An often overlooked pastime is town walking – not the casual mooching around of sight-seeing, but a structured walk which takes in focal points of historical or architectural interest, and often reveals less obvious facets of social development. Exploring towns provides the pieces to put together a whole picture, like a jigsaw. From a vantage point, you can consider topographical features of rivers, crossing places and ports, protective hills and fertile valleys, all those things that lead to the distinctive environmental growth of a settlement. Local architecture will provide, for example, evidence of nearby mineral resources, the relative wealth of a society and many clues about its religious history. As well as a camera, it’s worth taking a notebook along to jot down interesting street names and references to individuals from the town’s past for later investigation. Tourist offices usually have some sort of town trail leaflet as well as a basic plan de ville.
Town planning through the ages has developed in response to circumstances – the serious fire in Rennes in 1720, for example, destroyed the haphazard pattern of much of the medieval quarter. In more modern times, the necessity to relieve traffic congestion and thus facilitate commerce by knocking down houses to create wider thoroughfares for transport happened in places such as Redon, radically changing the appearance of the town. Also, even more extremely, in Nantes in the 1930s channels of the Loire were filled in to make way for other types of traffic, explaining why the river is now a long way from the chateau it once flowed past.
The original plan of a chateau in a fortified position surrounded by a walled city – ville close – has left traces in many Breton towns. The 12th century ramparts can be glimpsed above the houses in central Ploermel, for example, and sections of impressive walls remain in Morlaix, embedded in the contemporary city, despite the disappearance of the chateau they once defended. On a small scale, Guerande and Concarneau both have exceptional walled cities to stroll around, but St Malo is perhaps the most striking example of any decent size to remain, and a walk here, with glorious sea views, will also unfold the remarkable maritime history of the town and the individual corsairs – like Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf - and explorers whose journeys started from this famous port.
To satisfy an interest in maritime history, a walk around Brest is hard to beat: above the port, the chateau and extensive defensive works remain along the river Penfeld, remarkably spared in the intensive bombing of the city by allied planes in WWII which laid the rest of the city to waste. Views over the Rade of Brest, a unique roadstead and significant location in struggles between the English and French navies over centuries, are memorable, and the maritime museum in the chateau itself provides a focus for historical exploration of the city. Another place to see impressive walls and elaborate gates, with plentiful information supplied in situ, is Vannes, with its vibrant harbour on the Gulf of Morbihan.
Medieval half-timbered houses are well-preserved in Rennes, Vannes and Quimper, and for something unique, visit the cobbled streets of Morlaix’s old centre to see the maison pondalez (from pont + aller) at No 9, Grand Rue. This tall narrow building in three sections had front and rear rooms on each floor, joined by wooden ‘bridges’ from a central turning oak stair, and a central court between rising the full height of the building. Other examples still exist in Morlaix: sometimes technically incorrectly called maisons à la lanterne, these fascinating houses (chateaux substitutes of nobles turned merchants) were not lit by openings in the roof originally, although some were modified later as the use of glass became more sophisticated.
Merchants’ houses reflect the affluence of 17th/18th century trading centres: those of the Ile Feydeau (no longer an island) in Nantes with their wrought iron balconies, built with wealth from the slave-trade, are famous, but the small estuary town of Landerneau on the Elorn river has many fine examples, and Redon’s old port area in addition to such well-preserved houses as the Hotel Carmoy and Tour Richelieu, preserves its commercial history in names like the Passage des Sauniers leading down to the quay from the salt warehouses in the Rue du Port.
Cathedrals in major cities and churches/abbeys in every town bear witness to the religious history of Brittany and its legendary saints. Particularly impressive in their luminosity are the cathedrals of St-Corentin at Quimper, with its crooked nave, and that of Nantes with the famous marble tomb of Francois II and his second wife, parents of Anne de Bretagne. This monument, originally in the Convent des Carmes, was called the greatest masterpiece of Catholic art by the writer Chateaubriand.
The abbey of St-Saveur in Redon is remarkable for its Romanesque tower, perhaps the finest example of this early period of religious architecture in Brittany, and 12th century elements also remain in the Basilica of Notre-Dame-du-Roncier in Josselin. Ruins of an ancient priory, La Madeleine, at Malestroit recall the treaty signed here between England and France in 1343 during the Breton War of Succession.
On another note, the building of three separate convents (Calvarienne, Carmelite and Ursuline) on the hill of Creou in Morlaix in the early 17th century reflects the general flowering of spiritual fervour and confidence after the devastation and blood-letting of the Wars of Religion.
Any town walk will be filled with references to local celebrities. One obvious form to look out for is statues, from the legendary, such as King Gradlon perched high up on the towers of Quimper cathedral recalling Ys, the Breton Atlantis story, to the historical figure of Louis XVI standing resplendent in Roman dress on top of a column in the Cours St-Pierre in Nantes. In a Dinan square is an equestrian statue of the great warrior Bertrand de Guesclin, who was a major player in the turbulent 14th century: a nearby plaque commemorates his single combat on the spot to settle a matter of honour with the English knight Thomas of Cantebury.
The rue Dupleix in Morlaix and the quay of the same name in Quimper honour the less dramatic memory of Joseph Dupleix, governor general of the Companie des Indes trading consortium in mid 18th century. Literary memorials are also numerous: St Malo honours its illustrious son, the writer Chateaubriand, and the lesser known but equally interesting Corbieres, father and son, merit a striking plaque on the quay at Morlaix.
It is not only individuals who are commemorated: a small quayside plaque in Redon evokes pilgrims on the Compostella trail who travelled through here in medieval times and numerous aspects of military (often French colonial rather than Breton) history are recalled in often elaborate monuments. Most moving are the tributes to resistance heroes who lost their lives in the struggle against German occupation in the 1940s, often quietly and simply remembered in street names. The Place des Otages below the striking granite viaduct in Morlaix honours 60 young men arrested and deported to a concentration camp in reprisal for a grenade attack on a German officers’ mess nearby.
The common use of the date 19 March 1962 marks the end of the Algerian War, an event of deep psychological importance nationally, but happenings of closer relevance to Brittany are echoed everywhere. A small garden in Rennes, for example, bears the name Jardin du Papier Timbré, a reference to the bloody revolt of 1675 against harsh new taxation to fund Louis XIV’s wars. 10,000 soldiers were billeted in Rennes with horrendous results for the inhabitants.
Smaller towns are also revealing of a wealth of historical detail. A walk around Pontivy can start from the fine Rohan chateau, surrounded by medieval streets, and continue to the vast Napoleonic developments of barracks, parade grounds and administrative buildings further south. The town was actually renamed Napoleonville on several occasions in the 19th century as political fortunes in Paris swung back and forth. Also worth noting are the two canals that run through the town, the Blavet and the Nantes-Brest, which also played a significant part in the economic development of this area of central Morbihan.
Apart from all this historical interest, a strong point in favour of town walking is that refreshments are never far away!
Tourist Offices in these places can provide maps; some have leaflets with specific recommended routes.
Vannes – medieval streets and fine harbour
Rennes – historic trail (parcours historique), medieval houses, famous parliament building
Quimper – cathedral, medieval houses, old industrial quarter, Mt Frugy for views over the city
Redon – Nantes-Brest canal, Vilaine river, Romanesque Abbey , old port area
St-Malo – walled city, statues of famous corsaires
Morlaix - Viaduct carrying the Paris/Brest railway, medieval streets and stepped venelles. Unique architecture : maisons à la lanterne
Nantes - Exceptional chateau/museum, cathedral, Cours St-Pierre (with statue of Louis XVI in Roman dress), tunnel of the Erdre
Brest - views of the Rade de Brest from the Cours Dajot, well-preserved château, naval defences, maritime museum
Smaller centres with lots of interest: Landerneau (Finistere), Treguier, Moncontour, Dinan (Cotes d’Armor), Fougeres (Ile-et-Vilaine), Josselin, Malestroit, Ploermel, Pontivy (Morbihan)