Brittany is the largest French peninsula. It is around 34,030 km2 (13,140 sq mi) and stretches towards the northwest and the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered to the north by the English Channel, to the south by the Bay of Biscay and the waters located between the western coast and Ushant island form the Iroise Sea.
The Breton coast is very indented, with many cliffs, rias and capes. The Gulf of Morbihan is a vast natural harbour with some forty islands that is almost a closed sea. In total, around 800 islands lie off the mainland; the largest being Belle Île, in the south. Brittany has over 2,860 km (1,780 mi) of coastline; it represents a third of the total French coastline.
The region is generally hilly because it corresponds to the western end of the Armorican massif, a very old range that also extends in Normandy and the Pays de la Loire region. Because of this continuity, the Breton border with the rest of France is not marked by any strong geographical landmark, apart from the river Couesnon, which separates Brittany from Normandy.
The Armorican massif reaches its maximal elevation outside of Brittany, in neighbouring Mayenne, at 417 m, and slopes towards the west before straightening on its western extremity, with the Montagnes Noires and the Monts d'Arrée. The highest hill in Brittany is the Roc'h Ruz in the Monts d'Arrée, at 385 m (1,263 ft). It is closely followed by several neighbouring hills culminating at around 384 m above sea level.
Coastal areas are usually named Armor or Arvor ("by the sea" in Breton), and the inland is called Argoat ("by the forest"). The best soils were primitively covered by large forests which had been progressively replaced by bocage during the Middle Ages. The Breton bocage, with its small fields enclosed by thick hedgerows, has almost disappeared since the 1960s to fit the modern agricultural needs and methods, particularly mechanisation.
Several forests still exist, such as the Paimpont forest, sometimes said to be the Arthurian Brocéliande. The poor and rocky areas are covered by large heathland and moorlands, and Brittany has several marshes, like the Brière, included in a Regional natural park. Another regional park encompasses the Monts d'Arrée and the Iroise seacoast. The Iroise Sea is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Brittany lies within the north temperate zone. It has a changeable, maritime climate, similar to Cornwall. Rainfall occurs regularly but sunny, cloudless days are also common. In the summer months, temperatures in the region can reach 30 °C (86 °F), yet the climate remains comfortable, especially when compared to the French regions located south of the Loire. The temperature difference between summer and winter is about fifteen degrees, but it varies depending on the proximity of the sea. The weather is generally milder on the seacoast than inland but rainfall occurs with the same intensity on both. The Monts d'Arrée, despite their low elevation, have much more rainfall than the rest of the region. The south coast, between Lorient and Pornic, enjoys more than 2,000 hours of sunshine per year.
The Breton peninsula appeared during the Cadomian Orogeny, which formed its northern coastline, between Guingamp and Fougères. The southern part emerged during the Hercynian orogeny. At the same time, an intense volcanic activity left large quantities of granite. Between the Cadomian and Hercynian periods, the region was submerged several times and the sea left fossils and sedimentary rocks, mostly schist and sandstone. Because of the absence of limestone, soils in Brittany are usually acid. The Armorican massif straightened and flattened several times during the formation of the Pyrenees and the Alps. Changes in sea levels and climate led to a strong erosion and to the formation of more sedimentary rocks. Metamorphism is responsible for the distinctive local blue schist and for the rich subsoil of the Groix island, which comprises glaucophane and epidote.
During the Quaternary glaciations, Brittany was covered by loess and rivers started to fill the valleys with alluvial deposits. The valleys themselves were a result of a strong tectonic activity between the African and the Eurasian plate. The present Breton landscape did not acquired its final shape before one million years ago. The Breton subsoil is characterised by a huge amount of fractures that form a large aquifer containing several millions square meters of water.
Brittany is home to many megalithic monuments; the words menhir and dolmen come from the Breton language. The largest menhir alignments are the Carnac stones. Other major sites include the Barnenez cairn, the Locmariaquer megaliths, the Menhir de Champ-Dolent, the Mane Braz tumulus and the Gavrinis tomb. Monuments from the Roman period are rare, but include a large temple in Corseul and scarce ruins of villas and city walls in Rennes and Nantes.
Brittany has a large quantity of medieval buildings. They include numerous Romanesque and French Gothic churches, usually built in local sandstone and granit, castles and half-timbered houses visible in villages, towns and cities. Several Breton towns still have their medieval walls, such as Guérande, Concarneau, Saint-Malo, Vannes, Fougères and Dinan. Major churches include Saint-Pol-de-Léon Cathedral, Tréguier Cathedral, Dol Cathedral, Nantes Cathedral and the Kreisker chapel. Most of the Breton castles were rebuilt between the 13th and the 15th century, such as the Château de Suscinio, the Château de Dinan, the Château de Combourg, the Château de Largoët, the Château de Tonquédec, the Josselin Castle and the Château de Trécesson. The most impressive castles can be seen along the border with France, where stand the Château de Fougères, the Château de Vitré, the Château de Châteaubriant and the Château de Clisson.
The French Renaissance occurred when Brittany lost its independence. The Renaissance architecture is almost absent in the region, apart in Upper Brittany, close to the border with France. Major sites include the Château des ducs de Bretagne, the last permanent residence of the dukes, which displays the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance style. The Château de Châteaubriant, a former fortress, was transformed into a vast palace in the Italian style.
An Art Deco villa in Bénodet.
In Lower Brittany, the medieval style never totally disappeared. However, local innovations permitted some changes and the birth of a particular style. Its most distinctive feature is the parish close, which displays an elaborately decorated church surrounded by an entirely walled churchyard. Many villages still have their closes, they date from the 16th and 17th centuries and sometimes include an elaborately carved calvary sculpture.
Since the early 1970s, Brittany has experienced a tremendous revival of its folk music. Numerous festivals were created, along with smaller festoù noz (popular feasts). The bagadoù, bands composed of bagpipes, bombards and drums (including snare), are also a modern creation, inspired by the Scottish pipe bands. The Lann-Bihoué bagad, one of the most well-known, belongs to the French Navy. It is the only one that does not take part to the annual bagadoù competitions. Celtic harp is also common, as are vocals and dances. The Kan ha diskan is the most common type of singing. The performers sing calls and responses while dancing. Breton dances usually imply circles, chains or couples and they are different in every region. The oldest dances seem to be the passepied and the gavotte, and the newest ones derive from the quadrille and French Renaissance dances.
In the 1960s, several Breton artists started to use contemporary patterns to create a Breton pop music. Among them, Alan Stivell highly contributed to popularise the Celtic harp and Breton music in the world. He also used American rock and roll in his works and influenced 1970s Breton bands such as Kornog, Gwerz and Tri Yann, who revived traditional songs and made them popular across France. Soldat Louis is the main Breton rock band and the most famous [according to whom?] Breton singers are Gilles Servat, Glenmor, Dan Ar Braz, Yann-Fañch Kemener, Denez Prigent, Nolwenn Korbell and Nolwenn Leroy. The Manau Hip hop group from Paris has strong Breton and Celtic inspirations.
Yann Tiersen, who composed the soundtrack for Amélie, the Electro band Yelle and the avant-garde singer Brigitte Fontaine are also from Brittany. The 19th-century composer Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray was one of the first western European composers to be influenced by what is now known as world music.
Legends and literature
Brittany is closely associated with the Matter of Britain and King Arthur. According to Wace, Brocéliande is located in Brittany and it is nowadays considered to be Paimpont forest. There, ruins of a castle surrounded by a lake are associated with the Lady of the Lake, a dolmen is said to be Merlin's tomb and a path is presented as Morgan le Fay's Val sans Retour. Tristan and Iseult are also said to have lived in Brittany. Another major Breton legend is the story about Ys, a city swallowed by the ocean.
Breton literature before the 19th century was mostly oral. The oral tradition entertained by medieval poets died out during the 15th century and books in Breton were very rare before 1850. At that time, local writers started to collect and publish local tales and legends and wrote original works. Published between 1925 and the Second World War, the literary journal Gwalarn favoured a modern Breton literature and helped translating widely known novels into Breton. After the war, the journal Al Liamm pursued that mission. Among the authors writing in Breton are Auguste Brizeux, a Romantic poet, the neo-Druidic bard Erwan Berthou, Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, who collected the local legends about King Arthur, Roparz Hemon, founder of Gwalarn, Pêr-Jakez Helias, Glenmor, Pêr Denez and Meavenn.
Breton literature in French includes 19th-century historical novels by Émile Souvestre, travel journals by Anatole Le Braz, poems and novels by Charles Le Goffic, the works of the singer-songwriter Théodore Botrel and of the maritime writer Henri Queffélec. Brittany is also the birthplace of many French writers like François-René de Chateaubriand, Jules Verne, Ernest Renan, Félicité Robert de Lamennais and Pierre Abélard.
The Asterix comics, set during the time of Julius Caesar and written in the second half of the twentieth century, are set in Armorica, now Brittany.
Self Catering Brittany, Le Moulin de Launay, 35610, Vieux Viel, France