History is everywhere in Rennes but it’s actually considered by thoroughly modern folks to be one of the most liveable cities in France. That’s a hard juggling act.
Rennes had been in existence for centuries before the Romans and in 57 BC the local inhabitants joined the Gaulish coalition against Rome. That didn’t work and there followed Roman occupation. In 275, the threat of invasion by barbarians led to the erection of a brick wall around the town. In the 9th century Rennes became fully Breton and was to remain that way for many hundreds of years.
In 1491 the French army of Charles VIII unsuccessfully attacked Rennes. Brittany having already surrendered everywhere else, Rennes stood alone. Duchess Anne of Brittany chose to negotiate with the king, and the resulting Treaty of Rennes, including her marriage to Charles VIII, brought Brittany into the French kingdom. Tour Duchesne is an old tower dating from around that time, and is located near the Mordelaises gates. The tower is part of the original city walls, which date back to the 3rd century, although rebuilt in the mid-1400s.
Timber-framed houses were a popular form of construction as there were forests to supply the raw material. In 1720 a major fire destroyed all the wooden buildings in the northern part of the city. The inhabitants took the precaution of rebuilding in stone, on a grid plan with wider roads. This modernisation has given Rennes two distinctive architectural faces. There are those sweeping avenues, but the medieval-looking streets still remain. Carrefour de la Cathédrale has a maze of winding streets surrounding it and that’s where one finds most of the city’s remaining half-timbered houses, dating from the 16th century.
Lift your eyes and find exquisite carved wooden details on medieval buildings.
There are iron-studded doors, ancient shutters, cobbled streets and granite. This isn’t a city that’s known for its stonework as there are no local quarries. This problem has been solved by the use of whatever stone was available, along with brick, creating in some buildings something of a masonry patchwork.
Rennes Cathedral is solid and unmissable. It has a heavy, granite façade that lacks the refinement of other French cathedrals that have been built from softer honey-coloured stone which was more easily sculpted. This is, externally, a rather sombre church. But step inside and you will find one of the most impressive religious buildings in France. There is a remarkable 15th-century Gothic gilded wooden altarpiece flanked by some imposing candlesticks. The arched ceilings are richly decorated and low lights pick out gold embellishments. Don’t miss a few quiet moments here.
Rennes is a beautiful and compact city with a wealth of restaurants, cafés and bars. It boasts a large and celebrated food market and thriving gastronomic culture. Place des Lices reminds one of the jousting lists for sporting knights once found here, although it’s now alive with shoppers every Saturday. There are many street names that give a nod to medieval times. One might notice a clock tower on the Place and even that has history. It marks the spot where prisoners were executed. There is even a medieval prison that is now a nightclub and restaurant. Rennes is home to two universities and more than 50,000 students. It’s not surprising that the city has a vibrant night life.
It also has open spaces aplenty and these are well-used by locals and tourists alike. One can find deckchairs from which one can enjoy jazz or classical music. Parc du Thabor is a public garden which was built in the 19th century on the site of the orchard of the Saint-Melaine abbey. It’s the largest park in Rennes and in the centre of the town. There is a museum of fine art and one covering Breton history, so something for all the family. If one wants to cover more ground then hire a bike for the day.
Rennes is just the sort of town which one hopes to find in France. Very French ambiance, French food, beautiful old buildings, cobbled streets, a market square and a glass or two of something reviving. Yes, we seek, but seldom find, a gem that ticks all those boxes. But here it is and just an easy hop across the Channel from Southend Airport.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018