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Brittany v Vendée: Which is the best French coastline?

We can all agree that France has a lot of stunning coastline, and when heading to western France you really are spoiled for choice - here Emma Pearson and Genevieve Manfield go head-to-head on the respective merits of Brittany and La Vendée.

Brittany v Vendée: Which is the best French coastline?
Ile Vierge beach in Crozon, Brittany. Photo by Fred TANNEAU / AFP

Emma on La Vendée

Perhaps less well known to foreign tourists, although hugely popular with the French as a holiday spot, is the département of La Vendée on the west coast of France – it’s basically that bit of the coastline north of La Rochelle and just underneath where Brittany sticks out to the west.

I discovered this largely by accident a few years ago, looking for a beach spot after spending a few days in La Rochelle, and it’s now my favourite bit of France. Here’s why;

Beaches – France has a lot of very pretty coastlines, and not to take away from any of them but La Vendée’s is superb – long, soft, sandy beaches that are much less crowded than the Mediterranean while the Atlantic ocean provides breezes and surf that makes this coastline popular with enthusiasts of wind-surfing, surfing, kite-surfing and sand yachting. 

Perfect for sunbathing in summer, the beaches are also great for a bracing walk in the winter.

Although not as hot and sunny as the south coast, the climate is generally mild with temperatures falling to 3C-9C in December and January, and the area also largely escapes Brittany’s famous rain. In the summer you can expect temperatures up to around 30C, but that Atlantic breeze keeps it from getting too hot. 

Food and drink – the coast is particularly rich in seafood and you can also pick your own. At low tide you will see dozens of people heading into the rockpools and shallow waters to gather clams, mussels, crabs, prawns and of course the areas’s speciality – oysters.

Be aware that there are limits to foraging for shellfish – pêche à pied – and most beaches have a notice telling you how much you are allowed to take. The limits are generous for personal use, they’re really just to stop commercial foraging, and also be aware of the minimum size limits on what you are allowed to take – this is to ensure that you’re only taking mature creatures and not disrupting the food chains.

Boards on the beach specify limits for fishing. Photo: The Local

If you’d rather someone else did the work then the local markets and restaurants are a seafood fan’s dream, particularly for oysters which are the local speciality – you will see oyster beds all along the coastline and on the islands and pretty much all restaurants sell them. The classic accompaniment to seafood is white wine, and the area produces some excellent whites, especially the vineyards on the Île d’Oléron. 

Nature – La Vendée boasts both an extensive network of sand-dunes that house hundreds of species of birds and the Marais Poitevan, which is France’s second largest wetland area (after the Camargue). 

Marais Poitevan is very different to much of rural France – dead flat, quite hauntingly eerie in the winter and with a stunning array of wildlife. In certain parts of it you can boat through the wetlands or see the salt flats where the famous fleur de sel of the area is produced. 

Places to visit – if you get bored of the beaches, there are plenty of places to visit in La Vendée including the town of Les Sables d’Olonne which hosts both a famous annual yacht race and a very pretty quartier where the locals have made murals out of shells on the walls.

Islands off the coast include Île de Ré, sometimes known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because of the number of Parisians who have second homes there, Île d’Oléron and, further north, Noirmoutier.

Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron are both accessible by car via a bridge from the mainland.  Technically in neighbouring Charente-Maritime, but the cute coastal city of La Rochelle is well worth a visit and has a real buzz thanks to a busy calendar of festivals, a very successful rugby team and vibrant nightlife. 

Shell decorations in the Ile de Penotte area of Les Sables d’Olonne. Photo: The Local

Practicalities – thanks to all those Parisians and their second homes, there are regular direct trains from Paris to the small Vendée towns of La Roche sur Yon and Les Sables d’Olonne. If you’re flying, La Rochelle has an airport, although it has fewer flights in the winter. Once you’re in the area you can take public transport if you stick along the coast, but for longer travels inland you will probably need a car.  This is very much a holiday area (although it seems that most of the holidaymakers are French) so you’re spoiled for choice for hotels, campsites and Airbnbs. 

Genevieve on Brittany

Home to a rugged coastline, with stunning beaches, turquoise waters, and delicious crêpes and seafood, Brittany is a part of France that everyone should visit at least once.  

Beaches (and islands) – Beaches in Brittany have it all – you can stick to calmer waters on the Gulf of Morbihan or brave larger waves in places like Cap Fréhel.

Fans of surfing might consider heading toward Brest, to beaches like Le Minou. To enjoy the region’s dramatic cliffs, you can go to the Falaises de Plouha, where the tallest ones in Brittany are located. The Emerald Coast is also home to several gorgeous beaches, such as Erquy and Val-André. 

Nature lovers do not have to stick to the beaches or islands. There are natural reserves, particularly in the Gulf of Morbihan, which is one of the top birdwatching locations in France. Additionally, hikers can enjoy the GR34, a footpath that takes you along the whole of the Breton coastline.  

As for islands, there are 42 in the Morbihan alone, and many more across the region. Île d’Arz is my favourite – it is small, walkable, and only a short ferry ride from Vannes (a city worth seeing in itself). 

Food and drink – You cannot go to Brittany without eating crêpes (pancakes) and drinking cidre.

Go for sugar-y crêpes or savoury ones (les galettes). A classic recipe is “la galette complète” which has eggs, ham, and cheese. As for a delicious, traditional sweet option, you can go for a “crêpe beurre sucre” (a butter, sugar, no-nonsense crêpe). 

If you want to test some traditional Breton dishes, you ought to try Kouign Amann – a sweet, butter-y Breton multilayered cake. 

Finally, you should not leave Brittany until you have eaten fresh oysters (huitres). According to the official Brittany tourism site, an ideal seafood platter “contains cooked and raw shellfish: spider crab, brown crab, prawns, langoustines, oysters, periwinkles, whelks, cockles, various types of clams and more.” Be sure to combine with salted butter, a regional delicacy.

Culture – First and foremost – Bretagne is home to a unique Celtic culture and language that is set apart from the rest of France.

In fact, students in Brittany have the option of learning the language at school, and the regional language is still spoken by at least 500,000 speakers. On road signs in Brittany, you will even notice a Breton translation below the French words. Brittany is also home to several historic sites like Carnac, known for its prehistoric standing stones, which date back to the same period as Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. History-lovers can also visit the mythical Brocéliande forest, which was cited in several medieval texts, like the legends of King Arthur. 

Places to visit – As mentioned above, beaches and islands are plentiful. Some of my favourite Breton islands are Île d’Arz, Groix, and Bréhat. You can enjoy historic sites in Brittany like Carnac and Brocéliande. You can also visit quaint towns, of which there are several.

Stop by port towns like Camaret-sur-Mer and Port d’Audierne, or head inland to see the medieval, walled town of Dinan. If you’re a fan of castles and fortresses, there are also many to see. You could go to the Domaine de Suscinio or the 15th century fortified Château de la Roche-Jagulocated along the Emerald Coast

Practicalities – Brittany is well-connected by train and car. Some direct options by train (in just two to three hours) from the Paris region are Concarneau, Rennes, Quimper, Brest, or Vannes. Once you are within Brittany, the majority of the coastline is connected by regional TER trains. You can see the map HERE.

By car, the journey from the Paris region is quite smooth, though you should count about four to five hours of travel-time. By ferry (if you are coming from the UK) you can get to Brittany from Plymouth, Poole, and Portsmouth. These are great options too, as you can bring your own vehicle aboard.

So what’s your verdict – Brittany or La Vendée? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re not a fan of the west coast, you can also vote HERE for your favourite French beach. 

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

10 of the best French December traditions

The Christmas and New Year holidays in France are not quite as big a deal as they are in some countries, but they are still full of fun traditions - from eating 13 desserts to visiting a light festival or being stalked by a terrifying old man with a whip.

10 of the best French December traditions

The Christmas holidays are undoubtedly a major event in the French calendar – kids get two weeks off school, families go away for the holidays, towns light up and people exchange gifts.

However it isn’t quite the same unbridled orgy of capitalism as it is in the US, or of drinking as it is in the UK.

Here are some of the French traditions that you can expect to see over the next month.

Light festivals

Towns and cities across France decorate themselves in Christmas lights, but also popular at this time of year are Fetes des lumières (light festivals) which feature huge light installations, often with music too.

The biggest and most famous of these festivals is in Lyon, but there are lots of smaller ones including one in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Take an evening to spend wandering around (possible with a hot chocolate or vin chaud in hand) and enjoy the light displays.

Everything you need to know about Lyon’s light festival

People visit Le Sentiers des Lanternes (The Lantern Trail) n Metz, eastern France. (Photo by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN / AFP

Père Fouettard

Literally translating as ‘Father whipper’ or ‘Father flogger’, Père Fouttard is part of the St Nicolas celebrations that take place in the north east of France on December 6th.

What you need to know about St Nicolas Day in France

On this day, jolly St Nicolas visits the well-behaved children and brings them sweets and gifts. Bad kids, on the other hand, get a visit from the scary old priest with his whip.

The name Père Fouttard is sometimes used in a more general way to mean ‘the bogeyman’ or the scary figure. 

Writing to Père Noël

Assuming that your children are little angels, they’re more likely to get a visit from Père Noël than Père Fouettard, and he might even bring some gifts. French children like presents as much as any other children and enthusiastically embrace the tradition of writing to Santa to request special presents and toys.

The French postal service La Poste employs a team of helpers at this time of year, so that all children’s letters to Father Christmas which are sent via La Poste get an answer. Santa has modernised though, these days you can also email him via La Poste’s website.

How and when to send Christmas gifts from France

Cribs (and the crapper)

French laws on laïcité (secularism) prohibit religious displays in public buildings, so you won’t see the Christian nativity scene at the town hall or your children’s school – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t on display in other public locations including shops and the town square.

In some small towns they even create a living crib with real cattle and donkeys.

If you’re in south west France and you see a model crib scene, keep an eye out for a slightly unexpected addition – a small figure (often a celebrity) having a poo.

The belen (crapper) is mainly a Spanish tradition, but you’ll find them in areas of France which have a Catalan influence as well. 

Vin chaud

Hot, spiced wine is not limited to France, but here it is not just a Christmas thing – it’s drunk throughout the winter in the colder months and you will frequently see it on sale in cafés and at sports grounds as the temperatures fall.

The wine (usually red, but not always) is warmed with fruit such as oranges and lemons and spices including cinnamon and star anise. During the pandemic years when many bars were closed for months at a time, more and more places started offering vin chaud to take out, and happily this tradition seems to have stuck. 

Four things to know about vin chaud in France

Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Christmas markets 

In Europe, Germany is the undisputed leader of Christmas markets, but they happen in France too especially in the north east of the country, which has historic links to Germany.

Most towns and cities in France will have some sort of market at Christmas selling gifts and food (especially oysters) but the biggest and most famous are in the historic region of Alsace, on the German border. 

14 of the best Christmas markets in France in 2022

Seafood

As an anglophone, Christmas might say turkey to you, but in France it’s all about the seafood.

The seafood banquet is served on the night of the 24th, traditionally after Midnight Mass but many French families in modern times skip the Mass and move the meal to a more sociable time. 

The banquet always involves oysters, but the rest of the shellfish is up to you – you would likely see prawns, mussels, whelks and crab or lobster. One bonus of this type of meal is that it involves virtually no cooking – you buy your shellfish ready prepared from the fish-seller then serve with bread and mayonnaise or aoili, which means that Christmas is a day off for the cook too. 

Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

In France December 24th is the main celebration day of Christmas, as it is in most of mainland Europe, and this is the day when French people visit their families and have the big seafood banquet.

On December 25th people often eat poultry, although turkey is less popular than goose, guinea fowl or capon, but a lot of families have their own traditions.

When it comes to dessert, the tradition is the Bûche de noêl, the cake in the shape of a yule log, that is usually chocolate.

But in general the food choices are more individual, although Champagne is of course popular and you’ll see a lot of foie gras on sale around Christmas and New Year.

13 desserts 

There’s one part of France that has a very special Christmas tradition though – Provence, where people traditionally eat 13 desserts after their festive meal.

Before you reach for your loose-waisted trousers, however, this isn’t quite as gluttonous as it sounds, because the ‘desserts’ are mostly things like dried fruit, nuts and marzipan sweets. In a traditional family dinner the 13 are served together after the main meal, and they represent Jesus and the 12 apostles.

Throughout Provence and southern France you’ll often see packs of fruit, nuts and sweets on display at this time of year with 13 separate elements.

Limited consumerism 

French families do swap gifts at Christmas, and of course shops are decked out with decorations and special promotions as they try to encourage people to buy as many gifts as possible, but in general gift-giving is more modest than you might expect in anglophone countries.

The focus is mainly on children while adults swap smaller gifts – a book, candles, a pair of earrings or some nice chocolates or wine. It’s the thought that goes into the gift that counts, not spending loads of money.

New Year

New Year’s Eve is celebrated in France where it’s generally known as Le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre but if you’re expecting a huge booze-up as is the tradition in the UK then you might be a little disappointed as celebrations in France are a little more muted and often involve family get-togethers. 

If you’re in a city you might witness one unusual tradition – and one much hated by authorities – that of burning cars on New Year’s Eve

. . . but no days off

France is pretty generous with its public holidays so it often comes as a surprise that official days off are limited over the Christmas period.

Only December 25th and January 1st are public holidays and if they happen to fall on a weekend – as they do this year – then there are no extra days off work.

That said, many businesses do give staff extra days off and you can expect offices to be closed or have limited open hours over the period of Les fêtes des fin d’année (the end-of-year holidays or Christmas and New Year).

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