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Europe: Brittany - French land of castles, crypts, and crêpes

When I first inquired about taking the kids to Brittany, that northern part of France that juts out westward into the Atlantic, the man at the French tourist office asked in a sympathetic tone, "Have your children been feeling poorly this winter?" It was a curious notion. We had picked Brittany because it was a short drive from Paris (cutting short the fights in the back seat), the Canadian dollar seemed to stretch further there, and our children were sure to like the food-crêpes (Breton thin flat pancakes) filled with jam or cheese, apple cider, and cakes laced with butter and fruit. Most important, the expansive coastlines promised there would always be a beach or a rock pool to keep them busy. Chasing away ill health had never been a consideration.

It seems, however, that many French parents choose Brittany for the bracingly fresh air blowing in from the sea. For them, a holiday in this region is sure to cure lingering winter ailments. For us, fresh air proved to be only one of the added bonuses we encountered in this family-friendly territory. Our two week-visit found us visiting castles with dungeons and moats, riding a punting boat through a salt marsh filled with animals and birds, body-surfing ocean waves, and talking to fishermen as they unloaded cases of giant sardines and mended their fishing nets, some as long as apartment blocks.

It's only natural that much of life here revolves around the sea. On the northern coast near St-Malo where we started our tour, the kids found crayfish and oysters and starfish. These and other local creatures are on show in the 100 aquarium tanks built into the the centuries-old ramparts of the town. We hiked along the tops of these walls to get a great view of the ocean and the National Fort built on craggy rocks just offshore. Walk over at low tide to visit its dungeon but beware! When the tide came swirling in, we had to run across a beach that was quickly turning into an ocean, a fact that brought a more dangerous side of the sea to life.

We were lucky enough to be in St-Malo during their Wind Festival, when the beach was strewn with kites, balloons and all manner of wind machines including planes that looked as if they belonged to the Wright brothers. The kids raced bright-colored cellophane paper kites along the beach and talked to some interesting characters who were planning to point their wind contraptions skyward when the breeze picked up.

In Dinan, a mediaeval jewel of a town with crooked half-timbered houses still standing 400 years after they were built, we visited the castle. No formal period rooms or fancy furniture; this was an original Robin-Hood-type castle with a fireplace big enough to hold all three kids, upper walls you could run around, a dungeon, and a crypt complete with dripping water and marble sarcophogi showing the faces of people who were buried within. Natalie had to be coaxed to enter these basement rooms.

The highlight of the trip, however, was exploring around Carnac, where 3,000 rough-hewn stones stand scattered around the fields. In fact, this area is also called the "Land of Asterix," named after the cartoon character whose numerous prehistoric exploits are recorded in large comic book form. Our boys, who had devoured these books when they were first learning to read, were enchanted to discover that they could actually climb the large stone prehistoric menhirs erected in the area some 5000 years ago. Nobody knows exactly why - perhaps the ancients erected the stones as a calendar or as a way to worship the sun. How they were moved into place is still a mystery; some weigh as much as 300 tonnes. The kids were also fascinated with finds of polished axes and prehistoric jewellry that had been dug up in the area, on display at the small prehistoric museum in town.

My eldest and I made our own below-ground historic find when we rented bikes and rode through the rough hilly paths surrounding the giant markers. In a teashop in the middle of one of these giant rock collections, we saw a sign indicating an underground hiding place. The directions led us to a farmhouse, where, following instructions written in three languages, we put money in a box, took a large key and the provided flashlight, and proceeded onward through the trees until we found a partly-hidden wooden door built into a hillside. Entering, we found ourselves in the middle of a cave decorated with rough drawings and leading to various passageways under the hills. Apparently, this recently-discovered hiding place, secreted away under the hills, had been used during the Second World War.

Because there was so much to see, we never made it to the western-most tip of Brittany, where this summer will be staged a Festival of 1500 ships. Between July 13 and 20, the town of Brest will host the largest collection of old ships in Europe. On July 17, some 1500 boats will float through the Brest Straits. One day we'd love to explore the western part of this region, where I am sure there's enough sea air to cure the most severe case of winter blahs.

Three resort areas in Brittany display France's new "Kid" mark- a symbol for French holiday areas that give top priority to families. In order to qualify, a town must offer family reductions, children's menus and activities, a variety of lodgings, enough public washrooms, first aid services, and a safe environment for children. Three towns in Brittany have been awarded this symbol: Arzon and Fouesnant-les-Glénan in the south, and Perros-Guirec on the north coast, although the area's aim is that within five years, "children will be King in the Land of Asterix." For further information on the region, contact the French Tourist Office, 30 St. Patrick St., Suite 700, Toronto, M5T 3A3; Tel.593-4723 or fax 979-7587.





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