NOWHERE in Brittany is more than an hour from the sea and with a coastline that changes every 20 miles, the region is one of the most beautiful and refreshing in France.
The four departments of the Côtes d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan were formerly joined by the Loire-Atlantique which contains Nantes, the former capital of the historic duchy of Brittany. The Loire-Atlantique was put into the Pays de La Loire in 1941 and campaigners continue to push for its reattachment.
From the wilderness of the interior of Finistère it is astonishing to come across tiny villages dotted round the rocky coast with beautiful boutique hotels that make the perfect escape.
Brittany was the birthplace of thalassotherapy and has spas aplenty. It is also the ideal vacation spot for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing and scuba diving. While the south of Brittany is warmer than the north, the most popular locations are nearer the ferry ports on the north coast.
Elsewhere, the cities range from medieval villages to coastal cities and the well-known prehistoric sites such as Carnac always pull in visitors, drawn by legends of Celts, druids and King Arthur.
The region has the same problems as many other under-populated areas of France with fewer job opportunities. Its position on the edge of France also gives a feeling of isolation, something many inhabitants prefer. While the property market may be slow some homes can be a spectacular buy.
'Life here is relaxed'
FOR Gina and Wayne Akroyd the move to Brittany was a way to give their children a better life – and they say it has worked perfectly with their 16-year-old son looking to do accountancy and their 11-year-old daughter settled in well at school.
They left Halifax in Yorkshire five years ago and bought the manor house in Sévignac where they still live – and where they feel rooted in the local community.
Mrs Akroyd said: “The French accepted us quickly and we get invited to everything. The way of life is more relaxed and the French are so much less judgmental. They are fantastic friends to us.”
Her favourite part is being able to go to the beach and collect mussels or other seafood and then have it fresh from the sea to the table.
Nick Ford, who lives at Locarn near Carlaix, says the life is quiet and easy-going with friendly neighbours and a safe environment for their children. Mr Ford says you get a big benefit from a little effort learning French and he says he
feels a real part of his community.
“My wife works an hour away in Quimper and we could always move to be closer but we like it here.
“The only real niggles are the irritations of bureaucracy and the lack of opportunity. We do feel a bit isolated from our family support but we can call on our friends – and we have a lot here.”
The Mayor of Locarn, Brieuc Le Bozec, agrees that expatriates have become a major part of the community and says they are “sympathique” and have fitted in well.
“If people make an effort to speak French they are most welcome; if they shop in our shops or our market then we welcome them and in the bistro everyone will say bonjour and speak to them.
“We have English, Irish, Welsh and Scots in our town of more than 500 and they have made a great impact – some joining us on November 11 for the ceremonies for the anciens combattants.”
Jenny Bowman and husband Tim live at Martigné-Ferchaud and say they have the best of Brittany being right in the middle. They have lived there for 10 years but have had a house in France for 30 years.
They chose Brittany over the Charente because it had become a favourite stopping off point on their way south.
“We came over here when there were no flights and the only colours you could paint your house were green or blue. There is much more choice now but, after the recent problems with air services it will be back to Brittany Ferries for everyone. Business is quieter but if you work to be part of the community then you take the knocks with the community.
“There’s no denying there are unemployment problems but we feel part of things here. If we were to move it would only be 10km away at most.”
Get a house with garden for €50,000
PROPERTY prices have come under a lot of pressure in Brittany over the past two years with second homes particularly badly hit.
However, Megan Cooper of Agence Arguenon says that an increase in the number of local first-time buyers has helped sustain the market for lower-priced houses. More interestingly, she says that in the areas of Dinan and Lamballe they are seeing more Parisians and British people looking for property. Ms Cooper said: “Certainly the market has improved from last summer but there are a lot of properties for sale – and some of them have been on the market for a long time.
“Some vendors, especially those who bought at the top of the market in 2003-2005 are being badly affected and prices have dropped.
“This means properties are at a more reasonable level.”
Property group AIPG agreed that first-time buyers were keeping the market turning over but said they had not seen British buyers returning in any numbers, at least not in the centre. “Formerly they would make up about 75% of our business but now it is much reduced – to about 10-15%.”
The office in Gouarec has seen its share of price cuts with the already low prices being cut lower – but that is only for people who must make a sale. Prices there are much more moderate than on the coast – although Gouarec is only 45 minutes away from the sea and has beautiful hills and lakes it is rare to see houses for sale for more than €250,000. For €50-60,000 buyers can get a house and garden that is all but ready to move into.
Elsewhere in Brittany that same price is the middle market rate and there has not been much movement there.
Second-home type properties have been hit although any arrival of the Parisian and British buyers could make a difference.
Ms Cooper said: “Many of the British people have told us the time is right for them to get their projects moving again – and it is still very much a buyer’s market.
“That means well-presented houses can sell but we have to work hard with the vendors to show their properties in the best light.
“We often give the kind of House Doctor home staging advice that may help a property to move.”
Did you know?
Brittany has three languages: Naturally, French is predominant, but in western Brittany you will hear Breton and in the east people use Gallo. Breton has similarities to Welsh and Gaelic – being a Celtic language – but is most similar to Cornish. Many Gaelic speakers can understands words and get the gist of what is said. Gallo is nowadays less common than Breton and is very similar to French; however, it was formerly Brittany’s most-used language because it was based near the main population centres of Rennes and Nantes. It is still used for story-telling and songs. Each year the Mill Goll festival in Rennes celebrates Gallo.
Brittany flag: Nicknamed the Gwenn ha Du (meaning black and white in Breton), the flag was created in 1923 and has five black stripes for the Gallo dioceses of Dol, Nantes, Rennes, St-Malo and Saint-Brieuc/Penthievre and four white stripes for the Breton Léon, Trégor, Cornouaille and Vannes. The Duchy of Brittany’s ermine arms are inset.
Waterways: At one time Brittany’s canal network could carry you deep into France and much of it was built on the instructions of Napoleon who wanted a way to avoid English port blockades. Nowadays, the system is much-reduced but still offers 600km of waterway travelling at a leisurely 6kph. The 12th Century turreted Château de Josselin is one of the jewels of the route as it towers over the canal.
Onion Johnnies: Breton farmers and labourers were a common sight in Britain in the pre-war years as they sold their pink onions. They would store their stock in barns in England and then, dressed in the “uniform” of hooped shirt and beret and with strings of onions hanging from their bicycles, they travelled the length and breadth of Britain. A museum has been set up in Roscoff and the town still celebrates the Fête de l’Oignon every summer.
No tolls: Brittany has no motorway tolls. The reasons for this range from a royal treaty of 1532, to Charles de Gaulle thanking Bretons for their soldiers’ contributions in the war. The reality is politics: The roads were not officially classed as motorways when built at the end of the 1960s and the Bretons have made sure that they protest loudly against any subsequent changes to this status.
Five must-dos in Brittany
1. Take a stroll on a beach
Try Cancale for its views across to Mont Saint-Michel and its famous oysters; Dinard for the choice of three eye-achingly white beaches and shallow waters; Erquy and its 10 beaches including the 2km Caroual; Perros-Guirec for watersports – especially for children – and the chance to stroll to Ploumana’ch and the ever-popular Bénodet and the Plage du Trez.
2. Listen to music
LORIENT is the home of Celtic music with its annual festival (August 6-15) but music is ever-present in Breton life – whether bagpipes, bombards or the call-and-response of Kan ha diskan singing. France’s biggest music festival, the Vieilles Charrues brings 200,000 people to Carhaix, Finistere every July. Previous performers include Bruce Springsteen and Lenny Kravitz. Traditional music can always be heard at the Fest Noz ceilidhs.
3. Eat seafood and crepes
BRITTANY is seafood heaven with its long coastline and miles of gently-sloping beaches – and you can sometimes buy fresh from the boat. Get a – very large – sample of everything with a plateau de fruits de mer. Oysters are widely farmed and mussels are an easily affordable meal served nearly everywhere. Some of the best mussels are from the AOC Baie du Mont Saint Michel. Or try the rich soupe de poisson full of shellfish and fish.
Speciality salt is harvested directly from the sea and that from the lovely walled town of Guérande is of supreme quality.
Buckwheat crepes or galettes are another speciality and the sign of the best is the Crêpes Gourmandes logo.
4. See life-size dinosaurs
THE Parc de Préhistoire de Bretagne at Malansac covers 350million years from the dinosaurs until the arrival of man. Plenty to keep children amused and educated as the models are life-sized and well-sited in the 25-hectare park. It is near Rochefort-en-Terre, a village so beautiful it is said to have been barred from the Villages of France contest. Every summer it comes alive with geraniums which seem to cover every flat surface and perched on its rocky outcrop, it makes eye-catching use of the tiny space with many differing styles of architecture: half-timbered, gothic-style and renaissance.
5. Explore forests of Arthurian legend
Paimpont Forest near Rennes is widely thought to be the location for Brocèliande in Arthurian legend. Although large parts of the forest are private, tourist offices can give information on which trails are open to step into the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.