By Charles-Edouard Catherine
When I started dating the woman that would become my wife, it was difficult to explain where I was from. In France, there is a little piece of Celtic land, looking at the ocean, filled with legends and mediocre soccer teams. Rennes is the historic capital of Brittany, France’s western most region. Brittany was at one time an independent kingdom with a distinct culture more influenced by the Celtic nations than Paris. However, now, although some street signs are written in both French and Breton, few people still speak the ancient language.
When we first went together to Rennes, Alix realized that it still has a medieval feel, enhanced by its weather, which I must confess has more in common with foggy London than Paris. We started to unpack, and she looked at her bikinis with a little touch of nostalgia. Yes, Brittany certainly isn’t Provence. But my region doesn’t beg for sunshine. Indeed, the Gothic architecture, the medieval legends and hearty cuisine are more appealing on a gloomy day.
I quickly understood that in order for her to fall in love with my region, she had to see not only our grandiose Place de la Mairie, but also our secluded streets and our medieval walls. Rennes is very diverse, and mysterious. You can find some striking “maisons à colombage” – “half-timbered” homes dating back to the XVth century, hidden against a remaining part of the ramparts that once protected the whole city.
On a rainy Friday night, my parents invited their long-time friend Jean-Lou, a renowned sculptor fascinated with Brittany and its patrimony, to the house. Alix was very happy to meet a “real” Breton, who spoke our ancient language, who knew everything about our druids and ferries. As Jean-Lou raised his glass of cider, he taught her to say the Breton version of cheers: yec’hed mat.
Jean-Lou owns a piece of land, north of Rennes, named Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier. On July 28, 1488, a famous battle took place there between the forces of king Charles VIII of France, and those of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and his allies. The defeat of the latter precipitated the end of the independence of Brittany from France, and remains in Jean-Lou’s subconscious as the death of a civilization.
He told us everything about the Breton forces that comprised a mix of local troops with Gascons, Germans, English longbowmen and non-Breton aristocrats who were challenging royal power. When Jean-Lou pronounced the name of Jacques Galliota, an Italian captain in the French army, his face darkened. Jacques Galliota led a cavalry attack that opened a gap and caused a lot of panic through the Breton army, leading to a rout of their forces. Out of the 11,500 men that gathered the Duchy of Brittany, 5,000 were killed that day.
But when my parents brought dessert, the famous Kouign Amann, a Breton specialty, I said proudly to Alix, this is “the fattiest pastry in Europe,” and the atmosphere quickly dissipated. This cake is a little victory for Brittany over Paris. The flaky crust and buttery interior amazes more than any Parisian croissant.
After this fascinating Friday night, a must on early Saturday mornings is le Marché des Lices, one of the largest markets in France. Alix loves to go there with my Dad, who knows every farmer by his first name. In a plaza once used for jousting tournaments, hundreds of farmers now sell fruit, vegetables and seafood. The two covered market halls in the center of the plaza hold even more stands, selling pastries, charcuterie and smelly wheels of cheese.
By the end of the week, when we were getting ready to go back to Paris to catch our plane for New York, I suddenly realized that we were running out of time. I couldn’t take Alix to the castle of Fougères, I couldn’t show her the island of the Grand Bé, where Chateaubriand is buried, I couldn’t show her the forest of Brocéliande and its golden tree. She would also miss Dinard and Picasso’s paintings… But on our way to the train station, she sighed. I could tell that she would come back, she was in love.