A week’s family vacation in south-western Brittany
Updated: May 7
Located on the southern end of the Brittany region, Pénestin is a charming little town for a beach vacation. We came here as a last minute break and managed to book up a campsite (more on that later on) with no problems during July 2020 (just when travel was opening up after the Covid-19 scare for a short while before travel collapsed again). A several hour drive from Calais in the north of the country, the long drive was certainly worth it. We didn’t know too much about the area, our plan was to have a family vacation where we chilled out on the beach or use the swimming pool a lot in the campsite, however that never goes to plan and we always go out and check the local area.
Let's start off with the highlight. Those Golden Cliffs! We have never seen anything like this on our travels. The cliffs of Mine d’Or on the longest beach in the area are stunning. They are best to be seen on a clear sunny day when the sun is setting over the ocean during the summer months. We checked out the beach for a while, they are wide and sandy when the tide is out. However a lot of locals don’t come here to sunbathe, they like to go and collect the mussels (& maybe some other food fresh from the water) for their dinner. Further north from here there are a lot of stakes sticking out of the sea (which can be seen clearly during low tide), this is where a lot of mussels are grown.
The town itself is pretty small with a few shops, restaurants and cafes. We checked out one restaurant, La Bisquine, which seems very popular with the local Pénestinois (the name used for the locals of the town). Fish seems to be the deal here (of course) however we went for a crepe with ham and fried eggs on it. Strange but wonderful. Couldn’t fault the service here and the waitresses really did love Isabella’s charming smile.
Tréhiguier is a small village a few kilometers north-east of Pénestin on the River Vilaine estuary. The village has a nice bar and restaurant overlooking the river but I also did a run through this area. There is a museum called Maison de Myticulture which displays items and has information on the mussels of the area. The building itself is a former lighthouse. I loved running from this village back towards Pénestin as the view of the spire of the église Saint-Gildas de Pénestin (church) towers the landscape and can be seen for quite a distance. Another little tip is a nice picnic area amongst the trees at Aire de repos de Tréhiguier Pénestin (which is on the coastal road between the two villages on Le Branzais). Here visitors can relax by the sea but on the other side of the road, a walk around the small lakes is pleasant.
For accommodation we noticed Pénestin has more campsites than hotels. However with the current situation, we wanted to stay in a mobile home (which is really ideal when you have children, believe me). We stayed at Camping Les Parcs which is located on the eastern side of the town (when driving, it's on the left hand side 300 meters before reaching the first roundabout in the town). The campsite has a variety of accommodations from mobile homes or pitches for visitors who want to bring their own motorhomes, caravans and tents. We paid for the top of the range mobile home (which was actually a great price for us as we were working off a budget) and got a modern home which must have been recently placed here. Our accommodation had parking spaces for two vehicles, an outdoor terrace with table and chairs with an airer, and inside had two bedrooms, en suite washroom, a lounge area with television, dining area and a kitchen with all the essentials we needed. The campsite itself had a reception area (which has a delivery of pastries and baguettes delivered every morning), bar, swimming pool, playground and all the washing facilities needed for anyone camping. Check out their site here for rates and information if you are thinking of staying here. We highly recommend it and the staff were so warm and welcoming. Couldn’t fault them and if we are back in the area, we would stay here again. (Tip, if anyone needs a supermarket, there is a Carrefour about a five minute walk away).
The day trips we did (it’s good to have a car to be honest), are the Suscinio castle and the medieval town of Vannes which are both within an hours drive (more on this below).
Conclusion: Pénestin overall is a quiet peaceful town which is nice for those looking for a relaxing vacation where the locals are welcoming. There may not be much going on but it has a beach, good food and drink and is close to nature. Not just the sea but the area around the town is very green as trees are dotted everywhere. The town also makes an ideal base for those looking to explore the local area. We will come back if we get the chance in the future.
Suscinio, a cracking castle in Brittany
The year before our trip whilst in Paris we came across an advertisement in a bus stop displaying a large photo of a castle with ‘Suscinio’ written underneath it. We never heard of the castle before so we had to do some research. We noticed it was located in the region of Brittany and thought if we ever visit the region, we will check it out. With the current Coronavirus pandemic and all our travel plans being postponed this year, we took the opportunity to book a trip to Brittany as soon as the UK Government lifted the restrictions regarding travel. To be honest, we were on a ferry on the day the ‘essential travel’ was dropped and were checking out the castle a few days later.
A bright sunny day set the scene as we drove to the castle from nearby Pénestin in the southern part of the region & after forty minutes we parked up in the free car park, took the brisk short walk and were inside the castle within minutes. We bought our tickets online here to save time on queuing but to be honest, there wasn’t a queue when we arrived.
The castle was built in the late Middle Ages (around the 13th century) and was the residence of the Dukes of Brittany. Located near the town of Sarzeau, the castle is a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic Ocean. There are some certainly great views of the ocean from the top of the castle and you can understand why it was built here (to see oncoming armies traveling by boat). At first the castle was designed to be a ‘place of leisure’ for the dukes as there was the sea but also a lot of forest around the area which was fantastic for hunting animals. However over time the castle was fortified and made bigger because the country of France which was still forming at the time by taking regions, was attacking the Brittany region. Eventually the region fell to France in 1514. It was Bretrand du Guesclin (who was the infamous Constable of France who did many terrible things in his time) who managed to grab the castle and declared victory for France.
However before France grabbed Brittany, the castle had some famous visitors staying, a group of exiled Englishmen, the biggest name being Henry Tudor who later became King Henry VII of England. History around this time for the region and the castle was very messy. Francis II, who was the Duke of Brittany at the time, supported the group of bad boys from England and turned the castle into an armed camp. Any attempts of anyone trying to kidnap the Englishmen (probably the English who wanted them back in England), would be killed. This would go on for eleven years.
In 1483, the Duke then supported the failed rebellion of the exiled Englishmen and the invasion of England (another battle between the neighbours...sighed). He supported them with 15,000 soldiers, lots of ships and for some reason, thousands and thousands of gold crowns (money talks). In the end it didn’t go well and Henry was given back to the English by agreement between the two sides. In return, the Duke of Brittany got 3,000 English archers to defend Brittany against the French (well, that didn’t turn out well in the end). Time passed, Brittany, the English and the French had many battles in the area and in the end, France won. Before France won, Duke Francis II died in 1488 and was succeeded by his eleven year old daughter, Anne of Brittany, the last ruling leader of Brittany and somehow was Queen of France (twice!). She died in 1514, the battles stopped and the region became a part of France.
A few years later, France didn’t care about the castle and was abandoned. Parts of it were destroyed and still can be seen in places today. Before and during the French Revolution, people used the castle for its stones and took them elsewhere in the region making the castle more ruined than before. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that work was done to rebuild the castle to its former glory.
Whilst walking around the site, we saw the ruined chapel, a few ruined outbuildings, a dovecote and noticed that all the staircases were rebuilt. For some reason there are some displays on King Arthur and the Round Table and floating dragons hanging down from a ceiling in one room in the dark.
One of the rooms on the third floor houses around hundreds of well preserved terra-cotta tiles which were found in the grounds of the castle back in the 1970s. What the people found was the remains of a chapel which was built on the outside of the castle walls.
Also on the third floor is the great hall and the outer chamber which has an impressive paneled vaulted ceiling which brightens up the place and makes the rooms give a more, warm feeling.
Outside we took a walk around the castle and its moat (very pleasant) and had a bite to eat at an outdoor snack bar which was located in a set of trees nearby. Archery can also be done for visitors.
Conclusion: we noticed that during the restoration that a lot of concrete was used, on the floors of certain rooms as well as the staircases and looked a bit out of character. However, as we were traveling with two young children and a mother who can’t see very well, it was easy to guide them around the castle. So we were a bit disappointed about this and it kinda lost its charm inside. Then some of the rooms which had a few displays looked a bit dull and empty but that’s my own personal view. Otherwise we really did enjoy our morning out here at Suscinio and would totally recommend it. It may not be one of the most spectacular castles we have come across in France, however it has a history and we do love the nature and the sea surrounding it.
The Tudor buildings of medieval Vannes
The town of Vannes has stood here for over 2,000 years and a lot has happened here and we could see that whilst walking around the place. We have to admit we never even heard of the place and once we got a tip off that it was a medieval town with lots of Tudor buildings, We just had to check it out. We weren't disappointed. We found the place to be better than some of the towns back home in England, places such as Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick and Market Drayton to name a few.
On our day trip here we checked out the old town where all the top places to see and do are located. We drove here and found parking easy on Rue Francis Decker (and rather cheap!). The road overlooks the medieval ramparts which we have been told are the best in the region. This meant we spent a while walking around here checking out the gardens and a walk along the ‘Garenne’ which is a path that runs alongside the gardens and has scenic washhouses on the way.
Vannes (Gwened in the local Bretagne language) used to be the former residence of the Dukes of Brittany. With its beautiful centre and 171 timbered houses, cobbled streets and views of the water nearby, We can understand why the Dukes chose this town (and built it up) to live in.
We managed to get a sneak peak inside Vannes Cathedral which is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Peter. The cathedral is presented in Gothic style and stands on the site of the former Romanesque cathedral. The construction took about 400 years, however combined with the previous cathedral, there was about 700 years of work done.
To the south-west of the historic old town is a small harbour and it is here that there are restaurants and bars set in a scenic location. If eating by the water doesn’t take your fancy, there are restaurants dotted all the way around the old town. We ate at a restaurant located next door to a famous painted couple on the facade of a 16th century timber building at the corner of Rue du Bienheureux Pierre-René Rogue and Rue Noé. The two painted smiling figures are known as ‘Vannes and his wife’. We tried to research this carving but there seems to be no story, just a nice carving on a building.
We managed to look into the history of the town and compared to other towns, there doesn’t seem to be much of it which is unusual. The town name ‘Vannes’ came from the Veneti, the Celtic seafaring people who lived in this region before the Roman came in and turned them into slaves. This part of Brittany before the Romans came had many ports and became a major stopping point for trading routes between Great Britain and the Middle East. Eventually the Gauls (which the locals were called during this period) were misplaced all over Brittany and parts of modern-day France. This didn’t help that loads of Britons from the island came over as they were fleeing from the Saxon invasions which were taking place at the same time.
The Romans soon went and the Gauls returned. They renamed the town Gwened (which is also a Breton name) and became a mini-kingdom. Eventually hundreds of years later, Vannes played an important role for the planned invasion of Britain by the French. A large army was staged there but never invaded Britain because in another battle at the time, a lot of ships were destroyed. Then Brittany became part of France and then life was well (apart from the French Revolution and two World Wars) for the Vannetais (the name of the inhabitants of the city).
Conclusion: In our short time here we really did enjoy my time here, a hidden gem of France we called it. As we said, we never even knew this town existed until the day before our visit. We are going to call it, this town is so much better to visit than places like Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick. That’s our own personal opinion. We loved walking up and down the hilly cobbled streets, talking to locals in the street and receiving a warm welcome everywhere we went. If you (the reader) get the chance to visit Vannes, then do it. It's easy to get to by bike, train and car so there is no excuse really. What are you waiting for?
Information and tips:
How to get to the area: Pénestin is located on the coastline near the southern regional border of Brittany and by public transport is a bit difficult to get to (hence we drove there from England, much easier). The nearest airports we would say are Nantes and Tours but there are quite some distance.
By train and bus, it is a long journey. Coming from Paris, passengers will have to depart from Paris Montparnasse Vaugirard station and take the TGV service to Saint Nazaire which is around a two hour and forty minute journey. From there, take a local bus to Beauséjour before changing there for a bus to Pénestin. The journey should take around 5 to 6 hours.
Nearest ferry ports (if coming from the UK) are all located on the Normandy coastline, Caen and Dieppe being the nearest. Calais and Dunkerque ferry ports are several hours drive away.
By car, the nearest autoroute is in Nantes, about thirty-forty minute drive away which will connect drivers with the rest of France. Note, it takes about four to five hours to drive to Paris.
Vannes and the Suscinio castle are located by an inlet of water which goes out to the Atlantic Ocean in the region. By train, the main station is Gare de Vannes. Coming from Paris passengers will have to depart from Paris Montparnasse Vaugirard station and take the TGV service straight to Gare de Vannes which is around a two hour and fifty minute journey. The train eventually goes to Quimper further up the coastline. However there are not that many services a day, so plan ahead.
Accommodation: There are a lot of accommodation options and a lot of websites which can do some great deals. Our first point of call is always Booking.com and can offer a range of hostels, hotels, campsites, apartments, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts etc. After that we always have a look through AirBnb for great deals on apartments and other lodgings especially when traveling as a family. Or go with my recommendation as mentioned earlier in the post with the holiday park.
Currency: France uses the Euro currency which is also widely used in most European countries. Currency can be exchanged at the airports and train stations (for a huge fee) so we would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but we always do this option as we got good bank accounts).
Language: It’s France, so it would be French. However at major tourist sites, a lot of staff do speak English (it is not like the old days where French people refuse to speak English, that has changed you will find the locals here love to practise their English as well as visitors trying to learn French). There is another language spoken here, the Breton language, which is one of the six extant Celtic languages (the others being Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx).
Watch out for: Didn't have a problem here. Use common sense, like watch out for pickpockets etc but to be honest, this is probably one of the most sleepy towns I have been to in France so visitors should not have a problem.
Flying into this area? Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. We sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking.
Travel insurance: This is essential to anywhere you go in the world. We always carry travel insurance. Having travel insurance will cover you from theft, illness and those annoying cancellations which can happen on the road.
Need a visa for France? Always check if you need a visa when coming to France, especially for those who come from outside Europe.
Disclosure: Please note that while we were not working with any companies in Pénestin, our review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. We value our readers too much to lie to you. Our blog would be nothing without you and your continued support! There maybe some links above which are affiliate and are at no additional cost to you. If our readers use them, we earn a commission to buy their products and remember, we only mentioned products and companies we use. The income from this keeps this website going. Thank you.
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