The perfect trip: Brittany and Normandy
Carnac: Best for ancient history
“Welcome to one of the ancient world’s greatest construction projects!” announces local guide Véronique Martin, as she tramps out across the grass. It’s a foggy day, and a grey veil still hangs over the land. Pines rustle gently in the breeze and droplets of dew sparkle on the fields, reflecting watery sunlight filtering through the clouds.
It’s then that the first of the Carnac stones materialises from the mist: a waypost in the steely gloom that seems to point into our own long-forgotten past. France has plenty of prehistoric sites, but Carnac is in a league of its own. Sprawling out across the duneland of southern Brittany, the site is on a stupefying scale. It’s been compared with Stonehenge, the Parthenon and the Pyramids in architectural ambition, but despite the efforts of archaeologists and academics, its purpose remains a mystery.
The main alignments consist of more than 3,000 granite menhirs, arranged in rows between 3300 BC and 1500 BC. Each of the blocks was carved at a local quarry and transported for miles, even though the lightest weighs in excess of three tonnes. The menhirs cover 40 hectares and stretch for four miles, making Carnac the largest prehistoric monument anywhere on Earth.
“There are many things we do know about Carnac,” explains Véronique, running her hand across one of the massive blocks, its surface fuzzed in yellow lichen, its contours rutted by centuries of rainfall. “We know where the builders quarried their stones. We have ideas about how they transported them, and some of the techniques they might have used to erect them. But the one thing we can’t answer is the most important question of all – and that, of course, is why.”
Theories about the monument’s function are as numerous as the stones themselves. Some believe the alignments commemorate important warriors or tribal chieftains. Others think they mark out an astronomical clock or celestial calendar. One outlandish theory even maintains that they may have been a kind of seismic detector, used to predict earthquakes. The current consensus is that the stones served a religious purpose, probably related to the summer and winter solstices, and possibly involving ritual sacrifice – but the truth is, no-one knows.
“Carnac is one of the great riddles of the ancient world,” continues Véronique. “In many ways, we are so close to the people who built it, but in other ways they seem very distant to us. We know almost nothing for certain about their language, customs or spiritual beliefs – and we probably never will. It’s that mystery that makes this place so fascinating.” She turns and disappears into the ranks of stones, a ghostly figure swallowed up in a wall of silver fog.
Where to eat
The Bistrot du Marin, at the port in La Trinité-sur- Mer, three miles east of Carnac, serves Breton cuisine such as cotriade (fish stew) and mussels in cider (00 33 29755 7323; menus from £15).
Where to stay
There’s a distinct scent of the seaside at this Lodge Kerisper in La Trinité-sur-Mer. Bedrooms feel like ships’ cabins, with blonde wood, porthole windows and blue-andwhite colour schemes. Downstairs, there’s a lounge bar with deep leather sofas and coffee-table books to browse (from £85).
Mont St-Michel: Best for walks
Haze rises off the sands as Patrick Desgué treks out into the great bay of Mont St-Michel. As always, he walks barefoot. He has worked as a guide here for years, but takes no chances.
“The conditions in the bay can change in hours,” he explains. “What can be a safe place to walk one day can be treacherous the next. But if you respect it, it’s safe to explore – as long as you travel with a guide!”
Patrick spots a new patch of quicksand. He stamps on it, conjuring up a pool of viscous sand that bubbles around his feet, drawing them inexorably downwards.