February 13, 2008

Putting Brittany on the Map

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Just like the rest of France, Rennes and Brittany have a magical atmosphere, especially emanating from the majesty of the region’s architecture. Once I checked into my hotel room, I even took a picture of the beautiful canary yellow mansion across the way that looked like a Martha Stewart property of some sort. Later I found out that the building housed one of France’s largest women’s correctional facilities, so it was still a type of Martha Stewart facility, just more the rug-poncho type — with a French sense of style.

Anyway, beginning at the beginning: I’ve had the opportunity to fly on most American carriers at least a couple times by now, having criss-crossed the United States more times than I’ve changed my sheets in my time at college. It suffices to say that my experience on Air France was spectacular in comparison to the cramped and turbulent trips on American, United, U.S. Airways, and all the others, both in my domestic and international flights.

As an under-21 American youth, it did not hurt that they served alcohol for free with every beverage and meal service. They even offered to put cognac shots in the coffee when that came around. I hadn’t even been to France yet and I already knew I would love it; what a genius marketing ploy.

My first hotel room in Rennes was in the Ibis family, which apparently has 750 branches worldwide. The rooms were nice, and modern enough to have both a flat-screen TV and a bathroom that felt like a futuristic space-pod. My Ibis hotel was situated right next door to the brand-new, spotless, high-tech Rennes train station as well. Overall, the city gave off a vibe similar to Boston: it was full of students, and thus full of life, and also has a very rich history.

Our first meal in Rennes was an eventful one. Though most people in the town knew at least a little bit of English, it was odd to be without a translator, and amongst no one who spoke French. Our maître d’ made us feel a little more at home though when he introduced himself to us personally. He pointed us in the direction of the walls of the restaurant to find many still-life paintings. Upon further explanation, we found out that he had painted them all, and that they are all of radishes. He is a self-proclaimed radish expert.

Food in Brittany, however, has less to do with radishes than this one experience might indicate. Crepes, the famous street food that people associate with France, was invented and perfected in Brittany. Traditional crepe meals consist of the galette, the savory buckwheat ones filled with things like eggs and ham or smoked salmon, and the dessert crepe that is filled with the likes of caramel or chocolate, ice cream or fruit, and on occasion lit on fire (flambé.) Note: if you ever order a flambé dessert crepe, your bites will alternate tasting like straight rum and straight fire — an acquired taste.

Often when dining at a traditional Breton restaurant, it isn’t surprising to find that your beverage accompaniment consists of hard cider instead of the French staple of wine. This drink goes especially well with crepes, or with the other signature Breton cuisine — platters of shellfish piled high. These days, most foreigners think of Provence as France’s main beach destination, but the French would put Brittany on equal footing with Provence in terms of vacation hot spots. Saint Malo (an old port for the spice trade) specifically has become a top fishing locale as well as a choice summer destination for Parisians. In beach towns like Saint Malo and Quiberon, the most authentic choice for lunch or dinner is a hefty order of clams, langostines, mussels, crabs and whatever else you could imagine shuffles on the sea floors of French waters.

The weather in Brittany, as in Paris, is pretty temperate all year round. In the winter, the temperatures hit highs of 60 and lows around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Windbreakers are the only necessarily winter wear, although the howling winds on the beaches of Quiberon would have made earmuffs a pretty nice accessory.

The further you travel into the countryside in western Brittany, you will find that street signs will have both French and another, very distinctive language called Breton (in English), Bretagne (on French) or Breizh. Brittany was one of the six celtic regions of Europe — the other five being Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Mann. This language is closest to Cornish historically, but really it is one of the few left from that family that people still actually speak.

One of the greatest misconceptions about the French is that they are all haughty and rude, which stems largely from the fact that most tourists visit only Paris when traveling through the country. Imagine only visiting New York City and judging our entire country based on New Yorkers. The people in Rennes and Brittany were extraordinarily welcoming and friendly, and in fact, most of them didn’t even know whether or not we were visitors until we attempted to speak French.

At one point, I was asked for directions, or at least I think that’s what I was being asked …