Brittany is the westernmost region of France, it is that large peninsula extending out into the Atlantic Ocean. The city of Rennes has been an important city since Roman times, and while many know of the strikingly walled city of Saint-Malo as a ferry port, some may be surprised to know it boasts the highest concentration of seafood restaurants in Europe. Besides offering up fruits de mer, the ocean has created a very dramatic and scenic coastline. There are four administrative departments in Brittany, they are: Côte-d’Amour, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.
The Carnac area on the southern coast of Brittany is not only a beautiful area to visit (at any time of the year), it also has spectacular archaeology. Dotted around the Gulf of Morbihan are numerous megalithic sites dating from the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. These megaliths range from a single standing stone to the extraordinary alignments of standing stones that stretch for kilometres in lenths, from a simple dolmen to the more complex passage tombs. The die-hard megalithic enthusiast could easily spend a lot of time here, and money. A handful of the more well known and archaeologically important sites charge an entry fee, and visiting them all soon starts adding up, particularly if you are travelling with a family and/or on a budget. If you are staying a while, and intend to visit a number of the sites, you need the Megalithic Pass, or Pass des Mégalithes in French … Continue Reading.
North eastern Brittany has a spectacular Medieval heritage, with a handful of towns that have retained a Middle Age charm. This corner of Brittany also has much older megalithic sites that really should not be overlooked, as they often are for the greater concentration of Megalithic sites of southern Brittany. Here on the border of Brittany and Normandy, and within reach of many other well known attractions, is an interesting collection of megalithic sites, including one which is said to be the largest of its kind in the World. Associated with these sites are oral traditions that have been handed down for many generations. The local inhabitants of this area believe these folktales explain the existence of these enigmatic stones … Continue Reading.
The different series of stone alignments to the north of Carnac are made up of over 3,000 individual standing stones – they are the largest concentration of megaliths in the World. Thought to have been erected between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago, the lines of standing stones cover a distance of about four kilometres in total. Although now fenced off, guided tours of certain sections of the stones are available that enable visitors to walk among the stones. These guided tours are highly recommended.
Once an important centre for the shoemaking industry, but also well known for its glass-making, the Breton town of Fougères has a number of surviving Medieval features that will certainly interest anyone fascinated in this period of France’s past. The imposing, well-preserved castle-fort is said to be the largest of its kind in Europe, while the nearby belfry is the oldest of the remaining three Medieval belfries in Brittany … go to Medieval Fougères.
The stone cairn with its decorated passage tomb is not only one of the more spectacular Neolithic sites in the Morbihan area, it is also a great day out for the whole family. Today because of the rise of sea levels since it was built, the cairn is now on a small island, and the only means of getting there is a short ferry ride from the nearby coastal fishing village of Lamor-Baden. Once on the privately owned island a guided tour enables access to the decorated passage tomb … read more.
Forty-one enormous stones make up a passage, or covered alley, that is 20 metres in length, four times as long as it is wide. Most archaeologists ad enthusiasts alike accept that this is the largest such megalithic in the World. The dolmen is aligned inn such a way that it catches the rising sun at the winter solstice. The land around it is now a well kept parkland that has a Visitors Centre, which is only open during the summer months … go to La Roche-aux-Fées.
There are a number of megalithic sites in the seaside town of Locmariaquer. The main site open to the public is an intriguing cluster of different megalithic structures. This includes the tumulus of Er-Grah, the Tables des Marchands Cairn, and a enormous broken menhir – which is thought to be the biggest prehistoric stone stele in Europe. Not to be missed is the large, decorated megalith inside the cairn, which is open to the public. The Visitor Center has a very informative short documentary about the megalithic tradition in the area.
Two standing stones can be visited on the outskirts of the town of Sel-du-Bretagne, and are in a small field that has been fenced off that can be accessed via a footpath from the town square in the village. These two stones are known locally as les menhirs du Champ de la Pierre et du Champ Horel. According to local folklore these two striking stones were abandoned here by the fairies while they were making the nearby Roche-aux-Fées passage tomb.
This dolmen is on gated and locked private property, and so it is inaccessible to the public. Unfortunately there is nothing much to see anyway other than two very large stones, one of which is over two metres in length. As with all the other megaliths in the area, these two seemingly abandoned stones feature in local folklore and are thought to have been left by the fairies (fées) when they were taking stones from Saulnières to la Roche-aux-Fées.
Vitre is one of a handful of French towns that have best retained a Medieval appearance and charm. Given the well preserved castle-fort, substantial ramparts that surround the old town, and then many characterful Medieval streets within the confines of these ramparts, it is easy to see why this is the case. Obviously in a strategic location, the fortified castle and town were part of les Marches de Bretagne – a line of castles that stretched from Mont-Saint-Michel in north to Nantes in the south.
Le Petit Mont is thought to be one of the most significant chambered tombs in Brittany. Although this is for all intents and purposes a “neolithic site”, from about 6,600 years ago, it is an excellent example of how sites from one period are re-used in following periods. Artefacts recovered during excavations show that this site was also occupied during the Bronze and Iron Ages. But the most obvious evidence of re-use is the typical German bunker built into the cairn in 1943 … Read More.
Les Pierres Droites (the upright, or straight stones) comprise some 400 standing stones that only recently came to the attention of archaeologists. It was after a forest fire about 20 years ago that the significance of this alignment of menhirs, now thought to be one of the most important in France, was realised. Most of the standing stones have been hewn from local schist, but a few are white quartz that have come from some distance. The biggest menhir is 5 meters high and weighs at least 30 tons.
This spectacular tumulus, measuring 125 metres long, 60 metres wide and 10 meters high, and typical for the Carnac area, was constructed during the Neolithic period on what was already a naturally high point on the landscape. From the top of the tumulus there is an expansive view of the surrounding area. This position is clearly something the local community took advantage of in the later Medieval period, when a church was constructed above the tumulus.
Housed in an old rectory with a collection of over 7,000 artefacts from many of the megalithic sites in the area is the Musée de Préhistoire – the richest museum for megalithic culture. Various displays trace the Neolithic and Bronze Age history of the area. Although there are a handful of display that deal with the various aspects of everyday life, the museum understandably has a greater focus on the development and significance of funerary architecture, from the early dolmens to the later, more complex passage tombs. [Website]
The following guidebooks for Brittany are available on Amazon.com (see the same set of books on Amazon.co.uk):