A Month in a Brittany Village — Part Two
Last week I reminisced about the four weeks I spent in a small Breton village by the Vilaine river in November 2019. I'm glad I was there in the offseason because it helped me feel more like a local and less like a tourist. I was curious to see what day-to-day life was like in a French village. The locals greeted me with kindness and generosity and made me feel most welcome. At the end of my stay, I came away with three revelations about French country life.
You really need a car in the French countryside.
I arrived by train, and had made no arrangements to rent a car. Catherine, my Airbnb host, kindly drove me to the local market and to the train station every Saturday so I could take a 15-minute ride to the town of Redon for their large outdoor and indoor market. This became my weekly routine. At the market I filled shopping bags with goat cheese, salami, vegetables and freshly-baked bread. I dropped my bags off at the tourist office. The Madame who worked there was so kind. As she took my bags, she joked there would be no cheese left when I returned!
Unencumbered by my shopping bags, I visited the boulangerie for a croissant or whatever delectable struck my fancy. I brought my breakfast treat to a café where I ordered café au latte and sometimes a second one as they were quite small and only two Euros. The Madame at the tourist office informed me it was quite acceptable to bring my baked goods to the café. In France each establishment sticks to what it does best.
After breakfast I explored Redon, did a little shopping and strolled by the harbor. The Vilaine river and the Nantes-Brest canal converge in the center of town. I stopped for lunch and enjoyed the plat du jour before returning to the tourist office to pick up my bags and catch the train back to where Catherine was waiting to pick me up.
It’s certainly not impossible to travel around Brittany without a car. In 2017 I could have written a book, “Brittany by Bus.” But there are few bus routes, and I experienced firsthand how bus routes and timetables could change at the last minute causing stressful delays. There are also school busses you can take to go from village to village, but since I was there during a school holiday (All Saints’ break), this was not an option.
During my most recent stay, I took the train to Rennes, the largest city in Brittany, and rented a car for a few days so I could explore more villages in the area including Rochefort-en-Terre, voted one of France’s most beautiful villages. I also learned that I could have rented a car quite inexpensively at the supermarket in Redon. However, I don’t think they would have had cars with the automatic transmission I need, as this is a rarity in France.
When I return in the spring of 2022, I am renting a car for three months through Auto France, which is a buy back lease program for rentals of 30 days up to six months. You rent a brand-new Peugeot that you can pick up and drop off in several major European cities. Rates include all insurance and roadside assistance.
There’s a lot of life in a small French village — even in November.
There were only three businesses in the village: Catherine’s décor shop, a ceramics studio open only for special events and a bistro. The bistro was the place to go. In the morning they served coffee and croissants. In the evening it was a wine bar. They also sold baguettes, a small selection of cheeses and different cold meats. On the weekends, the proprietress prepared a classic French meal. It was a set menu with a savory main course featuring a tender, roasted meat (usually pork or veal) with vegetables and potatoes. True comfort food. And of course, a scrumptiously rich dessert. There was also the option of a charcuterie board of cured meats and cheeses with a baguette. The weekend feast seemed to attract people from far and near. The bistro’s provisions, along with a weekly visit by the mobile poissonnier (fish seller), kept me fed between weekly jaunts to the market.
The bistro also featured live music events. When I attended a jazz night, the proprietress kindly sat me with the English speakers. It was a delight to chat with local British expats while listening to a talented jazz quartet. As I mentioned in part one, the bistro is also where the weekly meeting of the English speakers is held. It was a great opportunity to get to know some of the French and British locals. Meeting new folks in this small village was quite easy.
My Airbnb host’s décor shop also attracted people to the village. The good taste and style in which she designed her Airbnb was reflected in her shop, which offered everything for the home from furniture to glassware.
One cold November night later in my stay, the pottery studio hosted an open house. I trekked through the woods, just up from the river to a large rustic structure. We warmed ourselves by a large, wood-burning stove in the center of the studio and sipped hot cider while enjoying their creations displayed throughout the room.
I could never tire of the beauty of the countryside.
Staying in a small village, I was surrounded by the splendor of nature, from the fields to the forests and the hills to the banks of the river. I walked everywhere, exploring every nook and cranny of the village and the surrounding area. I walked up hills and country roads, past grazing cows, sheep and farmhouses. I stopped to admire a field of horses and to give company to a lone donkey.
The only encounters with animals I did not enjoy were the dogs. I avoided a street where a small, but aggressive mutt would growl and advance in a threatening manner. And I had a scary encounter with a German Shepard who charged at me until his owner called him back. For my next adventure in the Breton countryside, I am arming myself with pepper spray.
Every day as I walked along the Vilaine river the panoramic view was fresh and new. One day the sky was a brilliant blue dotted with cotton puffs. The next, shaded by clouds, the scene turned dark and ominous. The sun setting among the clouds could morph from a fiery orb into a malevolent jack-o'-lantern.
When I first arrived, I walked along a path leading into the forest and encountered a series of rather curious statues. I never found out why they were there and what it all meant, but hope to solve that mystery when I return next spring.
I’m glad I did those hikes early on as within a couple of weeks these trails were flooded. The banks of the Vilaine overflowed, swallowing a bench I’d been sitting on earlier in my stay.
It was a treat and a privilege to spend four weeks in this charming Breton village and to meet such welcoming and friendly people. I am envious of their access to nature, their close-knit community and their quality of life.
On my first day walking along the Vilaine, I had spotted a group of white swans. I never saw them again until my last day when I made a wish to see them again before I left. As if on cue, two white swans swooped down from the sky, flew past me and into the horizon. I'm looking forward to my return to the Breton countryside and to experiencing more of the magic of rural France.