France's Celtic Frontier

By Julien Bisson

From druids and magic, from bagpipes to battles, a pilgrimage through Brittany's rich Celtic history is the stuff of legends.

The Celts reigned over Armorica for ages, fighting like the famous Astérix for independence from the troops of Julius Caesar and Clovis. Today, Celtic culture still moves to the sound of the biniou, or bagpipe in Breton, in unison with its Irish and Scottish cousins. Its mythical identity has survived the centuries, with landmarks and legends left behind by Celtic tribes, remnants of an era ruled by druids and magic.

The Carnac Menhirs

The most popular Celtic site in Brittany is also the most enigmatic. Why did the people of Menhir erect nearly 4,000 menhirs, or upright monoliths, some as tall as 14 feet? According to medieval legend, these raised stones are the remains of a Roman army, petrified in battle by Saint Cornely. Archaeologists, on the other hand, are still debating the origin of this titanic endeavor, wavering between funeral rites and astronomy. As Brittany lies in a seismic zone, some even say that these menhirs were used to detect earthquakes. Above and beyond the mystery, however, lies a poetic space where time has stopped, a space where the intimacy between man and the elements prevails.

Paimpont Forest

The Paimpont Forest, near Rennes, is at the heart of the Arthurian legend, which is deeply rooted in Celtic culture. In fact, these woods are associated with the mythical forest of Brocéliande, home of Merlin the Wizard. Tradition endures today via Neolithic sites with pretty names like Fontaine de Jouvence (Fountain of Youth), Maison de Viviane (Viviane’s House) and Tombeau de Merlin (Merlin’s Tomb). But the forest’s most iconic area is without a doubt the Val Sans Retour (Valley of No Return), an enchanted land where Morgana the sorceress imprisoned unfaithful lovers, before eventually being overtaken by Lancelot. The “Miroir aux fees” (Fairy Mirror) is a mesmerizing pond at the entrance of the valley, named for the beings that beckon from the water’s depths…

Roche-aux-fées Dolmen

Fairies also inspired the legend of this awe-inspiring dolmen, located just south of Rennes. The forty-some stones that make up this monument, which is shaped like a covered alleyway, are said by local folklore to have been transported there by these magical creatures. Whether this rings true or not, the work put into building this site is admirable. Over 60 feet in length and built of stones weighing as much as 40 tons, it must have required the work of at least 300 men! Today, the Roche-aux-fées dolmen still inspires believers, especially newlyweds, who may be blessed there.

Locronan Village

One of the prettiest villages of France, Locronan is located near the tip of the Finistère region and used to be a mecca of Druidic culture. Twelve menhirs represent each month of the year, and each is dedicated to a deity from the Celtic pantheon. Later Christianized by Saint Ronan, the village has since been perfectly preserved and boasts a rare example of medieval architecture. What’s more, in 2013, it will host the Grande Troménie, a Catholic pilgrimage and parade inspired by Celtic tradition.