The Celts, on the trail of ancient civilizations

  • "Tapisserie de Bayeux" (also known as "Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde"), Bayeux

    "Tapisserie de Bayeux" (also known as "Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde"), Bayeux

    © ATOUT FRANCE/CDT Calvados/CDT Calvados

The Celts, on the trail of ancient civilizations

From the Iron Age to the Crusades, in Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Languedoc or Provence: following are benchmarks in an epic chronology, as well as some sites where one can revisit history.

 
This voyage in time begins with the assertion of "proto-historic" men (surrounding the 1,000 years BC), creating the base of a true civilization that only lacked the ordinary usage of writing.  A mosaic of tribes followed, distributed throughout western Europe and the British isles: the Celts. Countless mysterious megaliths (sometimes dating back to the Neolithic period) exist, more notably in Brittany, but also in the Mediterranean regions. From burial mounds and dolmen (collective tombs) to oppidums (small fortified cities) from before the Gallo-Roman period, the Gaelic world planted itself everywhere. It forged proud Gaulois nations on the continental territory, and even created a saga that would last through the Middle Ages (11th century): the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, as well as other magical powers of the Druids.

Ile-de-France

  • Musée des Antiquités Nationales at the château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (west of Paris).
  • Diverse archaeological collections referencing the Celts are on display at this royal château that knew the likes of Saint-Louis, François the 1st and Louis XIV.
 

In Brittany

  • Alignments of Carnac (coastline of Morbihan, between Vannes and Lorient).
  • A museum with a long calendar: from the Paleolithic period (45,000 years BC) to Medieval times.  It also has a unique natural site, with 3,000 enigmatic stones (domens and menhir megaliths).
  • Burial mounds of l'Ile de Gavrinis, in the heart of Morbihan's superb golf courses, Vannes.
  • Primitive and collective tomb (Neolithic - 5,000 to 2,000 BC) of impressive dimensions, ideally situated near the famous île aux Moines.
  • The forest of Paimpont, near Rennes.
  • The mythical Brocéliande forest - prison of the Wizard Merlin - finds its real manifestation in the heart of the Argoat in central Brittany.  Storytellers and troubadours played out the principal scenes of the original Celtic saga.  Nearby is the charming medieval town of Malestroit.
  • Lorient, Festival Interceltique: a popular musical event that takes place during the first 15 days of August assembles more than half a million people in celebration of the Celtic culture. Among the concerts, one can find a wonderful bagpiping competition - groups of players from Binoù. 
 

Between Auvergne, Poitou and Limousin

  • Argentomagus, near Argenton-sur-Creuse, not far from Poitiers' Futuroscope. www.argentomagus.com - This site of archaeological excavations illustrates the interface between the Gaulois civilizations and the Gallo-Roman period.
 

Burgundy

  • Bibracte and Mount Beuvray, near Autun (in the Morvan mountain range).
  • Capital of the Eduens, the camp perched at the summit of Beuvray saw diverse Gaulois clans unite and pledge allegiance to Vercingétorix (defeat at Alésia, a bit further north, in 52 BC by Julius Caesar).    
  • The Burgundy Archéodrome, near Beaune (south of Dijon).
  • Master trump of the park, fortifying a big Gaulois farm and the siege of Alésia: direct access by service station on the A6 highway.
 

Provence and Languedoc

  • Oppidum of Entremont, near Aix-en-Provence.
  •  Occuped in 200 BC by the Salyes, a Celtic-Ligurian people, this promontory of Aix-en-Provence represented a strategic site, like numerous surrounding hills (perched oppidum traces are legendary here). The ruins recount the technical savoir-faire (such as the distribution of water) of the pre-Roman period.
  • Ensérune Oppidum (Monum website - national monuments) near Béziers.
  • Dating back to the 6th century BC, these vestiges evoke the coming together of the Celtic and Iberian people before Gaul - Roman province.
 

The Vikings, alias: the Normands

Starting in the 8th century, these Nordic peoples - great navigators and adventurers -, organized in clans or small kingdoms around the Baltic Sea, began exploring oceans (reaching as far as Greenland and America!) and rivers (delving deep into the center of Europe). They also specialized in raids and battles, pillaging port cities, such as Rouen, and rich abbeys. Slightly before the year 1000, their fast ships aroused fear along the Bordeaux coast and on the Seine, a commercial river, draining an opulent fiefdom: the marquisate of Neustrie. These "pagans" settled down, afterwards, sometimes becoming merchants or event loyal soldiers of local lords. They integrated into the Catholic population and feudal system.  At the time, their vessels were not called "drakkars", as they are today, nor were they, themselves, called "Vikings".  They were known as "Men of the North", or north-men - normands. Rollon the Norwegian - one of their most feared chiefs, even went on to become the respectable Count Robert in 911.  He founded the powerful Ducs dynasty of Normandy.  The heir of this line, Guillaume the Conqueror, stole the throne of England from the Anglo-Saxons and, for a time, became richer and more powerful than the King of France!
 

Normandy

  • The tapestry of Bayeux tells the story of the Anglo-Normand epic.
  • This famous piece of embroidery dates back to the 11th century and is an example of the unique art form of ancient tapestry-making. The Bessin and Bayeux territories also bore witness to the Disembarking of 1944. 
  • Terre-Neuvas Museum, in Fécamp (Normandy)
  • Mainly devoted to fishing, this area calls to mind the saga of the Vikings in Normandy.
 

Brittany

  • The Péran Viking camp in Piédran (near Saint-Brieuc). In addition to the megaliths dating back to 2500 BC, hidden between ancient oak trees, this Breton village contains a vast, circular plateau, lined by moats and walls dating back before 900 AD. Listed as an historical monument, the area was excavated (small exhibition of objects).
 

Vendée

  • The great attraction park of Puy-du-Fou, 43 miles from Nantes.
  • Known for its evening summer show (Cinéscénie) that recounts seven centuries of regional history, the park has had seven million visitors since 1978.  The site is developing a park recreating history through daily scenes. Beginning after Easter weekend in 2005, the park will put on a scene remembering the Vikings.
 

The Knights Templar

The first order of soldier monks was founded in the 11th century, in the Holy Land, during the first Crusade. Lords and religious Frenchmen wanted to secure the newly established route for pilgrims. These men were called the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, later shortened to the Knights Templar. Identifiable by their famous red cross, these valiant men gained a strong reputation and returned to France to invest the gifts they received, transforming certain houses into priory churches and agricultural domains. These Commanderies prospered for two centuries.  Rich and powerful, the Knights Templar settled down in different areas throughout Europe.  They rivaled another "cousin" order that also was established in the Holy Land, but with a military goal, the "Knights of Saint-Jean of Jerusalem".  They became Hospitaliers, members of a charitable order (then Knights of Malta, in the 16th century, in order to create an island principality). They especially faced the jealousy of Philippe Le Bel.  The order was dissolved in 1307, its goods confiscated and its grand master burned at the stake. The locations that witnessed this saga remain relatively discreet.  There are roughly 20 inFrance.
 
  • Sarlat, medieval city of Périgord (Dordogne). A historic city in the heart of a chateaux-rich region, Sarlat has a Templar cemetery.
  • La Couvertoirade, fortified village of Larzac (near Millau). The perfectly conserved compound was, in fact, completed by the Hospitaliers in the 12th century.  The site is in the middle of the wild and solitary plateau of Larzac, but right near the A75 highway (Clermont-Ferrand in Montpellier) and the Millau viaduct.
  • Saint-Cado, on the shores of the Gulf of Morbihan (near Vannes).
  • The "petite mer", a picturesque hamlet that holds a discreet chapel.
  • Poët-Laval, perched village in the hills of the Drôme (near Montélimar). This 12th-century Commanderie in Provence was built with small stones of a fortress: vineyards, orchards and lavender fields!
  • Commanderie d'Arville, near Orléans (Centre). This 12th-century Templar ensemble seems to be one of the best preserved, and possesses a thematic museum.