In certain parts of Brittany you can still hear Breton spoken. A Celtic language, it’s more closely related to Cornish and Welsh than to French and you’ll feel as though you’re in another country entirely. The tradition of storytelling is strong in Brittany, often during veillées (evenings of fireside storytelling). Historically, it was travelling craftsmen who passed on the tales and in the 19th century, La Villemarqué compiled Breton tales in his Barzhaz Breizh, a work complemented by further writers that gives us written evidence of this oral tradition. Some tourist offices, museums and sights now organise storytelling tours on which, if you master some French, you can glean more about the wilder Breton tales as you wander along, perhaps as night falls, adding to the atmosphere. Or you’ll find cafés and venues where people gather to listen to Breton stories, offering fun opportunities to learn about the history the locals have shaped.
Brittany wouldn’t be Brittany without its rugged coastline, fashioned by the powerful tide over multiple centuries. The Côte d’Émeraude (Emerald Coast), named after the remarkable colour of the water here, is a string of small coves, granite headlands and steep cliffs that’s best explored on foot – in fact, some sections are only accessible in this way. The winding Chemin des Douaniers (‘Smuggler’s Path’) runs along beside the water with stunning views across open sea and coastal villages. Pack your backpack, don sturdy shoes and enjoy the exhilarating sound of the crashing waves anywhere along the path towards spectacular Cap Frehel, where the scenery becomes wilder and colonies of seabirds nest in the rocks. Beyond this point the rocks turn pink, marking the start of the Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast) which extends west across the Bay of St-Brieuc. If you want to enjoy the sounds of the shore without your walking shoes, set up camp for the day on one of Brittany’s best beaches: Dinard, Ploumanac’h, Camaret, Carnac, Bénodet… take your pick.
With its lilting rhythms and piercing cries, Breton music is as distinctive as anything else in the region. The biniou (Breton bagpipes) and bombarde (Breton oboe) are the two most iconic instruments in any Breton band, although the harp, accordion, violin and drums can also play major parts. After a lull in the early 20th century, Breton music took off again post-war. Local coastal communities developed strong musical traditions over time – in societies torn apart by separation and frequent loss at sea, powerful emotions were expressed in stirring sea shanties. Paimpol is the port most renowned for keeping the shanty tradition alive, although many other places also stage events.
As well as regular participation in fest-noz(the traditional Breton evening dance), Brittany hosts a considerable number of music festivals throughout the year. Don’t miss…
- Festival Inter-Celtique, Lorient, August
Highlighting Celtic music and dance, this festival is a must if you want to experience the very essence of Brittany.
- Festival du Bout du Monde, Crozon, August
A three-day celebration of music from around the world.
- Festival des Vieilles Charrues, Carhaix, July
France’s largest music festival set in the Finistère countryside, attracting an eclectic mix of contemporary artists and as many as 250,000 spectators.
- Festival du Route du Rock, Saint-Malo, August
A biannual festival of rock, indie and alternative music.
- Festival Les Embellies, Rennes, March
Putting talented singer-songwriters in the spotlight, Les Embellies also supports the local Rennes music scene by offering residencies to promising artists.