When I was trying to figure out where to go on a roadtrip in France, I chose Brittany hoping to avoid the worst of traveling in Europe in August: the heat and the crowd.
Well, I learned that trying to avoid the crowd in the middle of August in France is a lesson in futility. You just have to embrace the madness. We ended up joining the masses of humanity that travel all over Brittany visiting one medieval village after another.
On the plus side: In terms of avoiding the heat, we got what we wished for. It rained. Every single day.
My brother who’s studying in Germany (remember him?) flew to meet me in Cain, the capital of Normandy where we picked up a rental car. This is where I learned that in Europe, they charge you an arm and a leg for an automatic car.
Not wanting to pay the surcharge, I resigned to the fact that I’d have to relearn driving a manual car again. Something I haven’t done in almost 2 decades. Thankfully, after only a couple of freak-outs and switcheroos with my brother, I got my mojo back and it was smooth sailing for most of the trip.
Proof that I totally got everything under control.
Normandy didn’t have as big of a crowd problem as Brittany did and we had a pleasant and leisurely time visiting the D-Day beaches and the medieval town of Fougeres.
Fougeres was my first ‘real’ medieval town, it came complete with a castle and some intact half-timbered houses that have been converted to creperies and souvenir stores.
I was taking the lack of crowds and easy strolls around Fougeres for granted because I didn’t know what was coming up next.
St. Malo was a big mess! It was the first indication of what was coming in the next few weeks.
We couldn’t even get in into St. Malo. There were simply not enough parking spaces in town. In the end, after spending a few hours in traffic jam we admitted defeat and turn around.
It’s unfortunate because the town looked mighty impressive. A big fort wall encircles the old town that in return surrounded by turquoise ocean and long stretches of beach. It was all incredibly scenic. St. Malo seems to have it all. Except for parking.
So we learned our first lesson of traveling in France in August: If you don’t want to join them, beat them. Start early.
So start early we did. Not wanting to make the same mistakes, we got to Dinan at 7 am. Maybe this was too early because NOTHING was open that early. But I kind of liked it that way. No, scratch that. I LOVED it.
Dinan is deservedly popular. I love the port of Dinan with its tall, 10-arch, viaduct high above and the line of restaurants lining the river. From here it’s a steep walk up a cobbled-stoned path to the old city center with its narrow, winding alleys and sharp corners and medieval houses.
But more than that, I’ll always remember Dinan as a city where I overcome my disgust over mollusk.
This was an important milestone because if there’s one thing you need to know about traveling in Brittany (or France) in August is this: a lot of places are closed. Sunday in August turned even a town like Rennes (pop:200k) into a ghost town.
My point is – in August, the only places that are open are those that cater to tourists. In Brittany this means there were only 2 main things on the menu: crepes and moules (mussels).
I had never like mollusk and never thought these creatures should never belong on a dinner plate. But I was so sick of eating crepes that even mollusk started to look attractive. So that was how I found myself in front of a big bowl of moules frites in Dinan.
I had to admit, it was… ok (the curry sauce helped). I ordered it a couple of more times during our trip. Whoever says that travel broadens your horizon sure has a point, even though sometimes it does it through desperation, and not by choice.
For medieval towns, surprisingly I thought Rennes has much to offer. Surprising because this capital of Brittany is often overshadowed by its more popular cousins: Vannes, Vitre, or Dinan.
Rennes is a big enough town to have all the amenities but still has a nicely preserved collection of colorful medieval houses. It has a sizable student population that brings in the bars and the international eateries, and it makes it feel both young and old at the same time. We spent a few days there and I could’ve easily spent more.
Josselin is another medieval town close to Rennes that deserves a visit. You can climb up the church tower and get a beautiful view of the town and even the grounds of the local chateau that has been lived in by the Rohan family for centuries. We didn’t visit the the castle because it was closed at the time. Josselin proved to be yet another unexpected highlight.
Nantes was ok. It has an interesting castle and a lively old town. But by the time we got to Nantes (and Vannes), I hate to admit it, but all medieval towns started to look the same. There’s only so much half-timbered houses and forts a person can take in a week, you know?
Luckily Mont Saint-Michel provided a change that we needed. Mont Saint-Michel is a monastery on an island a short 600 metres away from the mainland. It is one of Brittany’s, if not France’s most famous landmarks. Its unique skyline can be seen from miles away.
We were there during a particularly high tide – so high that the connecting bridge was completely underwater and the monastery became truly an island. A fact that left my brother and I, along with hundreds of other tourists, stranded for a few hours.
So that was kind of exciting. We figured there were worse places to be stranded.
Carnac is another non-medieval town stop during our road trip through Brittany. It’s known as the site of megalithic formations that predate Stonehenge by 1000 years.
Don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the size of Carnac rocks though. You’re more likely to trip over them since many of them are only knee high. But what is impressive, if you’re into rocks, is the numbers of them. Rows and rows of rocks. Over 3000 rocks have been hewn and arranged in linear or circular arrangements.
Why would they build this? Why did they have so much free time? I guess we’ll never know.
The great thing about going on a roadtrip is that you run into things on your way somewhere else. Like this Chateau D’O. We followed signs on a random backroad which eventually led to this beautiful castle that’s privately owned and lived in.
First the Rohan family in Josselin, and now this. I can’t believe people actually live in chateaus here!
We were taken on a tour, conducted entirely in French, which meant that we nodded along only when we heard words we recognize. Like ‘chateau’. And that’s pretty much it, really. Regardless, this was my first real chateau!! And it’s a beauty!
Phew! If you’ve managed to read this far, imaginary reader, thank you! I definitely didn’t mean to end up writing a guide on Brittany medieval towns.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I love roadtrips! Despite the crappy weather and the crowd, this roadtrip through Brittany was no exception. There’s just something about getting behind a car (although preferably an automatic) and an open road that gets me excited.
Plus, I also got to hang out with my little brother that I see about once a year.
My next roadtrip is just around the corner. Jack will be meeting me in Iceland where we’ll be spending 8 days road tripping with Camping Iceland (assuming Bardarbunga doesn’t go anytime soon). So keep an eye out for that. It will be quite a change from medieval towns, crepes, and mussels but should be equally exciting.