Summer tour of Brittany an unexpected delight
By Jeff Kohmstedt
My wife and I weren't expecting to take a trip to France this year. It wasn't really on our radar. And yet the news that some friends had moved from Italy to Brittany and that the Tour de France would finish two stages near their home made a summer vacation in July all the more attractive.
We used the city of Rennes as our base for six nights. It has a population of about 250,000, and it is the regional capital and home to two universities. We stayed at the ApartHotel Addagio for 56 to 66 euros per night depending on the day.
Rennes has a convenient one line metro with 15 stops which opened in 2002. For just 1.40 euros, it brings you from the ultra modern railway station to quaint neighborhoods all over the city.
While in Rennes, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts (http://www.mbar.org) with works from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. We saw art ranging from 14th century iconic panels to Renaissance masterpieces to 21st century contemporary. Admission was about 6 euros per adult. We're fast-moving museum goers, so we covered most everything in about an hour.
The Museum of Brittany (http://www.musee-bretagne.fr) is an absolute must visit in order to immerse yourself in the rich history of the region, from the distinctive dress of its people to the disappearing Breton language. Only 200,000 or so people speak the Celtic language today that once dominated the area.
The Parisians saw Brittany and its people as backward, and with the industrial revolution came the danger of losing the Breton culture and its language. Through artifacts, videos and displays in Breton, French and English, the museum highlights the Breton people, their impact on the region, and their way of life.
The Parc du Thabor provided a cool respite from the bright French sun. With huge flower gardens and beautifully manicured paths, this park is the Central Park of Rennes and offered a fantastic place to relax.
If you're looking to make the most out of a trip to France, travel in July. Our greatest challenge there was getting enough sleep. About a quarter of France is west of London, yet France is on Central European Time, an hour behind the UK. The sun didn't set until 10:30. With so much daylight, who has time to sleep?
From Rennes, we took day trips by train to Saint Malo and Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy to see the sights and watch the Tour.
Saint Malo is a walled port city with stunning views of the English Channel and intimate shops and restaurants where you can sample local Breton delicacies such as crepes and galettes, a type of thinly made, folded pancake with various savory fillings.
Not to be missed are the views of nearby islands and forts on the channel. Since we were there for a sprint finish of the Tour de France, we had plenty of time to explore the city, its shops and narrow streets.
The Tour was much like a Cubs game at Wrigley Field: relax, talk, and people watch until the action flies by in a torrent. Hearing the crowd cheer as the riders came down the long straightaway into town was well worth the trip.
A train the next day took us to Mont Saint-Michel, an iconic tourist attraction that offered a spectacular mix of ancient architecture and amazing views. Mont Saint-Michel is an island when the tides are in and surrounded by sand flats when the tide is out. Getting there is no trouble now that a causeway was built to shuttle visitors in.
The abbey was closed due to a conveniently timed strike when the Tour de France rolled through. Nevertheless, the intimate streets and beautiful views of Mont Saint-Michel were well worth the inconvenience of thousands of Tour fans. The train fare was about 24 euros per person round trip for a 45-minute journey from Rennes. Expect to pay another 3 euros for a shuttle from the train station to the visitors center. There is a second shuttle from there to the Mont, but we walked the 2 miles because the bike race had closed the road.
After Rennes, we went on to Bayeux and the 11th century tapestry there, the Normandy beaches, Versailles and Paris. But nothing compares to the smaller, bustling capital of Rennes and the day trips it had to offer.
Jeff Kohmstedt, a Champaign resident, works at the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative at the University of Illinois.