The beautiful but austere religious buildings of Bretagne are often overlooked in the rush to get to Paris, but tarry awhile and you’ll fall in love with what the region has to offer. The building boom of the Middle Ages has dotted the Celtic nation with many fine cathedrals, chapels, monasteries and abbeys – repositories of the region’s rich history and heritage. Take a ferry across the Channel and take in some these under-appreciated sights.
St Pierre-St Paul Cathedral, Nantes
St Pierre-St Paul Cathedral started being built in the last flourish of French Gothic architecture in 1434 and was only completed five centuries later. The cathedral has all the hallmarks of that movement – high walls and twin towers at the facade (the west facing side of a cathedral), but its most impressive facet is the way light streams down from its high windows onto the seated congregation. The effect is at once uplifting and awe-inspiring. Below the cathedral is the Renaissance Tomb that houses Francois II, the last Duke of Brittany – whose death signaled the end of independent Brittany. The centre-piece of the tomb is the sarcophagus of Francois and his wife surrounded by statues representing the cardinal virtues of Courage, Justice, Temperance and Prudence.
St Pierre Cathedral, Rennes
St Pierre Cathedral is built on top of two previous religious sites – it replaced a Gothic cathedral that had collapsed and left only a facade. The cathedral may not look like much from the outside, but it has an impeccably appointed interior to rival the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace. The nave (the body of the cathedral) is fitted with gilt-edged features and fine art pieces that would not look out of place in an art gallery. This feast of luxury is topped by the carved wooden altarpiece made in the 15th century and specially imported from Germany.
St Tugdual Cathedral, Treguier
St Tugdual is the celebrated birthplace of St Ivo, patron saint of lawyers (yes, even lawyers have a patron saint). His mausoleum in the cathedral is inscribed with the phrase Sanctus Ivo erat Brito, Advocatus et non latro, Res miranda populo, which translates to ‘St Ivo was a holy Breton, A lawyer and not a thief, A marvelous man to the people’ – in defense of his profession and name. In his honour, Catholic lawyers make pilgrimage to this cathedral every year on the third Sunday of May, for the Pardon (a traditional Breton pilgrimage) of St Ivo. The cathedral itself is unique in that it has three towers over the transept (viewed from above all cathedrals are shaped like a cross – the transept is the shorter beam). Close by to the cathedral, the cloisters are a lovely green space to sit and reflect.
St Paul Aurelian Cathedral, St Pol de Leon
Unlike the other cathedrals on this list, St Paul Aurelian wears a more serious face than the flamboyant Gothic cathedrals, with styling borrowed from Norman architecture. The interior is fitted with a Dallam organ – made by the Dallam brothers from the famous organ building family. The over 2000 pipes produce heavenly music, even after a few centuries of operation, and attending a service is a highly recommended experience.
Guimiliau Parish Close, Guimilau
Enclos Paroissial or Parish Closes are a distinctive part of Brittany’s religious architecture. Like England’s cathedral closes, they consist of an enclosed religious space (including the church yard), with unique Breton features – like detailed sculptured renditions of the crucifixion called Calvaries. Guimiliau’s calvary is among the most detailed with hundreds of individual statues recreating the story of Jesus’s life. Spare a moment too to see the retable (framed altarpiece behind the altar) of St Joseph – with the infant Christ and Joseph as its centre-piece.
St Saveur, Dinan
‘Romantic’ is a term often thrown around about all things French, but Dinan really outdoes itself with an ideal location on the banks of the Rance River. The town’s religious centre, St Saveur Basilica, can be found in the well-preserved medieval district. The basilica was begun in the 11th century and has had a number of additions. The result is a building that has Gothic features in the facade, Renaissance features in its side chapels and Romanesque touches in what remains of the original structure. The basilica houses the heart of Betrand du Guesclin, the Eagle of Brittany, the French general who beat back the English army in the Hundred Years War.
Bon Repos Abbey, Laniscat
The abbey’s name translates to ‘Good Rest’ and refers to the legend of its founding – when Viscount Alain III de Rohan dreamt that the Virgin Mary had ordered him to build an abbey on the spot he lay. From that time, the abbey housed the Cistercian Order until it was burnt down by Royalists in an anti-revolution uprising in 1795. In recent times, the abbey has been transformed into an artspace housing prominent artists and showing innovative exhibits regularly. The highlight of the abbey’s calendar is the annually alternating Murmures (2011) and Atmosphere (2012) exhibitions. Murmures sees artist create a dialogue between the abbey and the environment though sound, whereas Atmospheres does the same through media.
Landevennec Abbey, Landevennec
Landevennec Abbey, the oldest abbey in Brittany, is another victim of the revolutionary fervour that swept France in the late 18th century. The abbey was founded by St Winwaloe, who, according to legend – came to the location by walking the waters from a nearby islet. A Benedectine abbey has recently been re-established. Visitors can attend services, undertake a retreat or buy the delicious confectionery sold by the local monks.
Deep mystery surrounds the origin and purpose of these silent stones, but everyone agrees that they give off a palpable spiritual ambience. Like Stonehenge, the megaliths of Carnac are believed to be from the Neolithic period – about 5000 to 7000 years ago. They number 3000 and are arranged in formations that suggests thought and effort – one of the biggest stones, Geant du Manio, reaches up to 21 feet high. In addition to the upright stones the site has pyramid-like structures, called tumuli, and stone houses, called dolmens, housing prehistoric artifacts and graves. Theories to explain this amazing field of innovation range from the spiritual – the stones clearly have a connection to a concern about the afterlife – to the practical – the stones were an early warning system for earthquakes and a place of astronomical or solar significance.
Mont Saint-Michel, near Avranches
The iconic monastery, at the mouth of Couesnon River, is officially in Normandy – but has long been claimed by Bretons (inhabitants of Brittany): for the sake of our list we’ll side with them in this friendly dispute. To describe Mont Saint-Michel as an architectural masterpiece is not praise enough – approaching from a distance it seems like the island is hovering on mysterious airs. This astounding sight has greeted would-be conquerors (the monasteries walls have never be breached), visitors and wandering pilgrims for almost 1,300 years. In recent times, silt has encroached on the island and it has lost some of its magic, but plans are underway to dam the Couesnon River and make it a true island once more. Walk the streets, see the chapel, savour the exquisite views of the French coast and get lost in its maze of cobbled streets. Don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes as the climb up Escalier de Dentelle or the Lace Staircase, to the roof of the abbey, is quite a workout.