Brittany in English. Bretagne in French. But most importantly Breizh in Breton.
There is a solidarity you find amongst Celtic regions unlike anything else. Wherever the Celts roam, they bring with them their culture, their music, their sense of community and they are loved for it. While the Irish are better known around the world, I have discovered that the Bretons are similarly quick witted, fiercely independent and enjoy a drink. Or two. Or three.
I felt a resonance with Brittany from the moment I set foot in this region. Even as a foreigner – worse an English woman – who started off speaking next to no French at all, the people here wanted to know my story. Over a pint down at the bar, everyone is welcome, and you can easily start a conversation with a stranger.
Brittany is one of the six nations in the Celtic league. The Celtic league is an organisation that campaigns for the rights of Celtic nations. It aims to secure political, cultural, social and economic freedom for these nations. The other five nations are Scotland (Alba), Wales (Cymru), Ireland (Eire), Cornwall (Kernow) and the Isle of Man (Mannin). The cultural and ethnic relation between these nations has long since debated but they all speak, or have spoken, a celtic language.
A Little Bit About Brittany
One clear relationship between Brittany and another Celtic country is the town of Saint Malo. Named after a Welsh saint named Malo or Machlou. This name could derive from the Breton words mach meaning “warrant, hostage” and lou meaning “brilliant, bright, beautiful”. This Saint Malo travelled first to the island of Cézembre and then to the mainland, where he established a monastery. This is where the town of Saint Malo is to this day.
As with other Celtic nations, Brittany was an independent nation for many years and there are many that still believe it should be one. A famous and iconic figure in the history of Brittany was the Duchess Anne of Bretagne. She ruled as the duchess of Brittany from 1488 until her death in 1514 and has become a figure of Breton patriotism as her strategic marriages protected the Breton duchy from France for many years. First, she married King Charles VIII at the ripe old age of 14. Then only 7 years later he died, and she married his cousin Louis XII who had taken over as King of France. This meant that during her lifetime, Anne was Queen of France twice over while at the same time reasserting the independence of Brittany.
It wasn’t until Anne’s death that Brittany’s independence was threatened. Her eldest daughter took over as duchess but was immediately betrothed to her cousin Francis. Francis then became king in 1515 as Louis XII died without a male heir. Finally, Brittany lost its power of autonomy. Although her daughter retained the title, Brittany formally became a part of France in 1532.
You will see the flag of Brittany flying proudly all over the region. And you may be thinking that this flag looks oddly familiar. Do you see the resemblance to the stars and stripes of the American flag? That is no coincidence. Attempting to reignite the fight for independence in Brittany, the Breton flag was redesigned in the early 1920s by activist Morvan Marchal. He saw the US flag as representing freedom and independence and took inspiration from it.
The Breton name for the flag is Gwenn Ha Du meaning simply “white and black”. Each stripe on the flag represents one of the dioceses of Brittany. With the black stripes representing French or Gallo speaking dioceses and the white stripes representing the Breton speaking dioceses.
Those symbols that you can see in the top left corner are the ermine. An ermine is a kind of stoat that has soft white fur in the wintertime and a black dipped tail. Although it doesn’t really look like the animal the symbol is representative of its fur.
Legend has it that it was Duchess Anne of Bretagne who decided to adopt the ermine as the emblem of Brittany. The story goes that she was out on a hunt one day when her dogs caught the scent of an ermine. The hunting party pursued the stoat. She was struck by its beautiful white fur. The ermine fled and almost out ran the dogs until it encountered a muddy pond. The animal stopped before the pond and turned back to face its attackers. Anne took that to mean that the ermine was so proud of its white coat that it would rather be killed than get dirty.
The motto of the duchy of Brittany:
While it is a great story, it is just that, a story. In fact, the ermine as an emblem of Brittany has been documented all the way back to the 10th century.
Between 1880 and the 1950s all regional languages were banned from being taught in France. And children were punished in school if they were caught speaking anything other than French. This changed in 1951 when a new law allowed Breton to be taught for a maximum of 3 hours a week. On the condition that the teacher was willing and able.
At the beginning of the 20th century Breton was the most widely spoken Celtic language in all of Europe. Today there are still over 200,000 Breton speakers. That is a big drop from around 1 million in 1950 but there has been a resurgence in the language in recent years. Young people are learning the language more than ever. Thanks in no small part to Breton music. In 2022 France’s entry into the European song contest was the group Alvan and Ahvez. Singing their song entirely in Breton.
As a tourist in Brittany you will be most likely to hear Breton spoken further north of the region. Or if you keep your ears open, the two old blokes sat in the corner of the local bar might just be conversing in Breton. Street signs and town names in Brittany appear in both French and Breton. Be sure to ask a local how to pronounce the name of the town you are visiting. Sometimes locals use the Breton pronunciation and sometimes the French!
Here are some phrases to try in Breton:
When you think of fashion, you think of Paris. Models walking the catwalk, stylists running around, celebrities, paparazzi. Now think of a fisherman or a sailor. Think of spending months at sea. Picture the lashing rain and relentless winds of the Atlantic Ocean. Not a very fashionable job.
It turns out that the fishermen and sailors of Brittany were more fashionable than you would first think. Items of clothing that began as practical and necessary have become emblematic of the middle-class Brittany holiday goer. Thanks to Coco Chanel.
The most famous is the Marinière. A striped, long-sleeved shirt that is usually blue and white. So popular that it has become a stereotypical French piece of clothing. It originated as part of the French Navy seaman’s uniform in 1858. According to the French Navy – A man wearing stripes is easier to see if he falls overboard! Brittany is a seafaring region by nature. Therefore, the French Navy was made up of many men from Brittany and the top became known as a Breton shirt.
During the first world war Coco Chanel spotted the sailors uniforms while on a seaside holiday. Inspired, she launched a short style marinière at her second shop and it took off from there. The shirt became a symbol of style and luxury. Throughout the 1940s the marinière was worn by many celebrities. Solidifying it’s place in fashion history.
Another fisherman’s shirt has also become a fashion statement. The vareuse. Originally, this overshirt was made from torn sails of boats. This is why you often find them in red orange, the traditional colour for a Breton sailing boat. Made from such a durable weatherproof fabric makes them excellent work clothing for sailors.
As they were made from the stretched canvas of sails, they are very smooth and were deliberately made this way to avoid snagging on ropes or nets whilst at sea. For the same reason, any buttons or pockets are on the inside. They are also loose fitting allowing for movement and so that you can wear a warm layer underneath.
The seniority of a fisherman or sailor could be seen by the wear and tear of his vareuse. As they were known for their durability; signs of wear told of hard work and experience. When returning to land some sailors would turn their vareuse inside out. Proudly displaying the side that was not sun bleached and worn out but the bright colourful interior and the buttons and pockets.
These shirts are still just as practical as they are fashionable. Today they have a firm place in the world of marine fashion. Still worn by fishermen but now also yachtsmen and holidaymakers. This item of clothing will last forever and tells its own story.
The Notoriety of the Brittany Weather
Brittany has a reputation of being the rainiest region in France. I am here to tell you that is not at all the case! Despite being one of the northernmost regions and a peninsular, it is by no means the rainiest. In fact, it is the 13th rainiest region in France overall. That’s taking into account yearly rainfall in mm. The climate in Brittany for the most part is mild and the summers are warm. Especially on the south coast where temperatures in the summer months sit comfortably at around 20 degrees Celsius.
Just take a look at this map to see France’s average yearly rainfall in mm:
As you can see, the rainiest town in all of France is actually the very wet Biarritz in the southwest Basque country. I am being a little cheeky with the numbers here as this does not account for overall rainy days. And you might also notice that the second rainiest town in France is Brittany’s very own Brest. It’s location as the western-most city in France might have something to do with that. Yes. Overall, Brittany does get quite a few grey and rainy days that have earnt its reputation. But I must add that it has many more sunny days.
The northwest of France has on average 126 rainy days a year. One day out of every three, it might rain. In conclusion, it is not all doom and gloom in Brittany. If you visit in the colder wetter months of October to January, it will rain some of the time. But the summer months can be absolutely fantastic. I have been swimming along the north coast in beautiful weather in April and in September!
As they say in Brittany –
En Bretagne, il ne pleut que sur les cons.In Brittany, it only rains on arseholes!
The Dogs of Brittany
Finally, what more could you want from a region than an adorable breed of dog?
The Breton Spaniel, although adorable and friendly, were bred as gun dogs. And today you will still see them being used for hunting all over Brittany. During the season of la Chasse or ‘the hunt’, you will see these dogs in cages in the back of vans and trucks. Being taken out to the countryside to areas where it is legal to hunt. With a permit and licence!
Breton spaniels are very intelligent and make great companions. Prized by farmers here in Brittany as they have an excellent nose for birds and wild boar. Farmers often keep them in runs and treat them as purely hunting and working dogs. Be careful if you encounter these dogs locked up on a farm. They won’t always be friendly and will bark, a lot.
However, many Breton spaniels are kept as family pets. They are sociable, easily trainable and enjoy lots of exercise.