Buoyed by its links to the adventures of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin, made famous in book, TV and movie, the Morbihan region of Brittany has created a thriving tourism sector based on the imaginative medieval tales.
Central to the initiative is the charming Paimpont Forest, formerly known as Brocéliande, where Merlin is believed to be buried, and the nearby Centre de l’Imaginaire Arthurien (the Arthurian Centre) in the Château de Comper, a richly-visual cultural and exhibition center listed as a ‘monument historique’ by the French Ministry of Culture.
“Mythology helps us understand what is happening all around us, to make sense of nonsense,” says Nicolas Mezzalira, the center’s manager, explaining how the project attracts around thirty thousands visitors every year. “It’s the sociological glue that keeps communities together. Legends are linked to landscape and history, they were the world’s entertainment before TV existed. Some say the center focuses on fantasy but it really focuses on anthropology, sociology and mythology.”
With so many visitors, many of them writers and academics, coming in search of magic, the challenge facing officials with Brittany Tourism is to creatively combine education with entertainment.
They accomplish this through a series of exhibitions that change every year (this year the subject is swords, ranging from Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber to Excalibur) and guided tours through what is some of France’s most scenic, unspoiled countryside.
Utilizing places well known from the Arthurian stories, visitors embark on pleasant walks, or cycling with Brocéliande Bike-Tour, through the forest pathways to see Merlin’s tomb, the so-called ‘fountain of youth,’ a section of bare stone called ‘the dragon’s back,’ ‘the well that bubbles’ and ‘the golden tree.’
Officials say the large pond beside the Château de Comper is related to Viviane, the ‘Lady of the Lake.’ In the Arthurian legend, she lives in a crystal palace, built by Merlin the magician under the lake waters. The lovely Chateau de Trecesson, in a bucolic setting of moat and oak forest, with intriguing ghost stories, is also worth visiting.
The rising popularity of the area has led to more attractions, with ‘La Porte Des Secrets’ (The Door of Secrets’), an interpretative center opened in the nearby village of Paimpont, cafes such as ‘Creperie du Porche’ and assorted retail stores selling Arthurian and Celtic merchandise and music.
In terms of fine dining, one of the most popular restaurants is Les Forges, several miles from Concoret. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, it occupies a peaceful setting with views over lake and forest.
It’s rustic ambience is enhanced by a giant open fireplace which Brigitte, the owner, tended with bellows; wood floors and a ceiling gaily painted in forest leaves, hunting horns and antlers. Stuffed birds hang from the walls.
After a refreshing aperitif of Chardonnay with strawberry juice and lemon guests can enjoy an amuse bouche of creme du courgette followed by a starter of hearty terrine maison in a casserole on a wooden board served with jerkins and onion chutney.
Rather than a fixed portion, I was given a knife and urged to slice off what I wanted, which I did, probably over-enthusiastically. With the specialty of the house being ‘le gibier’ (game), best to opt for items such as boned pigeon with forest mushrooms or a roasted half partridge but the menu also includes duck and deer. The aroma of grilled steaks was also wonderful, all cooked over the open fire. Desserts were nothing less than succulent – a carré of coconut with coconut ice-cream and salted butter caramel and a creamy île flottante. To finish, try a glass of bouchinot, a local liquor, or chouchen, alcohol made of honey.
Not all attractions in the area are linked to Arthur and Merlin. For something different, visit the snail farm, L’Escargot de Brocéliande , which produces one million of the 30 million snails consumed in France. Guided tours bring you throughout the 400 sqm farm opened three years ago by Charles Chevalier, from a series of square wooden boxes where snails are fed a diet of clover and flour to large open plantations where they are grow en masse.
There are also, of course, the many village fairs that take place in the area, with music, delicious local cider and craft beer called ‘Ombre’ (Shadow).
Manoir du Tertre, an atmospheric ‘Old World,’ three-floor chateau recently taken over by Caroline Brot on a quiet rural road several miles outside Paimpont offers accommodation in a 17th century house.
With a spacious living room complete with comfy sofas, an open fireplace with an intricately carved wood façade and a substantial garden and terrace, it offers a tranquil place to unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing.
So, if you’re in the mood for magic, set your GPS for Paimpont and the Broceliande Forest of Brittany. You never know what strange surprises may await you there.