You know you need a natural escape when the grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk is the most green you’ve seen in months. But getting anywhere with a forest or a beach can sometimes seem logistically impossible and far too expensive without a car.
Enter Brittany, a region in the northwest of France, which is not only the homeland of the crêpe, but is rich with a unique culture, mythical forests, and breathtaking beaches – all easily accessible by bus and train.
Starting your adventure in Rennes, your perfect home base in the region, this article will take you through three top sights, all with their fair share of forests, beaches, and general locations where you can breathe deep and taste the fresh air. Here, the rain isn’t something you can avoid – when you go, make sure to pack your rain boots and an umbrella to embrace the local weather.
St. Malo: A walled town by the sea
St. Malo is perhaps one of the most breathtaking beach towns you’ll ever visit. While the narrow, shop-lined streets are full of tourist shops and restaurants are generically charming, the main attraction is on the other side of the walls.
When you reach this town on the northern coast of France (and an easy direct one hour train ride from Rennes), climb up to the battlements facing the coast and pick your jaw up from the floor once you’re done taking in the stunning view. Idyllic coastlines stretching in both directions, a port to your far left, several tidal islands, and a beach covered in rugged rocks and tidepools are enough for you to spend your entire day exploring beyond the city walls. Standing up there on a stormy day, the wind and drizzle whipping through your hair will make you feel like a Game of Thrones character, exploring a new terrain.
With a drastic tide, depending on the time of day you arrive you’ll either find a long rocky beach extending to stretches of sand, or you may look down from the battlements and see waves lapping directly against the black rocks and the city walls. When it’s low tide, take advantage and get away from the crowds of tourists by clambering over the rocks to get your own private view of the coastline. Explore the tidepools and shells for some free souvenirs and make sure to get some dramatic pictures on the rocks worthy of a history corpus.
While the tide is still low, make sure to cross the causeway to the green tidal island Grand Bé. While most of the beach is made up of sand and rocks covered in algae, the island is a spot of green and provides beautiful views of St. Malo on the coast. On one side of the island, you can pay respects to the grave of the romantic writer Chateaubriand. But make sure to time this trip right. Depending on the time of day, you may miss out completely on visiting the island due to the tide.
Once you’re done clambering around the rocks, head into the city and buy freshly-baked kouign amann to warm your frozen hands. Make sure you go to the store of the same name – donning yellow awnings – to enjoy these delicious local pastries. Specific to Brittany and flaky like a croissant but denser and sweeter, the name of these pastries literally means cake (kouign) butter (amann) in Breton.
While this town is stunning in the rain and colder seasons, it’s also a popular beach town in the summer so a visit is worthwhile at any time of year. And while it is definitely visitable as a daytrip from Rennes, staying the night can also be worth it. Either way, make sure to catch the sunset at least once. With the coastline as a backdrop, the sight is so dramatic even the most unskilled photographers (like myself) can snap a picture worthy of a magazine.
Paimpont: King Arthur’s Forest
Paimpont is the smallest town on this list and accessible by the A1 Korrigo bus from Rennes for four euros. Though the town itself isn’t much to explore, the surrounding forest makes the one hour bus ride more than worth it. The Brocéliande Forest is said to be where the knights of King Arthur roamed and where Merlin’s magic fountain lies, and walking through it you can understand why. While many of the main King Arthur attractions are 9 kilometers north of Paimpont, there are still many easily-accessible trails and walks to enjoy.
The best time of year to visit is April-October, as during the winter and spring many trails are closed due to hunting season. However – if your visit falls during this time – there is still an eerie walk around the lake Paimpont borders that you can enjoy.
With a small, quiet town, a large, brick abbey visible from the lake path, and the falling orange leaves of a fall or winter visit, you may feel like you’re walking on the set of a horror movie – in the best way possible. One advantage of traveling in the off-season is that the paths you walk will be virtually empty, leaving the haunting set all to yourself. However, walking deeper into the forest or visiting in the spring or summer, you’ll see the soft moss covered trees and lush green vines and understand exactly why this forest is said to be the home of King Arthur’s legends.
If you take the lake path, halfway around, a trail splits off into the forest where you can find a cave full of plaques entitled Merci, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Walk farther and you might run into a sled dog training camp. Bizarre, I know.
Paimpont is the most remote on this list and you definitely feel it when you visit. Walking through the forest you can go for long stretches where you feel like you’re the only person there. Find one of the many gnarled trees, branches bending all the way down to touch the lake water, and sit in it a while. Breathe deeply–the fresh smell of the forest, open lake, and twisted old trees truly set you in a place apart from time, a mental and physical escape for those of us weighed down from constant city life.
Fougères: a town integrated with nature – and a castle
Fougères is a city to get lost in. Nestled among hills and barefaced green cliffs the small town feels like it belongs in a storybook. While the most famous attraction is the Château de Fougères, what makes this town a must-see and nature escape is its hidden valleys, surrounding forest, and lake, all framed by the town and it’s beautiful Church of Saint-Sulpice, standing on a hill that can be seen from almost any point in the city.
I recommend setting aside an entire day in order to fully enjoy this city. Using Rennes as your base, buses go back and forth throughout the day. Plan to set aside several hours to simply wander through the charming town and its surprising number of pockets of green. If you can manage to visit on a rainy day, even better
Get off at the Château de Fougères stop rather than the more modern city center. With the castle wall towering to your right, simply follow the moat – a moat – around the castle and to the front entrance. From there you can either go ahead and buy your ticket (five euros for students) and explore the castle or take a hidden path towards the Jardin du Val Nançon.
If you decide on the latter, to the left of the public bathrooms facing the front entrance to the Château, there’s a path that follows a little stream. It’ll open up to a deep valley teeming with green. Even more atmospheric in the rain; vegetation trails down the steep slopes to your sides, with rows of charming medieval-esque houses along the top edges. Make sure to keep an eye out for goats casually grazing on the edges of the valley. You can climb up one of the many paths on your right into the city center.
If you venture in the opposite direction from the bus stop, you can wander through moss covered houses and winding streets. If you go far enough in that direction you’ll find yourself at the base of the cliffs, close enough to see small vines and moss growing up its bare face.
The Château is definitely worth a visit as it’s a very well-preserved castle with stunning views inside and out. You can stroll along the ramparts, entering different towers and reading the plaques with fascinating historical context. In the center courtyard you can find a giant catapult, at least two stories high, and the castle’s old well.
Cross the big street the castle borders and find a trail that takes you up into the cliffs and to a walk around a small lake. From there you can see the entire city, Château, the church on the hill, rooftops and the valleys between them. Sit down and enjoy the view of this storybook town.
Breathe deeply and get rid of your city grime by visiting these three affordable, accessible, and beautiful Brittany destinations. With a consistent diet of pain au chocolat in the mornings, packed sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner, you can make this trip as budget friendly as you want. Just make sure to get a galette or crêpe at least once while you’re there!