THE FEELING of utter relaxation and enjoyment that can set the tone for an entire vacation came to me in Locronan, as we sat in an unpretentious 17th-century tavern sipping calvados with an Irish couple we had met the day before. Across the road was a vast Gothic church with artistry in every nook and cranny. A short walk away, past some artisan workshops, and not much else, was a former priory, now an inn, where we were sleeping and eating well at prices that seemed ridiculously low after our two weeks in Austria and Italy.
In just a month, Locronan would be jammed with tourists and pilgrims for the eight-mile religious procession dating back to Celtic times that is held there once every six years. But when we found it, midway in our week-long auto trip through Brittany, the little village just out of sight of the sea a few miles away matched our expectations for an unforgettable vacation stopover: attractive setting, strong sense of history, low-cost and low-key, and a location that makes it a convenient base for interesting day trips.
It could have been any of a number of such villages, of course, because the magic we found in Locronan was the magic of Brittany itself. This is France's least-developed region and among its cheapest, making it, in this year of the strong dollar and the slumping franc, a true travel bargain for Americans. Yet strangely, despite its wild coastal beauty, its delightful villages rooted in history and prehistory and its haunting moors and forests, Brittany is rarely crowded with tourists.
We went to Brittany against my better judgment. I wanted to go back to the Riviera where, despite opulent surroundings and jet-setting reputation, it is still possible to vacation at moderate prices. Why did my wife insist on going to a place, I protested, that would be cold and rainy in mid-June and couldn't match the splendors of a half-dozen other areas of France? Happily I was proven wrong.
In our six-day visit, we drove 600 miles in our rented car, saw splendid sights, stayed in pleasant one-star hotels for about $10 a night, ate delicious five-course meals in non-starred but often memorable restaurants at prices ranging from $8 to $24 a person--and didn't even unpack the umbrella I had brought.
Brittany, which juts like a rugged fist into the Atlantic from the northwest corner of Europe has, through the ages, listened to a different drummer than the rest of France. The Bretons are of Celtic, not Latin, stock. Before their arrival the land was the home of a prehistoric race, about which little is known but which left behind thousands of solemn stone megaliths, many of them in orderly arrangements that only add to the mystery of their purpose.
The first British settlers came to the region in the fifth century, giving it its present name. For much of the next millenium, Brittany, with occasional kings and dukes of it own, found itself under the sway alternately of England and France or the unwilling battleground for those powers' wars with each other. Somewhere through the mists of the 10th century came an array of priests and holy hermits from Ireland who supplanted the pagan cults with Christianity, their legendary exploits lost to documented history but providing rich fare for carvings and paintings in Gothic churches built centuries later.
Brittany came fully under the control of France in the 19th century, but the Celtic-rooted Breton language is still widely used, and the ornately embroidered traditional dress of the Breton women, with the tall cylindrical white hats, can be seen in abundance at religious festivals and even on weekly market days in places such as Pont l'Abbe on the remote Penmarch peninsula.
The constant wash of civilizations across Brittany has left an array of sights and spectacles for the visitor with time to explore: the megaliths, concentrated near Carnac in the south: medieval walled cities such as Saint-Malo and Dinan; the rugged coastlines of a half-dozen peninsulas, countless beaches and fishing villages.
Brittany's best-known pageantry is the summer-long series of pardons, colorful religious ceremonies held annually in dozens of small towns, most of them between mid-May and early September. When possible, we go out of our way to avoid pageantry, with its traffic jams, surging throngs and full hotels. Nonetheless, many people plan their vacations to Brittany around the pardons and say they enjoy them immensely.
Helen MacInnes' "Assignment in Brittany," although written more than 40 years ago, still captures the fierce independence of the Bretons and the setting of Mont-Saint-Michel and its surroundings. A last-minute reading of it can be the visitor's toe-in-the-water for the plunge into the region. Jacques Cartier was born in Saint-Malo, as was Chateaubriand, who is buried on a tiny island just off the famed seaport of the corsairs. Descartes, Abelard and Jules Verne lived in Brittany, as did Alain-Rene Le Sage, who wrote Gil Blas. Bertrand du Guesclin, the 14th-century musketeer, left his traces at innumerable sites of battles and single combats with the English, and Alexandre Dumas pere used Brittany as the setting for several tales.
Sarah Bernhardt had a summer home in Brittany and Proust vacationed there. But today, the closest thing to an international resort is Dinard, a somewhat faded but pricey beach town across the Rance River from Saint-Malo. Vacationers in Brittany are more likely to be French families seeing their own country, or British and Irish tourists drawn by modest-priced travel arrangements.
We arranged to pick up our rented car in Rennes, a three-hour train ride west of Paris, and leave it there six days later when our visit was over. Rennes, a pleasant enough city but with little of the flavor of the Breton world that lies just beyond, jarred us a bit when, arriving late on a Sunday afternoon, we found that virtually all the restaurants are closed on Sunday night. But we had asked of Rennes only that it launch us comfortably into our week in Brittany, and it did.
Our first destination was Dol-de-Bretagne, chosen because it lies midway between Mont-Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo and because the Hotel de Bretagne is one of about a dozen in Brittany singled out by the Michelin guide as providing "good food at moderate prices." (This designation is not to be confused with the Michelin's starred restaurants, of which Brittany has about two dozen, with prices to match their reputations, and generally requiring advance reservations.)
We took a double room in the hotel for $9 without bath, unloaded our luggage and then drove another half-hour to Mont-Saint-Michel. (That night, the hotel matched our expectations with a five-course meal including shellfish and pre-sale mutton, raised in the coastal salt meadows, that with wine came to $19 for the two of us. We were also introduced to calvados, the smooth apple brandy distilled in Brittany.)
Mont-Saint-Michel, one of the world's most spectacular man-made sights, is actually in Normandy--by a few feet--but that shouldn't keep it from being included in a tour of Brittany.
The magnificent fortresslike monastery on the granite island connected to the mainland by a short causeway was built in its present form in the 13th century on the site of a succession of churches dating back to A.D. 708. In July and August the narrow, steep streets leading to the monastery become jammed, and guides may rush tourists through the vast Gothic structure. But in June, we were able to explore the island and the monastery at a leisurely pace that included a picnic lunch on the ramparts with huge French-bread sandwiches and a bottle of hard apple cider, a popular drink of Normandy and Brittany.
English-language tours are given at least twice a day--more frequently in busy periods--and while the monastery closes for two hours at noontime, visitors can enter for the 12:15 mass in its church.
The walled port city of Saint-Malo, one of Brittany's splendors, is an hour's drive west of Mont-Saint-Michel--unless the trip is slowed by the tempting seafood restaurants at Cancale and other fishing and oystering villages.
After a visit to Saint-Malo our next interests lay at the opposite end of Brittany, but cross-country travel can be swift on the well-marked main highways and we had time to spend the morning in Dinan before heading 120 miles west to Locronan.
Dinan rests on a promontory overlooking the Rance River, 15 miles inland from Saint-Malo. One of Brittany's best-preserved medieval walls surrounds its bustling inner city, wrapping together an attractive blend of 14th-century castles, churches and clock towers with 20th-century shops and offices.
As in most Breton towns likely to be frequented by visitors, a municipal tourist office--often disguised under the forbidding name of Syndicat d'Initiative--can provide maps and suggested walking tours, as well as hotel and restaurant lists. Being travelers whose sense of direction rarely survives more than two twists and one name change of a narrow medieval street, we found these maps indispensable.
We loaded up for a picnic lunch at an aromatic Dinan charcouterie, taking thick slices of mushroom and meat pastries, portions of pa te' and rilletes--potted shredded pork--and some fruit and pastries, as well as a slice of chevre, the delicious Breton goat cheese, and a bottle of cider. A meal fit for a fat king.
The notion of a restful and romantic picnic by the side of a European road has always tantalized me, but reality usually falls well short of what I have in mind. After an hour of driving and looking we finally spotted a tiny picnic site--without tables. No problem for the French couple who were already there, on their folding chairs, eating off a folding table, with a tablecloth and a full array of utensils. Mercifully ignored by the efficient French couple, we perched on two little rocks in the grass. Fingers dripping with juicy foods never made for hands, we nonetheless had a tasty lunch and--after it and the French were gone--a relaxing rest, with the cider, before moving on.
I spend winter evenings meticulously planning summer trips. But if preparation is my first principle of travel, flexibility is my second, and thus it was not until that morning that I had heard of Locronan, which became our destination for that night.
The Blue Guide to Brittany, which had become our indispensable adviser, was of two minds about Locronan. "An ancient and well-preserved village (which attracts too many visitors in the summer)," it said. But it wasn't quite summer and the map showed Locronan in the midst of several other places we wanted to see.
We drove warily into the little town, looking for the crowds, and drove right back out when we spotted a sign advertising a country inn a mile away. But the inn, besides being priced well above our limit, sat splendidly elegant in the middle of freshly fertilized croplands. . Back in Locronan a few minutes later, we found no crowds, so we parked at one of the two hotels, the Auberge du Prieure, examined the menu and took a room for the next two nights.
The room, which cost $12 a night, had a shower and a view of a vegetable garden and a neighboring backyard where a little girl played on a tricycle. Like many French inns, the Auberge du Prieure requires guests to eat the evening meal in its dining room. That presents a problem if a traveler wants to dine at a specific restaurant; but hotel kitchens in most of France are several cuts above those in the United States and the best meal in town often can be found at the inn.
The meals, ranging from $8 to $14, included an array of Breton foods, with an emphasis on shellfish. The crayfish, prawns, mussels and scallops were superb. I decided to give Belon oysters a chance to live up to their reputation, but again I found myself wishing they were plump, sweet Chincoteagues. Brittany relies on the nearby Loire region for its wines, and we generally found the crisp, dry Muscadet from the northern Loire a good accompaniment to the seafood.
The companionable dining room of the one-time Benedictine priory lent itself to conversation among the guests, and we quickly met Pat and Detta, a lively, middle-aged couple from Ireland who were just starting a nine-day auto tour of Brittany. They became our table companions for the rest of our meals in Locronan.
Not all such chance meetings in the dining room took wing. Our first night there, we heard two elderly English women strike up a conversation with a couple in their mid-forties who spoke English with only the slightest of accents. After several minutes of pleasant chatting, one of the Englishguests ventured to ask where the couple was from. "We are Argentines," they replied amiably. "We are the enemy." Following sharp intakes of breath from the English women, all involved professed their displeasure with war, but the conversation had clearly been dealt a mortal blow.
Locronan is nestled against the hills of the Nevet Forest, sacred to a succession of fertility cults and religions since the mists of prehistoric times. Three miles away, hidden from the town, is the sea. Locronan's two dozen structures, including a vast 15th-century Gothic church, are all built of native stone. Most house shops and studies of sculptors, potters and weavers.
By fiercely held local legend, a holy hermit named Ronan arrived from Ireland in a stone boat in about the ninth century and began converting the pagans to Christianity. Ronan, like many of Brittany's panoply of ancient undocumented aliens, is known locally--but not to Rome--as a saint. His life had its ups and downs, including a murder, a confrontation with a thieving wolf and a running feud with a shrewish housewife, all memorialized in a delightful series of carved panels in a 1707 pulpit in the church named for him.
Locronan lies within a half-hour's drive of some of Brittany's most stunning sights. To the north is the rugged Crozon Peninsula, largely barren in its far reaches, with spectacular views of the sea smashing onto the granite coasts, as well as a look at the bustling port city of Brest across the bay to the north.
At Landevennec, at the entrance to the Crozon Peninsula, are the ruins of a sixth-century Benedictine monastery named for St. Guenole, whose mother, St. Gwen, according to legend and local statuary, was endowed with three breasts to accommodate triplets. A striking new monastery has recently been built on a bluff overlooking the ancient ruins, and every day at 11 a.m. the three dozen Benedictine monks celebrate a community mass with Gregorian chant and other choral music.
Directly west of Locronan, past a string of beaches and fishing villages and the fading resort of Douarnenez is the Points du Raz, another rocky peninsula. But to the south is the far more interesting Penmarch peninsula, still the home of an ancient Breton tribe called the Bigouden, named for the outlandish 18-inch cylindrical white lace headdress worn by the women, crowning an otherwise all-black costume.
I encountered my first such hat through the lens of a camerawhen, with my wife driving, we cruised slowly through a picturesque Bigouden village,but I was so startled I didn't press the shutter. Then we saw a similarly dressed woman sitting by a church, selling lace doilies. In twos and threes, more walked along the road, and then in Pon l'Abbe, where it was market day, we spotted a dozen. So much for my cynical belief that urban civilization has driven all the guidebook-touted folk customs into museums.
Quimper, with a population of 60,000, is just a short drive from the Penmarch Peninsula and it has two of Brittany's best museums. It is the largest city in the southwest part of the region, with good hotels and restaurants, and would make an equally attractive base for those who favor a faster pace than Locronan.
The city, on the Odel River which flows south into the Bay of Biscay, was the capital of Cornouaille, a name brought in the sixth century by settlers from England's Cornwall. Its cathedral is one of the most complete Gothic structure's remaining in Brittany and the adjacent Bishop's Palace is now the Musee Breton, with a definitive collection of folk dress, wood carvings and religious art. Across the square is the Musee des Beaux-Arts, with works by French and Flemish artists and Max Jacob, who was born in Quimper.
Quimper is the center for the production and sale of Breton faience. The factories that make the distinctive ceramics are concentrated in the Locmaria section, across the Odel and within walking distance of central Quimper, but the factories, their sales rooms and the faience museum all shut tight for a generous noontime break. My command decision to get on with our itinerary is still thrown up at me.
Southern Brittany's prime attractions are clustered around the Gulf of Morbihan and the Quiberon Peninsula, site of a major naval battle between Caesar's fleet and that of the Veneti, a local maritime tribe, in 56 B.C.
Within a 40-mile arc are Vannes, the former capital of the Veneti, now a city of 40,000 with many ancient and recently restored structures; Auray, beautifully situated on the Auray River; the Gulf of Morbihan, a virtual inland sea of some 40 squares miles lined by port towns; Carnac and its thousands of prehistoric megaliths, and Quiberon, a pleasant fishing port and beach resort at the tip of the eight-mile sandy peninsula of the same name. Quiberon is also the embarkation point for boats to Belle-Ile, a scenic 8-mile-long island 12 miles off the coast whose fortifications bear witness to 10 centuries of warring and conguest.
After competing with a herd of dairy cows and a busload of ardent German tourists to examine the Carnac Alignments, we chose Auray as our stop for the night. But unfortunately we found a hotel before finding the town's true beauty--the lovely suburb of Saint-Gousan. It is just across the Auray River, over a narrow stone bridge, and it has Auray's most attractive inns and restaurants.
We ate sumptuously on seafood there on the waterfront at the Restaurant l'Abbaye for a total of $24 and wished we had not been quite so hasty in getting a hotel room back in drab, commercial Auray.
The visitor on a leisurely stroll along the placid waterfront, 10 miles from the open sea and seemingly light years away from anything of importance happening in France, is astonished to come upon a plaque noting that this is where Benjamin Franklin landed in 1776 when he came to seek France's help in America's fight for independence. Americans seeking other reminders of home can walk on the Avenue President J.F. Kennedy and the Avenue du President Wilson.
Late the next afternoon we arrived back in Rennes to a jarring reminder of the world we had left behind for a week: a grid-locked traffic jam surrounding the train station and the square on which our hotel fronted, as a large part of the city's population prepared to leave for the weekend.
Hours later, at 3 a.m., we were suddenly awakened by an authoritative roll on a snare drum somewhere below our window, followed by a series of well-executed marching cadences that reverberated through the square. "Uh-oh," I thought, "a pageant--some strange folk ceremony that starts in the middle of the night and our hotel is in the midst of it."
I crept to the window and peered out. The square was empty, except for the drummer, rocking somewhat unsteadily in his heels by now, and a half-dozen inebriated friends, marching in exaggerated, mock goose step. At that point, I might even have settled for a pageant to cap a memorable week in Brittany.