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Something Stirring in the Heart of Brittany

Bretagne (Brittany) / Côtes-d'Armor

Spring is a lovely time in Central Brittany. Big blue open skies illuminate the wonderful patchwork of green fields, glorious deciduous woodlands, rolling hills and stunning coastlines and beaches. Along the lanes the primroses are coming out on the well-kept grassy verges, the camellias are out in abundance and the trees will soon be bursting into new, vigorous growth in glorious shades of green.

Yet Central Brittany remains one of the forgotten lands as far as many British visitors are concerned, even though a large English population has settled there, - our bank in Callac has over 600 English-owned accounts. Brittany has been out of fashion of late as people fly to destinations further afield. Those who do visit stay near the northern and southern coasts, barely stopping en-route from St Malo or Roscoff or Cherbourg to their destinations.

Those who rush by miss so much. Central Brittany is one of the most scenic parts of France. The woodlands stand out in verdant patches across the countryside, hares play in the lane outside our house, the sound of birdsong is heard on the still air; two deer start up as we pass and bound off into the forest. The fields are full of grazing cattle, well-fed and peaceful or queuing in orderly lines for milking. The little towns and villages doze quietly in the sun as many have done for centuries, stone-built and solid. Traffic remains unbelievably light, - on some journeys we pass only one vehicle a mile and the English carpet fitter tells us about a friend who brings his Jag over from England every so often just for the pleasure of driving on empty roads.

There are quiet moorlands like Dartmoor, the ruins of ancient abbeys, menhirs and tumuli strewn across the landscape, old chateaux, wonderful churches with parochial enclosures and everywhere clear-running streams and lakes with little beaches for hot summer days. It is a paradise for walkers and cyclists and a delight for everyone who loves the weekly markets with their stalls selling everything from carpets to live ducklings and geese. The coastlines are magnificent with wide expanses of sandy beaches, rocky headlands and picturesque ports. And everywhere in summer there are flowers, - in tubs, in window-boxes and on fabulously imaginative roundabouts, which put our paltry municipal efforts to shame.

Yet some of this has been changing. Carnoet is just three miles from our cottage in Trévenec, a typical if rather dull French village of 750 inhabitants on the western edge of Cote d’Armor close to the border with Finisterre. The church has a stolid tower rather than the traceried, delicate steeples of some other villages nearby. But in 2009 it won a heritage competition of incalculable importance to the future of Central Brittany, - the competition to host the Valley of the Saints.

The 37 hectare site was bought by the commune in 1996. It is adjacent to the lovely old chapel of St Gildas, alongside which there once stood a monastery, which it is planned to recreate. Beside is a fresh water spring, once worshipped by Celts and even now tapped to provide delicious drinking water. Above it on the hill there is a mediaeval motte, where once a castle stood, used even earlier as the site of a Roman encampment from the age of Asterix. From the top of the hill a vast 360 degree panorama stretches across the countryside for 20 miles in every direction. The place has an indefinable feel of history, one of the great attractions to the panel of judges. It is near the centre of Brittany, just on the borders of the Cote d’Armor and Finisterre, but only 25 miles from the coast. And Carnoet is the poorest of the communes which bid for the site.

The plan for the Valley of the Saints is that eventually there should be 1000 3 metre high statues of Breton saints and heroes, fashioned out of granite, making the site one of the greatest heritage attractions in Brittany, a monument to the craftsmanship, history and religious life of the people. So far some 27 of these wonderful statues have been carved out of the stone by half a dozen different sculptors, who work each summer on their creations in the open shed beneath the hill. Their finished saints gaze out across the open countryside facing the parishes with which they were once associated, silent testaments to centuries of faith and history. Each one is funded in part by the state and part by the donations of communes and individuals. Already the site has a magical, atmospheric character which makes is one of the most remarkable places to visit in Brittany. How it will affect out little commune is not yet clear; but Carnoet will never be the same again and in time it should provide a valuable boost to the local economy and become a place of pride amongst local people. Most of all we hope that it will bring more people to delight in this wonderful countryside, -and of course to enjoy our lovely 200 year old longere just 5 minutes away!

John Botten
Trévenec

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