From the Gallic charm to the pleasures of the palette, there is much to entice visitors to the capital city of Brittany, discovers Raymond Blake
“And Irish people are always more than welcome. We consider you as our cherished cousins.” So wrote a French friend by email when I told her of my plan to visit Rennes, the city where she went to school and university. She wasn’t exaggerating. At every turn, the discovery that I was Irish turned bright smiles even brighter – the Celtic connection adds sparkle to every welcome. The Bretons are a friendly people. “Is that an Irish or Scottish accent?” Asked the lady in Galeries Lafayette before barely a sentence passed my lips. As it turned out, she had worked in Arnotts in Dublin for a month. If ever a reminder was needed of the marked regional diversity of France, a visit to Rennes and, by extension, Brittany will provide it. Forget the haughty insouciance of Gallic stereotype; it doesn't exist here.
Perhaps the good humour derives from the primacy placed on gustatory pleasures and how best to tickle the taste buds on a daily basis. Evidence of this obsession with all things comestible can be found most obviously at the Saturday morning market held in the Place des Lices. In former times, this square witnessed jousting tournaments and has been home to the market since 1622. It is flanked on one side by magnificent half-timbered houses that appear to wobble and sway, and whose acquaintance with vertical and horizontal is mainly historical. Opposite these antique dwellings are two massive, metal-framed covered areas that date from 1869 and which look decidedly modern by comparison.
One of these is entirely given over to meat counters – dozens of them – while in the other, cheese and charcuterie, jams and confectionary, cider and wine hold sway. Outdoors, an equally large area hosts seafood stalls, rank after rank of them. Scores of lobster (homard Breton) catch the eye, the patricians of the crustacean world rubbing shoulders with fish of every stripe and colour. The must-have accessory is the wheeled shopping trolley, which most people pull behind them, though some use them to battering-ram effect when seeking access to a busy stall. Dainty ankles beware! Shopping is a serious business in the Lices market. This is one of the great markets of France, home to 300 stalls and 10,000 weekly visitors, but if the bustle gets too much, then take yourself to the nearby Saint-Pierre cathedral for a few quiet moments to re-charge before venturing forth again.
Inevitably, dining choices are legion in Rennes. A pair of restaurants that stand out for atmosphere and service as well as food are La Paix (www.lapaix.fr) and Le Galopin (www.legalopin.fr). La Paix is more casual and is open until midnight while Le Galopin is quieter without being stuffy.
There's an amicable energy to Rennes that is hard to capture in words, to the extent that I have seldom felt so comfortable in a strange city. The vitality is palpable and it cannot be quenched, not even by the patrols of heavily armed soldiers one sees occasionally and which are a part of life today and not particular to Rennes. Not many other places could shrug off the sinister cause of their necessity as readily. Rennes verdict? I'd go back in a trice.
The galette saucisse is best described as the Breton version of a hot dog. It consists of a grilled pork sausage wrapped in a crêpe made from sarrasin (buckwheat) flour, dark in colour and firm to the bite. It may be garnished with ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard, though purists eschew such trimmings. It’s a must-try speciality but once may be enough; I found it was more attractive in the telling than the tasting. Save your appetite for kouign-amann (say ‘queen-amman’) or its close cousin, brioche feuilletée. The former is a Breton cake with sugar and butter folded into it and it’s available by the hundred at the Saturday market. The latter is an utterly addictive cross between brioche and croissant – and the primus inter pares of this delight can be found at the splendid La Boulangerie Hoche.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Though diminutive, seating a little more than 600, the nineteenth century Rennes opera house lacks for nothing in grandeur, from the curved façade to the sweeping staircases that go up and up – only those sound in wind and limb should book seats at the top of the house. It’s a popular destination, as a recent sold-out run of five performances of Carmen demonstrated. Saturday evening performances start at six o’clock, so as to leave plenty of time for nocturnal revelling afterwards. Nightlife is highly prized in Rennes.
SHORT OF A DROP?
Should you be visiting friends in Rennes, you can save yourself the bother of carrying a gift all the way from Ireland by dropping into La cave du Sommelier on rue Hoche and picking up a bottle of our own Teeling Small Batch whiskey. While there, you will find it hard to resist some of the other treats on offer such as Matthieu Barret’s Cornas and a host of Loire wines. Should confusion threaten, proprietor Eric Macé is a font of jovial advice.