It was somewhat a random choice for Cherie and I to end up in this part of France. As regions of the country go, Brittany is not as well-known (particularly for geographically-challenged Americans) as, say, Provence or Normandy. The mention of Brittany generally leads to a reaction of embarrassed confusion or a knowing nod of the head in the mistaken belief that I am referring to Great Britain. Being smug, Europe-loving nerds, we both already knew the region’s geographic location. But that was about all we knew.
Ignorance has never – ever – stopped Americans from doing a thing that might seem (and probably is) crazy, if not entirely ill-advised. I offer you the deep-fried Hostess Twinkie as just one example. So it has been with great joy that the two of us are discovering the richness of Brittany. At the time of this writing, we have only been here for about nine months. Consequently, there are huge swathes of the region which we have yet to visit. But, the little pocket which we have called home since leaving Seattle is certainly itself worth exploring.
If you’re still a little fuzzy on the geography, Brittany (Bretagne in French) is the westernmost point in France. On the map above, it is on the far left, with Normandy to the north and the Pays de la Loire to the east and south. Bretagne is one of 13 (including Corsica) régions in mainland France. These are the rough equivalent to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada.
There are 96 départements (similar to U.S. counties) in France. Bretagne itself is divided into four départements: Finistère in the west, Côtes d’Armor to the north, Ille et Villaine in the east, and Morbihan to the south. Each department is codified by a two-digit number and every postal code in the départements begins with these two digits. Morbihan’s is 56; Ille et Villaine 35.
Since living here, we’ve begun to realize that these two numbers show up on nearly everything even remotely administrative in nature; from your car’s license plate, to your electric bill, to food packaging to demonstrate it is locally produced. I’ve been asked for these numbers by my doctor, by cashiers at the home improvement store, and by random people we meet on walks. At first, we thought it a bit strange. But we’ve come to admire it. These departmental codes are a useful shorthand for quickly identifying any part of France. Moreso than people do with their state in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Texans), Bretons tend to link their identity with the département in which they live. It’s just a feature of the culture here and we find ourselves adopting the practice as well. At this moment we are 56’s, but when we make our final move to Fougères, we will be 35’s. Like all 35’s, we will be secure in the knowledge that ours is the best code in all of France.
Our first home in France has been Malestroit, a lovely town in the department of Morbihan. Malestroit is small enough that it often does not show up on the less-detailed maps of the area. On the map above I have penciled it in and circled its location. [Look for it just below the end of “Bretagne”. While we’re on the topic of geography, I have also circled Fougères, the town where we have purchased our home-to-be to the northeast of Rennes.] A community of some 2,400 souls, Malestroit is, like nearly all French towns we have visited thus far, a compact town with nearly all of its dwellings, shops and services within walking distance.
We were amazed that such a small town would contain so much. There are three large grocery stores with another medium-sized convenience grocer, two more specialized food shops, a large multi-discipline health center, a hospice hospital, several individual health specialists, at least eleven restaurants and cafes, four bars, two news agent shops, two boucheries (butchers), two pharmacies, a post office, florists, car repair garages, garden centers, a veterinarian center, and more banks and insurance offices than I can count. It is, like most french towns, self-sufficient so that not often does one find it necessary to travel to a regional city for things.
Most important to us is that there are two boulangeries; both are lovely and we make daily pilgrimages to them for our required diet of fresh bread and pastries. Always pragmatic when it comes to their food, these two bakeries have arranged their hours so that one of them is always open when the other is closed for the day. And, apart from the grocery stores and cafes, they are the only shops which do not close for the sacred lunch hour(s). Very convenient, but bad for what has become our regular diet of bread, butter, pastries and tea. I tell you, though, it’s impossible to deny yourself a freshly-baked, warm pain au chocolat in the morning – or for lunch; or tea time; or in the evening. It’s a good thing they’re not open at midnight!
Malestroit lies at the heart of the Val d’Oust, the Oust river valley. The Oust runs southeasterly for many kilometers through the interior hills and vales of Morbihan until it joins up with the larger Villaine in Redon on the eastern border of Bretagne. This waterway forms part of the canal network which spans 385 kilometers (239 miles) from the city of Nantes in the Pays de la Loire in the south to the city of Brest at the far western tip of Bretagne.
Along the Oust are several other beautiful towns, each with their unique character. Such a one is Josselin. Only a 25 minute drive to the northeast of Malestroit, this lovely town on the Oust boasts a magnificent castle (pictured above) and a picturesque medieval center connected by cobblestone streets. It’s a joy to visit, as we frequently do to take long walks along the towpath there. They also have a pretty good boulangerie!
For walkers, runners and bicyclists, the towpath along the tranquil Oust and the canal which intertwines with it is a real godsend. We walk along it every day at one point or another along the many kilometers up and down the valley. Everywhere we have plied it the path is flat, paved and very well maintained by the canal authority. The towpaths are very popular and they see a lot of traffic by locals and visitors of all ages. Sunday afternoons following Holy Lunch Hour(s) seem to be the most busy times, the paths abuzz with men, women, children, dogs, bicycles and horses (sometimes pulling a carriage as shown above). Add to that the many canal boats which ply the waters, bearing their relaxed and content passengers slowly along, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. It’s a beautiful thing.
A little closer to home, between Josselin and Malestroit, are the villages of Le Roc-St.-André and Montertelot. These two smaller towns are a little quieter but no less enjoyable to visit. Le Roc stands on a bluff overlooking the Oust as it wends its way from Montertelot. The stone church there sports an interestingly openwork bell steeple served by a separate stair tower joined to it by flying bridges. Lovely and very cleverly designed.
Montertelot is quite petite, with one bar/cafe, a little church and a few houses. It also sports a lock for the canal and we had the pleasure of getting to know the lock-keeper’s husband, Michael, a musician who plays and sings traditional Breton and British music throughout France. He’s a great guy who helped translate for us when we made our official offer for the house in Fougères. The towpath between these two towns offers a very nice walk through mostly woodland. At the midway point is a surprise view of a large château through the trees. These are the kinds of things we encounter all of the time in France and we love it so much!
Honorable mention goes to Trédion. Although I do not believe it is technically in the Val d’Oust, this little town is located just to the west of Malestroit. Even though the town itself is rather unremarkable, it happens to stand adjacent to a lovely château. We just happened to come across this breathtaking house on a random afternoon drive a few months ago. Such a typical structure, it’s often the picture that comes into people’s minds when one mentions “France” and “château”.
It’s not only quaint towns, grand châteaux, and serene countryside to be found in the Val d’Oust. There is a great deal of history here as well. Some of it factual, some of it fanciful. Just a short drive to the northeast are the woods near Monteneuf which conceal an impressive group of prehistoric megaliths. These huge stones were erected during Bronze Age by the inhabitants who had switched from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. This settled existence allowed them the time to develop more sophisticated culture and even erect monumental structures such as these stones. Later, during the Middle Ages, many of the stones were pulled down, being feared as diabolical or beacons of dark magic. Today, this area has been protected as an historical site. Free to the public, it’s a very nice park where much research and experimental archeology occurs.
Further northeast is the forest of Brocéliande, a place filled with the magic of Arthurian legends. Bretagne has its own Arthurian history which is quite ancient. According to these stories, many of the events surrounding Arthur and his knights occurred in this craggy woodland, the only remaining remnant of a once vast forest which stretched across the entire spine of the peninsula. The area is beautiful and very enigmatic with lots of lovely hiking trails. Once such place is the Val Sans Retour, the Valley of No Return. Reputed to have been the magical haunt of Morgan le Fay this valley was enchanted by the sorceress to entrap knights. Cherie and I, along with her niece Jessica, spent an invigorating (if not but a little soggy) afternoon hiking our way through this dread valley of craggy outcrops, oaks and beeches, faerie lakes and and ensorcelled streams. Making our way to the top of a lofty hill we came upon a circle of rocks that is said to have been the house of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake who, in one telling, bestowed Excalibur upon Arthur. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail she is referred to as a “watery tart” with the acute observation that:
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, no some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
In the current political climate, I’m beginning to wonder if forming a government in a large puddle in a forest in Brittany couldn’t be more ridiculous than what we see in many countries right now. But I digress…
Regardless of how seriously one takes these legends, the journey is worth it and just one more example of how rich and varied Malestroit and its environs is. And the people here are just as lovely. So welcoming and friendly. We’ve made many friendships which we know will endure long after our move to Fougères. We love it here and we’re so glad we have had the good fortune to immerse ourselves in this wonderful, magical place over the past several months. A perfect place to begin our lives in France!