Brittany’s capital city
www.tourisme-rennes.com. On-off capital of Brittany since the Middle Ages, Rennes has finally clinched the title from Nantes, and a very fine capital it makes, too – if not particularly Breton in style. Three days before Christmas in 1720, a drunken carpenter tipped his lamp into a pile of woodshavings and started a fire which raged for a week, destroying all but a corner of the city, now known as Les Lices. The centre, around the one surviving major building, the Palais de Justice, was handsomely rebuilt with broad paved streets, open squares and balconied 18thC town houses.
Overlooking colourful sunken gardens, the Palais de Justice, place du Parlement de Bretagne, is the place to start your perambulations. This imposing edifice, designed to house the once-powerful Breton parliament, was built between 1618-55, and paid for out of the public purse through a tax on wine and cider. (Madame de Sévigné wrote ‘As much wine passes through the body of a Breton as water under bridges’.)
For some local culture, cross the main boulevards lining the River Vilaine, and make for the Musée de Bretagne, 20 quai Emile-Zola, www.musee-bretagne.fr which provides an excellent capsule history and cultural introduction to the region. Starting with the pre-historic dolmen era, moving on to Gallo-Roman finds, and an evocatively-lit medieval section (with helpful English sub-titles), dioramas and audio-visual presentations carry on through to the present day. The story is further illustrated with the help of spearheads, carvings, hefty furniture (very comfortable looking beds), and traditional embroidered jackets, stiff lace collars and bonnets reserved for high days and holidays.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts is housed under the same roof, and its highlights are the 19th-20thC collections: Breton scenes from the likes of Blin, Cottet, Lanno, and the Pont-Aven school (Gauguin’s Oranges), plus works by Boudin, Sisley, Picasso and Vlaminck, and de la Taer’s beautiful Newborn Child.
Vieux Rennes lies to the west of the 18thC town, around Porte Morde-laise, last vestige of the 15thC town walls, and place des Lices. Notwithstanding the latter’s historic pedigree as the spot where du Guesclin first revealed his prowess on the jousting lists, the city fathers have seen fit to erect two hideous brick-and-metal, glass-topped covered markets on the site. However, the surrounding streets are full of higgledy-piggledy 15th-16thC half-timbered houses, and a wealth of cheap and cheerful crêperies and bars. There is plenty of smart shopping to be done between the old and not-so-old towns.