient, which sprawls across an urban conurbation about twice that size.
Vannes in Morbihan
Vannes, perhaps surprisingly if you approach from the north, is actually built on the coast, a huge amphitheatre constructed around the Golfe du Morbihan.
It’s a lovely city not unlike a chocolate bonbon – hard on the outside but with a soft and agreeable centre. And that impressionable heart is its old town.
Vannes old town is grouped within sturdy ramparts around its nondescript cathedral. It has a pedestrianised zone where up-market shops, cafés and restaurants have breathed new life into the city.
You’ll marvel at the geometrically challenged half-timbered colombages of old, which seem in perpetual danger of collapse. They all seem to rest companionably on their neighbours for essential support, with ne’er a right angle in sight.
Antiquity is very much the undercurrent here, for Darioritum, as it was then called, has been around since Roman times, and prospered until Barbarians took possession in the 4th century.
The ramparts, certainly where they parallel the stream known as the Marle, are well-preserved and attractive, mainly 17th century, and penetrated by medieval gates at Porte Prison, Porte Poterne and Porte St Vincent. A small bridge leading to Porte Poterne overlooks the town’s old wash-houses.
Things To Do In Vannes
The beautifully manicured Jardins des Remparts not only has an array of floral beds to admire but it’s also an excellent vantage point to admire some of the other local attractions. The cathedral and Garenne bastion being perfect examples of this.
If you’re into historical architecture then you won’t want to miss out on seeing the Vieux Lavoirs which are located on the banks of the Marle stream. While they do have a much older appearance, these quaint laundry buildings are actually as young as the 19th century and were built up until the 1950s!
Place Henry IV is a lovely little square that is surrounded by colombage houses built throughout the 15th and 16th century. It’s a great place to discover local history but also has a creperie and several monuments for a relaxed afternoon.
The Museum of History and Archaeology is another important attraction in Vannes. But it’s not only home to a selection of interesting exhibitions but set in a mediaeval building that has to be appreciated before stepping inside. It’s great for prehistory fans as you’ll find tons of artefacts including weapons, pottery, jewellery and much more.
If art is more your thing, then you may want to visit the fine art museum, La Cohue. While this does house an array of art exhibitions including a contemporary exhibition, La Cohue is also set in a beautiful historic building, parts of which were built as long ago as the 1200s.
Much like everything else in Vannes, the building has an interesting history and was even once the seat of the Brittany parliament.
The other large town in Morbihan is Lorient. This charming seaport on the south coast of Brittany has a population of just under 60,000 and is often referred to as the City of Five Ports.
The local economy is very much built around the sea with fishing, sailing and commercial shipping ensuring the port area is a hive of bustling activity every day of the week.
Things To Do In Lorient
If you’re in Lorient, you have to take the opportunity to visit the only museum in Europe that is dedicated solely to sailing.
Even if you’re totally new to the subject, there are a whole host of interactive activities and kid-friendly exhibitions so it’s a great place to start your learning journey. And if you’re a regular visitor, each year the main exhibition changes so there’s always something new to see.
The Tour de la Decouverte is a tower that was erected in 1786 and was designed as a lookout for smugglers. Today, you can climb the 216 steps to the summit where your efforts will be rewarded with beautiful views across the port.
The Hotel Gabriel is a great place to start discovering the history of Lorient as it regularly hosts workshops and activities around this theme.
The hotel is known for the role it played in the wealth of the area that came from the silk trade. If you want to continue learning about the very roots of Lorient then it’s also worth paying a visit to the Musee de la Compagnie des Indes.
For nature lovers, a short ferry ride takes you to Groix Island, an unspoilt paradise where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of the active port of Lorient for a night.
It’s a great choice for hikers as there’s a lengthy walking trail that veers along the coastline and the views are well worth the journey if nothing else.
You’ll also find a typical French market in the main village on Tuesday and Saturdays which is a great place to pick up local produce and chat to the local people.
What to see in Morbihan
South-west of Vannes lies the Golfe de Morbihan, almost an inland sea, studded with islands. It was once said that the gulf had as many islands as there are days in the year.
That may have been a medieval tourism marketing ploy; there are certainly nothing like so many now, maybe around forty, most of the rest having been consumed by rising tides. All but two of those that remain are private and owned by celebrities.
The Baie de Quiberon
Beyond the narrow opening at Locmariaquer lies the Baie de Quiberon, embraced to the west by the long, narrow arm that links what was once the island of Quiberon with the mainland.
For those in search of all things seasidey, including the crepes and donuts that seem to be the staple fare of beach lovers judging by the number of outlets selling them.
This narrow isthmus – geographically known as a tombolo – is quite special, and at its narrowest at Penthièvre, where waves roll in both left and right. There is little that screams ‘Breton’ about Quiberon; it used to be an important sardine-fishing port, but today the great sweeping beach bustles to life only in the summer months.
Nothing much happens outside the main holiday season, which is particularly appealing if you like enough space on a beach not to feel like a tinned sardine.
Elsewhere, the landscape is widely varied: sand dunes held in place by pine, a wild, west coast of cliffs, rocks, caves and reefs and white-sand beaches.
This area was heavily occupied during the Second World War, and one of the last German strongholds to fall, in May 1945. The French Riviera this is not; and is all the better for it. There is room to breathe here.
Most people visit Quiberon to take boat trips out to the islands in the bay – Belle-Ile in particular, brought renown by both Monet and Sarah Bernhardt – but you could just as easily settle for lounging in one of the cafés on the seafront, chill out and give in to the donuts.
Auray on the River Loch
West of Vannes, where fingers of water probe the landscape, lies the small-big town of Auray, essentially a two-storey settlement having an upper town and a lower.
You arrive in the upper town, where the place de la République and the 18th-century Hotel de Ville is a natural centre; it’s attractive and sufficient in a domestic kind of way, with a fine indoor market and an open air market on Mondays.
But the real showpiece of Auray is the old quarter of Saint Goustan, developed on a bend in the River Loch. Accessed by a lovely 17th-century bridge, it is easy to see why this was a perfect defensible site, and, with easy access to the Golfe du Morbihan, became a thriving port. Although restored, many of the extant buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Even at the height of lunch, the place has a quiet charm, with its higgledy-piggledy buildings, narrow streets and waterfront dwellings.
It was at Auray, on 4 December 1776, that as the American War of Independence raged on at home, the US statesman Benjamin Franklin landed from Philadelphia to enlist the help of Louis XVI, and so negotiate the first alliance between the two countries.
To this day, the quay is named after Franklin, and the house where he stayed bears a plaque commemorating the occasion. At a much earlier date, Auray is believed to have been the limit of Julius Caesar’s conquest ambitions in Gaul, although that may just have been a personal thing as the Romans certainly went further west.
The mystery of Carnac
Between Auray, where you leave the east-west drag, and Quiberon, you branch off to Carnac, a prehistoric MENSA puzzle that no one has yet solved making this one of our Top 10 Places to Visit in France.
The area around Carnac is said to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world, certainly for the last 8,000 years.
The Carnac standing stones, several thousands of them, make infants of Stonehenge, Knossos, the pyramids and the great Egyptian temples bearing the same name at Karnak. ‘Kar-’, ‘Car-‘, or, more usually, ‘Ker-‘ is a familiar prefix to place-names in Brittany: it means, ‘place’. And the place to see huge and unfathomable alignments of standing stones is Carnac.
Here, almost 3,000 monoliths have been part of the landscape of Brittany since long before any system of communication was invented that could transmit their purpose down the millennia.
Most experts agree that the stones had religious, astronomical or ritual function, maybe all three. But the mystery remains; experts can make educated guesses, no doubt very highly perceptive educated guesses, but the truth is that it is unlikely we will ever know.
Other places to see in Morbihan
If you want to discover rural France inland Morbihan really does have a quiet appeal. Few of the villages that appear on maps feature in guidebooks; they are out-of-the-way, bright, clean, flowery, drowsy places surrounded by gently undulating farmland and the remains of a once great forest.
To the north, beyond the Landes de Lanvaux lie pastel-shaded St-Jean-Brévelay, and Guéhenno, renowned for its ornate calvary, which has served to remind everyone since 1550 when it was built that they are constantly being observed.
Today, the calvary is a classic example of Destroy-It-Yourself-ism, having been amateurishly restored by the local priest following Revolutionary damage in 1794. All the local sculptors, with an eye to a generous dip into the ecclesiastical coffers, or fearing reprisals come the next Revolution, demanded exorbitant fees for the work.
The beautiful village of Rochefort-en-Terre
To the east of Vannes, and worthy of note is the attractive village of Rochefort-en-Terre, occupying a promontory site overlooking the Gueuzon valley. It is rated as one of the ‘Best villages to visit in France’, and, unlike some, with justification.
First impressions are of a one-street village with charming 16th- and 17th-century houses, florally decorated and tastefully maintained. But there are a number of side streets that beckon like an impatient child: one leads to a neat, modern public garden; another to the entrance to the chateau.
The original chateau was destroyed in 1793, and little remains of that building save for the main entrance, sections of the walls, some underground passages and a few outbuildings.
Using what can only be described as a pic’n’mix approach to chateau building, in the early 20th century, the American artist Alfred Klots rebuilt the chateau using masonry from many other buildings, principally the dormer windows, which came from the 17th-century Kéralio manor house near Muzillac.
The ensemble: chateau, houses, and setting make this an appealing destination, and it has found favour with artisanats who ply their trade in yarn, glass, earthenware and on canvas.
Josselin in Morbihan
But of real note is the ancient town of Josselin, of which one house, dating from 1538, still remains.
A town of particular medieval splendour, Josselin is hugely dominated by the triple towers of its reconstructed feudal chateau, home of the Rohan family, who once owned a third of all Brittany.
It was here, or at least in the chateau that existed before Richelieu had it demolished in 1629, that the Edict of Nantes was signed, in 1598.
But even that significant historical note pales when set against the delightful mish-mash of ancient streets, lined by beautiful half-timbered houses.
Below the modern, 19th-century chateau and the town flows the Oust, long since canalised to form part of the Canal de Nantes à Brest, and today paralleled by an excellent towpath, enlivened by floral baskets, en-gardened locks and lush waterside willow.
The busy Saturday market in Josselin resounds to all that is authentically Breton, and while the town is a place wherein to spend a couple of days, the danger is that it may become much longer.
Such is the way, too, of Morbihan in particular and Brittany in general.