BRITTANY, France - If only we had narrower roads
- you know, the kind that used to serve people
on foot, horseback and oxcart.
Then perhaps we would drive smaller cars more slowly over shorter distances and get out of them more often to walk - say, to explore a 14th-century fort on a promontory overlooking the sea. Or to wander along a cobblestone lane lined with 600-year-old wood-frame houses that lean so close together, you could reach out of a lace-curtained window and share a cup of coffee (good coffee) with your neighbor across the street.
Or to linger with friends at a seaside cafe over a lunch of moules marinieres and a crisp muscadet, followed by a leisurely stroll with the kids along the beach. That would be life - or at least vacation - in Brittany, the western shoulder of France that pokes out into the Atlantic Ocean just below Normandy and the English Channel. Far from the crowded and better-known Mediterranean coast, Brittany offers a cooler, less glittery getaway. We spent a week along the north coast, mostly in the C?te d'Armor region, and barely began to penetrate the sights of this 13,000-square-mile region.
With hints of Cape Cod, Maine and Prince Edward Island, Brittany offers stunning beaches, rocky headlands, rolling farmland and cool forest. It is a land of prehistoric mysteries, a rowdy seafaring past and an independent Celtic heritage. But, of course, this is France: The food and wine is generally superb, the roads well marked, the residents friendly and helpful, and, as my sister put it, "Even people who look like they are just back from camping are dressed better than we are." From Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, the high-speed train - the TGV - zips through the countryside in about three hours to Rennes, which has been Brittany's capital since the region became part of France in 1532.
The city is a good spot to begin exploring: a lively university town filled with outdoor cafes, pubs and restaurants serving everything from the region's ubiquitous crepes to Moroccan and Afghan fare. Rennes boasts an excellent metro and several centuries' worth of historical and cultural sights.
A walk around the old city center's cobblestone streets pulls you back to the Middle Ages. The Cathedral of St. Pierre, built on the site of an ancient shrine, has dim interior lit by large stained-glass windows and memorial candles. The building dates from the 15th century, although much of the structure was completed in the 18th and 19th centuries.