Brief Introduction to Brittany (Breiz, or Breizh, in Breton)
This was our first visit to Brittany this past June-July, and it was great. We’d read that it was a little different to the rest of France, but weren’t sure what we would find.
The lifestyle of the average Breton is today much the same as that of any other French person. And the towns and villages look much the same, except that in rural areas stone is used a lot and often the houses have black slate roofs and bright blue doors and shutters. But, local traditions remain very important (fairs, festivals, pardons, folk costumes and headdresses, music), and the proximity of the sea still influences lives here, although less than before.
Many Bretons are fond of the sea, whether they work in the fishing and shellfish industry or simply live near the coast and take part in weekend sailing. The area has produced many famous sailors, notably Eric Tabarly (1931-1998). Brittany has a really long coastline, as it is very indented, making it 2720km/1700mi long.
One obvious difference in Brittany is the language. Breton, or Brezhoneg, is a Celtic language with many similarities to Welsh Cornish, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. Linguistically, it’s closer to these than to French. It’s believed that the Celts originated in Central Europe and gradually extended their territory until the Romans and other invaders pushed them to the western fringes. Many signs have both French and Breton, and sometimes when people were talking we thought they were speaking another foreign language (which I guess they actually were!).
Present-day Brittany was called Armorica, or Armor, which means “country near the sea”. It was a name given to the coastal region by the Gauls; the interior was Argoat. In the 4-7th centuries many Britons fled here from England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. France annexed Brittany in the 15th century, which started a trend towards using French more, a trend that was hastened after it became a territory of France in 1532.
Brittany is not a true wine-producing area, as so many of the other French areas are, so we didn’t have a chance to visit any vineyards. But, it is famous for ble noir (black wheat) or buckwheat and the galettes and crepes that are made from it. Wherever we went, we saw creperies—way more than in other parts of the country—and we sampled quite a few. It’s also well-known for lace and cider. Galettes and cider are a very popular combination for a light meal.
Brittany is also world famous for Neolithic megaliths. There is an enormous concentration of many types—-dolmens, menhirs, groups of standing stones, alignments of menhirs, burial mounds (more on all those later).
One symbol of Brittany is the Breton flag, Gwenn ha du (white and black). Morvan Marchal designed it in 1925. The 5 black stripes represent the 5 original bishoprics of Upper Brittany (Rennes, Nantes, Dol, St Malo, and St-Brieuc); the white bands represent those of Lower Brittany (Leon, Cornouaille, Vannes and Treguiet).
Another symbol is the Triskell, an ornament in the form of a revolving cross with three arms or vortexes symbolizing earth, fire and water. It is a Celtic symbol and has been found on old Celtic coins in the British Isles and Ireland, Denmark. We frequently saw signs with the ermine wearing a long “scarf” decorated with the triskell.
The ermine was the symbol of the Duchy of Brittany. In the 13th century, ermine fur was worn by all of the Dukes of Brittany as a symbol of authority. We saw this ermine in many forms and places on our trip—on flags, as a sidewalk marker, as part of a crest, on store signs etc—and before we realized it was an ermine, Rod was calling it “that animal”, or “the squirrel” or “the ferret”! Pretty funny!