At Ease in Brittany!
Oysters, fois gras and all the smoked salmon you can eat… must be Christmas in France! This year bad weather predictions and preposterous ticket prices convinced me to spend another holiday season in Europe instead of in the mitten. Of course it is not easy to be away from loved ones during the holidays; however I was warmly welcomed to spend Christmas with Dimtiri and his family in Roanne. We had a huge meal on Christmas Eve including the food items mentioned above and exchanged presents once the clock struck midnight. Dimitri and I were extremely spoiled and received a “Wonderbox” from his mom. It is a gift package which includes a one night stay in a hotel and a really nice meal, however our wonderbox was a special package so the hotel is instead a castle! We got a little book with about 100 different castles in France to choose from and we get to pick one! Talk about feeling like a princess…
After a couple of days of eating way too many left overs (along with the huge chicken that his mother insisted on cooking Christmas day) we packed our bags and made the 7 hour drive to one of the regions of France I have always wanted to explore: Brittany (Bretagne in French).
This region of France was once a separate Kingdom before one of its duchesses, Anne of Bretagne, married the king of France in 1488 making Brittany an official part of the country.
Bretagne seems to be a mix of the U.K and France. The vast green fields with the billowing fog above them give a peaceful storybook feeling to the countryside. Instead of the white walled and red tiled roof houses seen throughout France, the houses are made from grey brick with slate roofs. There is even a separate language, Breton, which sounds a bit like Gaelic, which is still spoken in the area in and is on all of the street signs. Without a doubt, the Breton (which is also the name for the people who live in Britanny) show the most pride for their heritage out of any region in France. All of Dimitri’s family was born there and they bubble over with joy when talking about their beloved birthplace.
Long time friends of Dimitri’s mom, Gwenaelle and Hatam, invited us to stay with them and took the entire week off so they could travel around with us. Hatam spoiled us with his superb cooking and even made us homemade couscous (made in Tunisia by his sister) with lamb and veggies. Box couscous will never be the same again.
Our group of ten traveled together throughout the week as they showed me what being a true Breton was all about.
We strolled through the streets of Rennes, the capital of Britanny and studied the unique architecture of the buildings .The enormous city center has dozens of little cobblestone side streets leading to boutiques and Pâtisseries hidden away from the crowed shopping malls. Rennes had the first “Pedestrian Street” in France meaning no cars are allowed to drive or park there. This means it’s cleaner, easier and much more pleasant to shop and walk around.
We packed up our cars and made a trip to Mont St. Michel, the second most visited tourist site in France. This abbey built in 800A.D by Benedictine monks rests upon a very unique piece of land. During low tide, the abbey (and the little village surrounding it) seems to sit on a chunk of land jutting out in the sand. Yet when the high tide comes in, it rushes around the land at the speed of a galloping horse, and turns the land into an island. A road has been built making it easy for tourists like me to get to the island by car, no matter the water level. The true reason the road was build is a bit grisly. Tourists trying to venture out to the island during low tide were often sucked into the quick sand. Others didn’t believe how quickly the high tide comes in and ended up drowning. In other words, I had no problem taking the road to get there! We explored the town and got to walk through the sea soaked abbey perched high on the hill.
Another incredible place was St. Malo, a fortified city by the sea. Yes, there is literally a wall around the city that you must walk or drive through to get inside. Once inside you can take in the view of the sea as you walk along the ramparts surrounding the city. We all spent some time staring out into the tranquil blanket of blue and Dimitri’s mom shared childhood memories while pointing out different points of interest. We tried some of the famous ice cream made in St. Malo and shivered in contentment as we window shopped. The flavor I chose contained an item typically Breton; salted butter. Might sound weird, but let me tell you, it’s to die for!
I love when things work out perfectly. We just happened to be in Brittany for the surprise birthday party of a childhood friend of Dimitri’s. So Dimitri and I drove to the town he grew up in to celebrate. His friends were really excited to see him and wasted no time reconnecting. I heard lots of stories of the mischief they got into when they were little as they played along their little street. The town was small but had a lot of character. There was a tiny little cinema, some cute looking bars, a huge open stall for daily fresh fish and an old chateau which was transformed into an assisted living for the handicap. Driving around, it was easy to picture Dimitri and his friends as children running around town and playing soccer in the park.
Our vacation seemed too short as all good vacations ares. I would have liked to spend more time exploring Brittany because the culture and history behind it is truly astounding. I think I would need a good 2-3 weeks to explore it properly. However I didn’t need a week to find out what the Breton people. Their culture is such a part of them it’s impossible to miss it. They are so proud of their food, language, music, landscape and heritage and it is a true joy to spend time around people who really have a true sense of who they are. A l’aise Breizh!