Legend has it that Merlin, in the time of Camelot, was so enchanted by Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, at the Fountain of Barenton in the age-old forest of Broceliande, that he happily lived out his life in those forests of Brittany, the western-most part of France. Standing in the monumental 13th century Boca Ora, or Gate of Truth, gazing out through the tall pines at the lapis sea from the Pen-Lann point, we can almost feel Merlin’s magic, and truthfully feel enchantment with the spectacular stone surroundings and florific gardens of the Domaine de Rochevilaine set on the southern Breton Coast.
Having done much extended, often arduous traveling, we sometimes like to intersperse such trips with shorter, relaxing journeys. Southern Brittany, with a luxury hotel-spa such as Rochevilaine as a base, offers a diverse combination of sightseeing, lovely seaside villages and historical hill-towns, intriguing history, delectable fresh seafood and local farm products, and the relaxation of beach walks, ocean swimming, poolside sunning and a variety of spa treatments and therapies, including the sea-water treatments known as thalassotherapy, which originated in Brittany.
Rochevilaine is a Relais & Chateau property, set on the Pen-Lann point at the mouth of the wide Vilaine estuary, looking out over the lapis sea, with white sailboats heeled over, sails taught, outlined against the yellow sands of the Mine d ‘Or beach with the cliffs of Peniston above. Rochevilaine is virtually a small village of ancient stone buildings, re-assembled on-site—two Breton manor houses, an old salt smuggling lookout, an 18th century customs house, an ancient barracks, and the Boca Ora gate itself, recovered from the Chateau at Guegueron, all knit together in a harmonious garden-woven whole.
Pen-Lann port was a tiny fishing village, and Pen-Lann point just a ruin and a waste-tip by the 1950’s, when the industrialist Henri Dresch bought the property to open a small inn. He then meticulously, over 30 years, bought, transported and reassembled the several historic stone buildings, creating the delightful combination of crenellated walls, turreted towers, gothic arches, winding paths and verdant flower beds perching over the rocky costs which Rochevilaine guests enjoy today.
Brittany has a history jointly affected by both England and France. The area was colonized by Rome as Armorica for four centuries during imperial times. The Bretons emigrated from what is now England in the 5th century, conquered, colonized and inhabited the region for four centuries more until the Duchy of Brittany was founded in 939. The Dukes of Brittany ruled for several hundred more years, and in the early 1600’s, Brittany was united with France. Two languages besides French—Breton and Gallo—are still spoken in the western and eastern parts, and Breton, which sounds like Welsh more than anything else, is the only Celtic-derived language spoken in continental Europe.
Brittany is inescapably intertwined with the sea. Surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean— it sits as far west as Cornwall does in England—it’s natural that much of its cuisine is based on its luxuriant harvest from the sea. Rochevilaine’s restaurant, under the direction of Patrice Caillault, provides formal service in an elegant series of dining rooms in the old lookout building, with sweeps of glass giving the feeling of a ship’s bridge, commanding a 180 degree view of the sea and coast. The menu runs heavily to fish—again no surprise—oysters plat & creuses—the flat Belon and the deeper wrinkled Marennes; rosy langoustines; lobster three different ways; silvery whole bar baked in salt; and lotte. After a rich and delicious ameuse bouche of foie gras crème brulée, we eschew surf and opt for turf: crispy pan-sautéed sweetbreads—meltingly tender--served on a round of celeriac-apple-potato puree, and a single, perfect slice of very well aged beef rib-steak served with marrow, caramelized shallots and red wine reduction. A light, young 2001 Saumur Chateau de Montgueret—vielle vignes pairs both dishes well, with its fruity/spicy Cabernet Franc flavors, and its remains accompany small morcels of morbier, reblochon, pont leveque and a local farm-aged goat cheese. Long a fan of Calvados from next-door Normandy, we sample Marc de Bretagne, the local version of apple-brandy, and find it quite good.
Twenty km NW of Pen-Lann lies Vannes, a scallop-shell shaped ramparted town overlooking the head of the Gulf of Morbihan. Perched on a sloping hilltop, its winding, cobbled streets are lined with crazy, leaning half-timbered houses and stone turrets, looking more like a Yorkshire town that something in France. It’s Wednesday, market day, and the market spills throughout the twisting lanes and squares. The covered fish-market is packed with swaths of ice, covered in the bounty of the sea and tended by quintessential fishmongers and fishwives—weather-beaten faces, jaunty berets, black rubber aprons and boots, and strong chapped hands wielding wicked filleting knives. Ruby slabs of tuna, pin-stripe grey soles, gilded St Pierre, flashing sliver bar and creamy white turbot glisten on the ice. Piles of rosy crevettes, wiggling blue lobsters, pink langoustines, blue-black mounds of moules, oysters flat and wrinkled, cockles, sea escargot and three types of crab—rusty-hued araignee—spider-crab, round tourteau, and small delicate etrilles all beckon deliciously.
We wend through the market stalls, slowly acquiring heirloom tomatoes, crotins of aged goat cheese, a slab of sheep-milk brebis, russet apples, and a crusty loaf of country bread for a picnic supper on our small terrace at Rochevilaine—a relaxing delight after the drawn-out and formal service of the restaurant.
Immediately south of Vannes, the Gulf of Morbihan (which means “little sea” in Breton) almost completely surrounded by the Presqu'île de Rhuys, is dotted with over 300 small private islands and is a refuge for many types of migratory birds. We wander the small roads south onto the Rhuys Peninsula itself (sounds Welsh, no?) through fields of hay and pastures of creamy-white dairy cattle (lots of butter and cream in Breton cuisine) through tiny villages of white stucco and grey stone Breton houses, with their steep pitched blue-black slate roofs, along the Morbihan coast, with vistas of the islands, fishing boats, oyster beds and fleeting sailboats, and finally to the Chateau de Suscino, sitting between the sea’s edge and the forest in the wild grassy marshes. Built originally in the 13th century, the impressive turreted chateau was expanded over 200 years to become the seat of the Dukes of Brittany in the 15th century. A virtually compete ruin 30 years ago, Suscino has been slowly and painstakingly restored by the Morbihan government. Intricate, tiled floors were discovered and rehabilitated. Hand-joined wooded doors and windows, with stained glass panels and forged-iron hardware re-created. An ancient quarry was reopened to slab out the large blue grey roof slates, some weighing up to 20 pounds. An exposition detailing the crafts of the times—stone cutting and carving, woodwork, metal craft, iron forging, stained glazing and pottery fills a portion of the Chateau, along with a depiction of ancient ducal life—hunting, banquets, distribution of justice, and daily rounds.
The next morning, winding SE along narrow country roads, past pastures full of ruddy Parthenaise beef-cows, huge roules of hay, and green fields of corn we approach the sea at Quimiac, and creep toward Piriac Sur Mer, a very pretty seaside port town of 17th century slate-roofed stone and stucco houses, set with baskets of pink, lipstick red and dusty rose geraniums and impatiens. Dozens of sailboats clank and creak in the tight harbor, and the coppery smell of the sea drifts up the stone quayside.
Twisting further southwest, we enter the salt flats and ponds of the Guerande, nestled within the arm of the Presq’ile des Rhuys, where the world famous Breton sea salt has been hand-harvested in the same endless cycle since it was conceived by the early Celts. An intricate maze of settling ponds, channels, and evaporating pans, looking like a multi-hued patchwork quilt from the air, combine with much struggling human labor and the evaporative powers of the sea breeze and summer heat to extract the fine, leafy fleur du sel, which is skimmed off the surface of the ponds, and the coarser grey, crystalline sel gris, from the bottom, along with a bevy of trace minerals from the salty Atlantic seawater. The narrow road winds through this quilted maze, and we pass Paludiers at work, whose average age is now around 40, wielding the long-handled rakes known as las, raking the grayish salt off the pan bottoms into triangular-conical piles, in a continuation of the epic struggle these Guerandaise wage on a year-in year-out basis.
On a rise overlooking the salt marshes the town of Guerande is a smallish walled city, its intact crenellated curtain walls and four tower-flanked entry gates dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. The center comprises a few cobbled streets with very well preserved medieval buildings—stone and half timbered radiate out from the Place St Aubin, with its 12th c. collegiate church—a lovely turreted pile of stones. A colorful market spills through the town Wednesdays and Saturdays. At Crepreie La Flambee, we lunch simply on salade de tomates, and Gallettes de Bretagne—plate-covering earthy crepes of organically-milled buckwheat flour folded around ham and gruyere—very delicious and perfectly matched with a bottle of fruity, off-dry artisanal Breton Cider.
Returning to Rochevilaine, we relax, respectively, with a soothing massage, and a cool, refreshing swim off the small shell beach below our terrace. Then we stroll along the sentier littoral— French public footpath—to Pen-Lann port, and take a table on the terrace of the Bar du Pilot. We dine on green salad, crusty rye bread with flavorful Brittany butter, and an enormous plateau de fruits de mer—much of what we saw in the market—a half crab, rosy crevettes, sweet langoustines, briny oysters, tiny clams and turbaned cockles. As the sun sets over Morbihan Gulf (at almost 10pm!) we raise a cool glass of rose in silent toast to this unique and delightful corner of Brittany.