Paris - A trek through bucolic landscapes in Europe is often chock full of dazzling surprises, but when the riverfront path I was following with my friend Lisa opened upon a scene right out of Downton Abbey, it still left us breathless.
Beyond a low slate wall stood a grand stone chateau with a tower reaching for the clouds - our destination, the centuries-old Chateau de Sourdéac in the Breton countryside.
Inside, a stately Renaissance-style room held a table set for dinner with flickering candles and elegant dishware and cutlery. On the walls hung deer antlers, ornate hunting knives, various taxidermy specimens (including a wild boar's head) and paintings depicting aristocratic men on horseback, reflecting the family hunting tradition of our owner/hosts, Louis de Cacqueray and his wife, Sylvie.
Lisa and I - we were the only guests that night - stumbled into the room, dumbstruck, and took our places at the table as delicacies tumbled out from the kitchen: poached shrimp; wee scallops and caviar; a duck confit pie stuffed with potatoes and onions; and baked apple slices. Although it certainly wasn't Carson who served us, that didn't stop Lisa from gleefully squealing, “It's like we're in Downton Abbey! “ Our hosts smiled ruefully, doubtless having heard this exclamation from many of their guests.
This was our first stop during a week-long trek along a towpath parallelling the Nantes-Brest Canal starting in Redon, a town founded in the 9th century, and ending in Pontivy, home to exceptional Napoleonic architecture. And although no other part of our almost 80-mile journey brought us as close to believing that we might run into the Earl of Grantham, each day along this traffic-free greenway took us deeper into the heart and soul of Brittany and its fiercely independent people, who treasure the traditional while also embracing the contemporary.
As walkers go, Lisa and I are less than an ideal match: We both suffer from geographic dyslexia, meaning a lot of time spent lost and turned around. And being clueless on unfamiliar terrain in a land where neither of us spoke the language didn't at first seem like a pleasant way to spend our annual girls' getaway. Yet Lisa had her heart set on Europe, waking each morning in a different charming village. We both sought something active - cycling, hiking or brisk walking - but Lisa didn't want to wind up a sweaty mess. These caveats led us to walk along the Nantes-Brest Canal: It's relatively flat and well defined (you hardly ever lose sight of a river), enveloped by verdancy yet never far from civilisation for a pleasant lunch and overnight stops.
The planning was time intensive. Although I purchased a guidebook, The Nantes-Brest Canal by Wendy Mewes, it required a generous dose of supplemental, online research. And knowing that we would be travelling during high season, I booked all the inns in advance, deciding on those that were located at a comfortable walking distance and that kindly answered my litany of questions. Packing required great thoughtfulness, because we each had to carry everything in a slim backpack and a petite shoulder bag.
Centuries ago in Brittany, locals had plenty of motivation for canal building. With several wars negatively impacting the coastal waterways, they needed to link Nantes in the east and Brest in the west, both with military arsenals, and, in doing so, to improve the economic development of the rural communities in the interior. This Napoleonic initiative took decades of work, with the construction of more than 200 well-engineered locks before the full canal opened in 1842. But eventually, as rail travel improved, transporting products via the canal fell from favour. Although the canal is no longer a preferred route for commerce, it's a perfect venue for walking.
Louis graciously offered to walk the entire 10 miles with us the first day when we arrived in Redon, sharing his favourite spots as a way of introducing us to the Breton culture. We veered off the canal path to Auberge de Courée, a popular lunch spot for local workers. Joining plumbers, electricians and carpenters, we crowded around one of the tables covered in plastic cloths while overhead fans spun. A mere $14 (about R200) got us a hearty meal: cold buffet fixings plus a choice of grilled andouillette sausages and more than a half-dozen other hot entrees, a cheese course and several dessert options. (The lemon mousse was bliss.)
Bellies full to bursting, we walked on. Instead of sticking with the canal path the entire way, Louis guided us on a series of nearby trails parallelling the Oust river to a clearing in the pine forest where the granite Abbey of Saint-Méen, stood nestled. Lisa was delighted to see angels perched on the slate rooftop, but Louis clarified that these were not, in fact, angels but the hermine, a symbol of Brittany, which looks much like a coat of arms.
Each June brings a religious feast, Pardon, to Saint-Méen-le-Grand, as well as the onset of the nearby four-month-long Festival La Gacilly Photo. “You shouldn't miss it,” said Louis, who explained in La Gacilly the next morning that thousands come to the town from all over for France's largest outdoor photography festival, held there every year. On this brief detour from our canal walking, Lisa perused the myriad artisan shops in search of a silver hermine pendant necklace while I scoped out impressive photographic images posted in unusual spaces - along cobbled alleys, inside a labyrinth of foliage and circling a vegetable garden.
Each day of our journey reinforced to us just how much the Breton people cherish their land and all things locally sourced. Near the town of Peillac, our next inn, La Louve Blanche, was equipped with a small kitchen garden that, along with its chickens, supplied much of the fixings for breakfast, an elaborate affair of plump raspberries and berry syrup (to swirl into yogurt) as well as freshly made rhubarb, quince and yellow plum jams that we spread on thick, homemade raisin bread. Reflecting an ever-present proud patriotism, a toothpick bearing the flag of Brittany impaled a creamy stick of butter.
Well nourished, we set a good pace through the verdant Oust valley, where a chorus of chattering and chirping (from swallows, kingfishers, finches, moorhens and other birds) followed us as we ambled toward the villages of Saint-Congard and Malestroit. At times, the sun burned brightly, while other segments of the walk offered some relief as we navigated a tree-shaded path along the canal. The sunlight coaxed captivating abstract shadows from the limbs and leaves of the trees as well as a spectrum of sparkling green hues from the water, which was dotted with lily pads. A carpet of feathery snowflakes - actually poplar pollen - lay underfoot.
Set at regular distances along the towpath, the locks and accompanying lock-keeper's houses have distinct personalities, with brightly hued shuttered windows and landscaping resembling miniature botanical gardens. Many beckoned as postcard-perfect picnic spots or just places to rest and sunbathe. We spied one bloom-bedecked house decorated with a wooden ladybug, while another facade was embellished with yellow ceramic vases, each painted with bunches of bright purple grapes. Nearby, the ubiquitous Brittany flag fluttered from a flagpole. I wondered how so many of our friends and colleagues back home could have thought that we would find the scenery monotonous.
After walking 13 miles to the medieval town of Malestroit, most trekkers would have called it a day by relaxing in the placid square, La Place du Bouffay, fronted by half-timbered buildings and near the impressive Saint-Gilles Church.
The umbrella-covered tables and cafes with alfresco seating tempted us, or rather tempted Lisa, with icy drinks. I, instead, followed a map with a suggested hour-plus self-guided walking tour that offered insights into historic features that might have gone unnoticed otherwise: a restaurant set in a former 15th- or 16th-century guardhouse retaining the original stone carvings along the doorway; and an ornate unhinged wooden door propped in a niche beside a store crowded outside with racks of T-shirts.
Back together again, we ended up resting our heads that night at an 18th-century flour mill given a new life as Le Moulin de la Beraudaie, an antique-laden inn where each of the five guest rooms is named for characters in the legend of King Arthur. (We slept in the Fee Morgane, a.k.a. Morgan le Fay, room.) Not an arbitrary choice: the Forest of Brocéliande, where the legend unfolded, isn't far.
We joined 11 other guests for a leisurely, family-style dinner prepared by owner Pascal Labeeuw, who sat down with us, serving as our warm host and nimble translator - most of the other guests spoke French or Breton, an endangered Celtic language. The multi-course meal offered an abundance of fresh seafood and was capped by a homemade signature dessert, Breton far, which resembles flan except for the inclusion of cider-soaked prunes. Lisa remarked on the simplicity of life in Brittany, where the ubiquitous sense of calm felt worlds away from bustling Paris.
A broad swath of society flocked to this part of the scenic towpath: mothers pushing strollers; older locals reading on shady benches or biking home with wicker baskets crammed full of fresh baguettes; serious cyclists garbed in sleek racing gear zooming past; and tourists, some pulling trailers on their bikes, yelling “Bonjour!” Colourful barges, single-mast boats and other pleasure vessels lazily floated by as skippers and passengers alike waved.
As with all long-distance paths around the world, those who walk or bike the Nantes-Brest Canal gravitate to like-minded folks. In the village of Le Roc-Saint-André, we discovered La Chaumière, a creperie with a lovely, lush garden terrace ringed by old stone walls. While waiting for our order (a galette stuffed with sliced chicken, cream and mushrooms, and an onion confit omelette), we chatted with a young cycling couple, their bike gloves and helmets piled atop the adjacent table. Planning to pedal all the way to Brest on the coast, they showed us their enviable guidebooks - having greater details, with more cafe recommendations than the ones I toted - as we compared lunch stops, accommodations and not-to-miss sights. Next, we spotted two gentlemen in their 60s carrying nicely crafted wooden walking sticks and bulging backpacks. As they paid for their lunch, they told us they were trekking along the entire 226-mile stretch. For one of them, this clearly wasn't a challenge: He already had Spain's Camino de Santiago under his belt.
Lisa and I strolled at our own pace, luxuriating in our surroundings - the sweet fragrance of maritime pines covering the slopes; the splashing sounds of water cascading downstream at the locks; the sight of fluttering grey herons, wild ducks and other waterfowl and shorebirds; and trellises curiously hung with old shoes and boots, used as planters for bright blooms, a tradition popular among the Breton people as a way to garden in a limited space.
Once, we noticed a man in high boots stomping through the tumbling waters to toss his fishing line for carp and pike. “I feel like a kid on an adventure,” Lisa said. “Every day is a surprise.”
With our senses piqued at every bend in the canal, we hardly noticed our mileage those first several days. But after enjoying those long hikes, we were grateful for the short six miles that would get us to Josselin by 11am, leaving the rest of our day gloriously free to explore this historic town. A little more than halfway there, we spotted the soaring steeple of Josselin's Basilique Notre-Dame du Roncier, a dramatic sight in the distance. Then we came upon the massive and intact 14th century Chateau de Josselin, with three of its four towers clustered together.
After roaming Josselin's steep cobbled lanes, we were drawn into Espace Zen, Henri-Pierre Thouzeau's atelier housed in one of the city's medieval stone towers.
Among this sculptor's creations, whimsical papier-mâché works - some batlike - are displayed inside and out, including hanging from the whitewashed wood ceiling beams.
Though Josselin provided plenty of distractions, especially with la fête de la musique - an all-day music festival with everything from light rock to traditional Breton dancing - in full swing, we were drawn to the comfort of our B&B, Le 14 St-Michel. Like the city, it mixed the timeworn and the contemporary.
The house, dating from the late 1800s, is replete with contemporary art, such as the mixed-media piece in our room that resembled the cabin of a canal boat, as well as traditional touches: gilded mirrors, an antique school desk and a framed metal etching of an old-time notary.
The innkeepers, Viviane Le Goff and her husband, Patrice, treated us like old friends and made sure we were well fed for our trek the following morning. Breakfast was homemade yogurt, light-as-clouds crepes with freshly made rhubarb conserve, fluffy croissants and fragrant Josselin-made honey.
Finding it difficult to leave this Eden, we eventually dragged our packs into their lush backyard garden for a few more minutes of tranquility - a quality inland Brittany has in abundance.
* Barone, based in New York, is a freelance travel and food writer.
If you go...
Where to stay
Chateau de Sourdéac
Located in a pastoral setting, this centuries-old chateau melds modern-day comforts with an old-world vibe. Rooms for around $90 for two, including breakfast.
Le 14 St-Michel
14 Rue Saint-Michel, Josselin
This bed and breakfast is centrally located with a verdant backyard garden that, in nice weather, makes for an idyllic spot for breakfast. Rooms from around $88, including breakfast.
La Louve Blanche
2 La Touche Morin, Peillac
Walking distance from the town of Peillac, this modern stone inn was mostly built by Philippe, the owner, who, along with his wife, Martine, decorated the three themed guest rooms. Rooms from around $79 for two, including breakfast.
Where to eat
6 Rue Nacionale, Le Roc-Saint-André
This pleasant creperie looks fairly nondescript until you step into the sunny backyard bedecked with flower boxes and ringed by old stone walls. Main courses include poulette (galette of sliced chicken with cream, onions and mushrooms) and omelette oignons confits (an onion confit omelette with fries and a salad) for around $8.
11 Place Notre Dame, Josselin
With an ideal location on the main square across from the Basilique Notre-Dame du Roncier, this casual restaurant with alfresco dining specialises in tasty pizzas. Pizzas include La Timadeuc (topped with cheese from Abbey de Timadeuc, peppers, cured ham, tomato sauce and mozzarella) for around $14, and the Mont Cassin (tuna, olives, tomatoes, onions, mozzarella and tomato sauce) for around $11.
What to do
6 Rue George le Berd, Josselin
In his tri-level studio-shop, artist Henri-Pierre Thouzeau displays his petite and grand works sculpted in a variety of media, including papier-mâché, clay and bronze. Open July-August, every day; April to June and September to October, Thursday through Sunday.
Gardens at Chateau de Josselin
Place de la Congrégation, Josselin
A wild English garden with massive shade trees and a meandering stream; row upon row of fragrant rose species; and a tidy formal French garden make this expansive green space a must for horticulture aficionados. Open April to mid-July and September from 2 p.m.-6 p.m.; mid-July to August from 11am-6pm. Admission is around $10, which includes access to the garden, a must-see.