Vannes: A Picturesque, Walled Medieval Town in Brittany
France has no shortage of beautiful small towns and villages—in fact, it’s really quite hard to find an ordinary or ugly one. Often, the main local road goes through the middle of a village, with shops and houses lining either side. And you’ll always find a large church or two, and the main town square, where you’re almost guaranteed to find a café/bistro/bar/restaurant—-buy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and linger at an outside table, watching local life go by.
So then, what makes the old walled city of Vannes in Brittany stand out? We’re speaking of the old city (Vieux Vannes) here, not the crazy urban sprawl that has grown up around it.
First is its location. Vannes is at the head of the Gulf of Morbihan, a very large area in the north west of France with a deeply indented coastline and many islands. On the south side of the old city a canalized port, which provides access to the Gulf, leads right up to the lively Place Gambetta and Porte St-Vincent, the main entrance to the walled city today. The harbor and marina are always bustling and it’s fun to sit at a café terrace in Place Gambetta and watch the activity. When we were there, a special road race was underway, an ultra-marathon around the Gulf de Morbihan, so there were many stalls and tents set up.
The walled city is roughly oval in shape, with other gates (portes) on the north and east sides. On the north is Porte Prison, which used to be the main entrance to the city. Dating from the 13th and 15th centuries, criminals were imprisoned here.
Lovely formal gardens, planted in what was the moat below the walls (ramparts) on the east side, offer good views of the impressive walls and of the city’s old wash-houses (lavoirs) next to the gently gurgling Marle River. The wash-houses date from 1820 and were still in use after World War 11. South of the wash-houses, Chateau de l’Hermine, also facing the gardens, was built in the 18th century on the site of the residence of the dukes of Brittany. Parts of the walls are still the original Gallo-Roman walls, but you also see the Tour de Connetable, built in the 16th century, with its pointed roof and mullioned windows. Here and there it’s possible to climb up onto the ramparts.
It’s the delightful tangle of cobbled alleyways within the walls, however, that makes Vannes so special. The walled city is a medieval jumble of houses, narrow lanes, and a magnificent church with a large semi-circular frieze above the entrance. The honeycomb of narrow streets is lined with well-restored timber-framed buildings, many now housing small specialty shops and cafes or bistrots. Wandering around is a pleasure and you really do feel as though you are in a different era. The layout has nothing really straight—cobbled streets go up and down the gentle hill and come in at angles in various squares. It’s mostly pedestrianized and the whole is easily walkable.
The main squares are Place Henri-IV, which has the oldest half-timbered houses, and Place des LIces, also lined with timber-framed houses. Many of the houses around here have unusual decorations, like animal carvings or pillars. One of the most famous inn signs is that of “Vannes et sa Femme” (Vannes and his Wife), the couple who ran the tavern.
A magnet for visitors and locals is Cathedral St-Pierre, built in the Flamboyant-Gothic style but with neo-Gothic additions. Notable is the doorway to the Cathedral, in the Flamboyant Gothic style and richly decorated, a sort of medieval comic strip carved in stone. A rotunda chapel contains the tomb of St Vincent-Ferrier, a Spanish monk from Valencia, famous for his preaching about reconciliation and peace as he traveled all over Spain and France. He arrived in Brittany in 1418 and was given a small house in Place Valencia near the Cathedral. He died in Vannes in 1419 at age 69 and the city has embraced him as their own. We had lunch at a creperie called Creperie Saint Vincent one day.
Vannes is also beautiful for its small gardens dotted around in unexpected corners of the city (besides the formal flower beds in the former moat). Many of the plants are ones that don’t like frost, suggesting that winters cannot be too cold: for example, large magnolias in the rampart gardens. Vannes (and all over Brittany) delights with huge, multi-colored hydrangea bushes.
Just outside the walls on the NW side is the Hotel de Ville, which was very close to our hotel, the Hotel Escale Oceania, perfectly placed for getting to the old city on foot. We arrived in Vannes by train and really enjoyed wandering around on foot for a couple of days.
The history of the city is also interesting. Vannes dates back to Roman times, when it was
called Darioritum. In the 5th century it became a diocese. The great Breton warrior Nominoë set out from here at the beginning of the 9th century to unify Brittany. He defeated the Franks and extended the boundaries of Brittany. In the 14th century Vannes became the capital of Brittany and in 1532 the Breton Etats (Council) assembled to ratify the Act of Union with France. Today it’s a university town, administrative center and the capital of the Morbihan.