Bonjour Bretagne!

Last month we watched waves of fresh European ocean sweep slowly past as we stood on a helipad, calling farewell to southern England as it disappeared into the darkening twilight. We’d come up for a little sea air, sailing across the English Channel on board the Bretagne, a ‘super ferry’ built last century at the Chantiers d’Atlantique Shipyard in St Nazaire. The Bretagne is one of a fleet belonging to Brittany Ferries, and we were traveling over to France with our little campervan stowed below, ready for a long weekend in the beautiful forests of Brittany. As our voyage was an overnighter, we watched the darkness settle before finding our way back inside to the Piano bar, sipping apple martinis before heading off to sleep in our cosy cabin.

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The next morning we arrived at St Malo, blurted a sleepy bonjour to the French customs officers and drove out of port towards the Côtes-d’Armor region of Brittany.  The name originates from the French word côtes meaning ‘coasts’ and ar mor, the Breton words for ‘sea’. Most of the signs were written in French and Breton, the latter being the traditional Celtic language spoken in Brittany for hundreds of years, and it reminded me of the Welsh/English signs found in Wales where the language is also kept very much alive.

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After a quick pitstop at Intermarche for madeleine cakes and crisps (essential fuel), we drove to our first destination – Lac de Guerlédan, an eight-mile manmade lake surrounded by forests. Here we brewed a cup of coffee and found a hiking route that would take us part-way around the lake and into the surrounding farmland. The air was full of cuckoos calling, a sadly rare sound in modern Britain, and we drank in the sound and warm air around us after a very long, grey winter in the UK.

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Our hike took us along the water’s edge and into the trees that grew there, before rising up away from the lake and out into open air. We found swallows just back from Africa and white wildflowers I didn’t recognise growing along the cliffs. The aroma of spring followed us everywhere; even though we were just a few miles south of our home in Hampshire, it was amazing how far spring had already spread through France. We felt like we were getting a sneaky peek of warmer days to come – particularly as the weather back home was, according to WhatsApp, ‘abysmal’.

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Sunlight shone through huge swathes of beech trees, the half-light dappling through to the forest floor. Halfway through the woodland it spread out into clearings made for forestry, where areas of stumps and cleared land were alive with butterflies and other pollinators. We found this fritillary-type butterfly basking on the bracken – I am yet to identify it so any help would be hugely appreciated!

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Such friendly people! We couldn’t be sure if our fellow hikers were residents or tourists, but every single person called Bonjour! as we passed and it became more and more difficult not to break into ‘Provincial Life’ from Beauty and the Beast.

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We stumbled upon the tubbiest shetland pony on our hike, tethered to the ground but able to wander around in the shade next to a paddock full of goats. We gave him one of our apples, and after some gentle nibbling gained his trust.

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Later we returned to the lake after getting slightly lost in the woods – turns out my French skills from 13 years ago aren’t as good as I thought, but Google helped us translate the signs as it always does (Praise It). We’d walked for miles, so brewed up another coffee in the campervan and ate madeleines while overlooking the lake. The swallows were frantic and the cuckoos had been calling all day. A peaceful, sleepy descent into evening.

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I fancied a quick dip in the lake before dinner, and after much summoning of courage I swam a few lengths as dusk settled and washed my hair in the cold, clear water while Dave relaxed on the bank. Afterwards we walked back to the camper to make some food on our little stove, sleeping next to the lake with the sound of cuckoos echoing long after the daylight had faded.

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The next day we drove north to Ploumanac’h, a pretty port from where the Pink Granite Coast stretches along the sea to Perros-Guirec. The area is named after the amazing colour of the rocks and sands that line the coast, and it’s become a mecca for geologists and birders alike, as just off the coast lies one of the oldest and largest bird sanctuaries in Brittany. The Sept Isles are home to 27 species of bird, including tiny puffins and France’s largest colony of northern gannets. We weren’t organised enough to have booked a boat out, but we loved exploring the main coastline and climbing over the rock formations instead. Afterwards we headed west to Finistère and the Monts d’Arrée, an ancient mountain range known as the ‘spine’ of the region. We parked up for the night along a quiet, solitary track surrounded on one side by forest, and on the other by heathland, bleak and spangled with charred gorse bushes.

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The following morning we decided to explore a more urban setting and stopped off at Dinan, a medieval walled town with buildings dating back to the 13th century. It was everything you’d want from a French town – crêperies swimming with the aroma of warm sugar, Gothic churches, sweet shops, coffee houses, cobbled streets, gargoyles and beautiful birds.

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By the evening we found ourselves on the beaches of Normandy watching a soft red sunset. The next morning we would be up early to catch our ferry from Caen, so we decided to park up nearby, the beach being only 20 minutes from the ferry port. Here we cooked up a sizzling mushroom and garlic pasta, eating the last of the washed rind cheese we bought from the supermarket. It would be the last slab of cheese we ate as we’ve now officially gone vegan, and where better to say au revoir to the greatest dairy product in the world than the warm shores of France? We dosed away the rest of the evening in peace, watching the sun dip below the horizon with a bottle of dry cider.

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Huge thanks to the fabulous Brittany Ferries team for such an easy, relaxing break across the Channel. As Dave and I are both self-employed and really busy for most of the year, we love taking these short breaks away to unwind and recharge, and this was one of the loveliest weekends yet. You can find more information on the nature and wildlife of Brittany through their website, as well as more details on traveling by ferry on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. Bon voyage!

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