French Corner: Discover Bretagne! (January 2017)
In January, the French Corner is taking you on a trip around the Bretagne region! Check it out and plan your next vacation in France!
The historically rich region of Bretagne, or Brittany, is located on the northwestern coast of France. The region is on a peninsula, with the English Channel to the North, the Celtic and Iroise Seas to the west, and the Gulf of Gascogne to the south. The abundance of water gives this region approximately 1100 kilometers (about 683 miles) of coastline, and that number doubles if the coastlines of the Breton islands are included! The region used to be more isolated from the rest of France, as the terrain was difficult for transportation. With the TGV and the TER systems that now exist, the cities of Bretagne are connected and one can now travel from Paris to Rennes in two hours! Bretagne is also well known for its large number of nature preservation sites, especially the “sentier des Douaniers”, a walking path open to the public that follows the coastline.
The Bretagne region is full of interesting historical monuments including old chapels and churches in every village. It has a deep cultural history very different from other parts of France. Bretagne is home to multiple menhirs from the Neolithic period located in Carnac, and there are plenty of examples of prehistoric architecture throughout the region along with important archaeological sites. During the fifth century BC, five prominent Celtic groups migrated to the area, bringing their language and customs with them and merging with existing ones. The next wave of immigrants to Bretagne was during the fifth century AD, when many British emigrated and brought their language and customs with them as well, and giving the peninsula its name “petit Bretagne”, or little England. This mixing of cultures and people gives Bretagne its slightly different feel and separates the region from the rest of the country.
There is a difference, however, between the breadth of the administrative region of Bretagne and the area that is culturally Breton. The Nantes area has historically been a part of cultural Bretagne since the time of Anne de Bretagne and carries many of the same customs and practices, but during the reestablishment of the regions of France it was allocated to the Pays-de-la-Loire region. Thus, the governmental Bretagne only consists of the departments of Ille-et-Vilaine, Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, and Morbihan. As always in France, there are continuing debates among the French people about whether the Nantes region could, should, and/or would rejoin the Bretagne region!
Part of the standard American stereotype of the Frenchman comes from the people of Bretagne’s dress code and the Navy striped t-shirt. Bretons fleeing the French Revolution and other wars would settle in England, and it was there that the striped shirt piece of the stereotype was born. The stripes originated with marine soldiers, who wore them so they could be easily spotted if they went overboard, and the number of stripes came from Napoléon – 21 stripes, one for each victory he had won over the Anglos.
Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region and of its department, Ille-et-Vilaine. The city holds a population of approximately 210 000 people, and is the only city in Bretagne with more than 25 000 citizens that does not border the sea or is not located at the mouth of a river. Rennes stayed reasonably rural until the Second World War, and then developed a stronger industry and grew with the 20th century. Rennes is also a university city, being home to more than 66 000 students. Université Rennes 1 and 2 have fabulous international programs such as study abroad, foreign exchange, and international student programs; and Université 1 offers undergraduate and graduate programs for international students taught in English.
Located on the westernmost coast of France, Brest is the second largest city in Bretagne, with a population of about 140 000 people. It is also the second most important naval location in France, only behind Toulon. Like Rennes, Brest is a university city, but it only houses about 23 000 students. The plethora of universities makes up for it, as Brest has a multidisciplinary university with a medical department, four schools of engineering (Télécom Bretagne, ENSTA Bretagne, ENIB, ISEN), a school of agronomics (ESIAB), a school of commerce (BBS), and the Naval Academy. The coastal city is also an important area for marine studies and research, as the French Polar Institute, CEDRE, SHOM, and Ifremer all have large centers there.
The city of Saint-Malo is the principal port on the northern coast of the Bretagne region, with the English Channel to the north and the Rance river to the west. Its population is around 45 000 people, and is a very large tourist destination. The ramparts of Saint-Malo (XII – XVIII) are the largest tourist attraction as they completely encircle the city, providing a first line of defense from any attacks. The city’s economy is largely based on its tourist status as well as the income it receives from its multiple marine biotechnology field stations. Saint-Malo was also recently featured as the setting of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
There are many things to do in Bretagne, but the plethora of festivals makes it so a trip is always interesting! Saint-Malo is a large festival location: in the summer and winter the music festival “La Route du Rock” plays there, and in the spring there is another one called “Classique au large”. A large cultural festival called “Folklores du monde” is also held every July. When created in 1956, it focused solely on Breton culture, but since the 1990s the festival has expanded to include countless cultures from countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. There is a week-long festival in Quimper – a city known for its production of Henriot pottery, which can be found in antique stores in Boston and Concord – called “Festival de cornouaille”, which takes place in July and is organized around Breton culture and music. July is a busy month for festivals, as there is the largest music festival in France, “Festival des vieilles charrues” in Carhaix, that encompasses a wide range of music styles from rock and roll to pop to R&B, and the large maritime festivals “Temps fête” in Douarnenez and “Fêtes maritimes” in Brest. Smaller festivals happen in August, like “Festival des filets bleus” in Concarneau, a small Breton culture and music festival, and “Festival interceltique” in Lorient which celebrates Celtic music and traditions.
Brest is positioning itself on the wind energy market, by renovating its harbor infrastructures. The new harbor has an area dedicated to marine renewable energies which allows the construction of floating wind turbines.
The city already hosts assembly factories for big French factories like Areva, and some other important companies are also planning to settle down there, because Brest is accessible and offers large surfaces for new factories to develop. The offshore wind farm which should open in the coming years within the St Brieuc Bay, in north Brittany, will be composed of wind turbines partly manufactured and assembled in Brest.
This very dynamic harbor is also a place for innovation. Winflo, the first French floating wind turbine, was tested in Brest, and other innovative floating wind turbines are designed and tested by Eolink, a start-up from the Brest technopôle.