Archive for the Brittany Category

Le Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, King Arthur, Legend, Tree, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The forest of Brocéliande is filled with magical places – standing stones, prehistoric tombs and miraculous fountains, many of them associated with Arthurian legend. It is also home to some natural magic in the form of several ancient trees. A while back I visited the incredible Chêne de Guillotin, and this time round I went to take a look at its younger but no less magical neighbour, the Chêne des Hindrés.

Unlike the Chêne de Guillotin, which sits on the edge of the forest in a pretty meadow, the Chêne des Hindrés lies hidden deep in the forest, around a kilometre from the nearest car park. A “Chêne” is an oak, and apparently “Hindrés” means damp, wet places, although I couldn’t see any signs of swampiness when I visited. The route to the tree is well-signposted and follows a clear path through the historic woodland.

P1020776

The ancient Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Even in this dense forest, the Chêne des Hindrés itself, with its monumental trunk and huge mass of snaking branches, is hard to miss. Apparently the tree is around five hundred years old, which is not hard to believe – it really is enormous! I particulary liked the fact that other, small plants had made their home on the oak’s massive branches, with small ferns sprouting from its broad boughs.

P1020777

The huge snaking boughs of the Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

The Chêne des Hindrés reminded me of the Ents, those living, breathing and walking trees that feature in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or even Enid Blyton’s charming Faraway Tree. Given its location, it is hardly suprising that the tree has also been associated with legend, and is sometimes referred to as the Chêne des Druides, or the Druid Oak. Supposedly Druidic ceremonies have been held here over the centuries, which makes sense – I can’t think of a better spot for invoking natural magic than this otherwordly place, the ancient heart of a mystical enchanted forest.

 

Merlin’s Tomb and the Fontaine de Jouvence, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fountain, King Arthur, Legend, Sculpture, Standing Stones, Uncategorized, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My recent visit to the Fountain of Barenton in the mythical forest of Brocéliande was just the beginning of a long day filled with magic. My second stop on this mystical adventure was another site with Arthurian associations, namely the Tomb of Merlin on the eastern edges of this ancient woodland.

P1020770

Merlin’s Tomb on the edge of Brocéliande Forest

Once a huge neolithic burial mound, this spot has long been known as the grave of the legendary wizard. In fact, it was probably this myth that led to the destruction of the mound, with its late nineteenth-century owner stripping it in search of ancient treaure. Today only two large boulders survive, hemmed in by a modern wooden fence. Despite this, the place is obviously well-visited and much-loved, the stones surrounded by autumnal offerings of berries, mushrooms and fruit.

Next I headed off into the forest, along a winding path which crossed a babbling brook. As I walked deeper into the woods, I noticed small piles of stones along the side of the track.

P1020758

A babbling brook in the mystical Forest of Brocéliande

It wasn’t long before I reached the place known as the Fontain of Jouvence, or Fountain of Youth. It has been suggested that the name of this spring derives from the fact that it was a Druidical site where babies were baptised. If a baby missed the ceremony then they would be baptised as a new-born twelve months later, and thus effectively become a year younger. Whatever the roots of this magical moniker, the rather murky, leaf-filled waters were distinctly unappealling, and I decided not to risk a sip.

P1020760

The Fontainte de Jouvence, Brocéliande

Keen to explore a bit further, I continued along the path, and noticed more of those peculiar little piles of stones. Suddenly the path opened up into a clearing, and I was greeted by an unexpected sculpture, an anthropomorphic figure created from pebbles and branches and decorated with fruits, leaves and funghi.

P1020762

A strange stone sculpture in the Forest of Brocéliande

Beyond the figure lay a quarry. But this was no ordinary quarry, because it was filled with countless little piles of stones.

P1020768

A mysterious quarry in the Forest of Brocéliande

I am not sure who or what made these odd little sculptures, or indeed why. Some contained notes giving thanks, or making dedications. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet, or any references to it in guidebooks. It remains something of an intriguing mystery. All I know is that it was a eerie, atmospheric place, and one that I won’t forget in a hurry.

 

 

 

The Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Fountain, King Arthur, Woods with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

One of the undoubted highlights of my recent visit to the Forest of Brocéliande in Brittany was the Fontaine de Barenton, a mythical fountain long associated with the region’s Arthurian legends. Not only was the fountain itself rather magical, but the journey to get there, which involved following a winding path through the autumnal woodland, was pretty wonderful too.

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

As I set out, the path was wide and flat, not particularly taxing. As I got further into the forest, however, it became narrow and muddy, crossing rocky outcrops and traversing knobbly tree roots.

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The autumn leaves were just begining to fall, and the ferns and bracken were turning a rich golden hue. From time to time I spotted huge red mushrooms which had sprouted up from the loamy forest floor. A small stream appeared to my left, trickling its way gently through the undergrowth.

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Finally, after about twenty minutes or so of pleasant wandering, I arrived at the Fontaine de Barenton itself.This spot is mentioned in a number of medieval literary texts, including the twelfth-century Roman de Rou, and for many centuries it has been said to be the place where Merlin taught the magical arts to the fairy Viviane, a sorceress who is perhaps better known as the legenday Lady of the Lake.

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

To the left of fountain’s source can be found a huge stone slab known as the “Perron de Merlin”, or “Merlin’s Step”. Legend tells that whoever sprinkes water from the spring onto this slab will not only bring about a huge thunder storm, but also rouse the Black Knight who is said to guard the magical fountain. Twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes tells how Arthurian Knight Calogrenant visited the fountain, and was defeated by its fearsome protector. Later his cousin Yvain followed in his footsteps, but ended up defeating the Black Knight, and thus became the new guardian of the magical fountain. Arhur himself is said to have been intrigued by this wonderous place, although whether he ever visited it or not is unclear.

Merlin's Step, the Fountain of Barenton

Merlin’s Step, the Fountain of Barenton

In the fifteenth century, one Guy XIV, Lord of Montfort-Laval, claimed to have inherited the ability to bring about rain by dropping water on the step, although we can assume he did not invoke any pugnacious knights in the process. In more recent times, local people would dip the foot of a cross in the water in times of drought, appealing to Saint Mathurin for rain. And in case you are wondering, I didn’t attempt to awaken any storms – it was a long walk back to the car park after all, and since I was not dressed for rain, I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The ‘Courtil des Fées’, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This month I’ve been back to Brittany, one of my favourite (and most successful) hunting grounds. Every time return to Morbihan, a region steeped in myths and legends, I wonder if I will finally run out of weird and wonderful places to discover, but every time I uncover more magical locations. This visit was particularly fruitful, so you can expect my next few posts to be filled with my Breton adventures!

My first destination on this trip was the enigmatically named Courtil des Fées, a phrase which translates roughly as ‘fairy courtyard’. As with many of my expeditiions, the journey to the Courtil des Fées began with a track leading into shady woodlands, in this case the Forest of Houssa. Althought it was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s, this ancient wood is slowly reestablishing itself, and still retains its magical wildness. At this time of year, the path leading into the forest is noisier than usual, littered as it is with crackling branches and crunching acorns.

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The Courtil des Fées is located on a ridge high above the Oust valley, not far from the tiny village of Beaumont. Archaeological investigations suggest that this ridge was inhabited by humans for many centuries before the trees reclaimed it. The first evidence of these ancient inhabitants that I encountered was the remains of a four thousand year old neolithic burial mound which lies deep in the forest, sitting in a pretty clearing surrounded by oaks, birches and ferns.

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

Just a few metres away can be found a small standing stone, which no doubt also formed a part of this ancient burial site. Some evidence of carved ‘cup marks’ can be seen on this mossy menhir.

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

It’s just another short walk to the Courtil des Fées itself, a raised round earthwork with a diameter of around twelve metres surrounded by a ditch. Known for generations as a magical place, the Courtil has long been considered the haunt of fairies. But these fairies are not the sweet little winged sprites of Disney cartoons, but nasty, wicked imps who were reputed to steal local babies from their cots. Not surprising then that I approached this place with some trepidation.

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The Courtil is not particularly easy to decipher, or indeed to photograph, at this time of year, its ditch and mound rather lost in the autumnal undergrowth, but its raised platform is hard to miss. As I entered its circle, the sky darkened and the wind suddenly lifted, sending a shower of acorns and chestnuts clattering to the ground around me. If I hadn’t known better, I might have suspected that someone (or something) didn’t want me to be there.

I had been promised a great vista of the valley below from the Courtil, but in fact the view was almost totally blocked by the dense wall of trees that surrounds it. In the end I didn’t hang around for long, taking a couple of photos before I headed off back towards Beaumont. As I walked away the sun reemerged and the wind faded. Back in the peaceful forest of Houssa, the Courtil des Fées far behind, I’m not ashamed to say that I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

The Chapel of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Church, Saint with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

On a recent cycling trip along the Nantes-Brest Canal in Brittany I came across a small village named Saint-Gobrien. Looking at it across the canal, I instinctively sensed that this interesting-looking little place was worth a small detour. I was drawn in particular to the ancient church that stands at its centre, its spire clearly visible above the small clutch of houses. As is often the way, my instinct did not let me down, because I soon discovered that this church, in particular its atmospheric interior, was unmistakeably magical.

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The name of the church, and indeed the whole village, comes from Saint Gobrien of Vannes, a local bishop and holy man who lived in the region and was reputed to perform miracles. After Saint Gobrien died in the early eighth century his body was laid to rest here, and the tomb quickly became a place of pilgramage. It is thanks to this that the village grew up around its increasingly grand church, drawing worshippers for miles around who came in search of miraculous cures for their ailments.

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Old chapels are ten-a-penny in Brittany, but I have never encountered one with such a unique charm as this. Although parts of the building date back to the eleventh century, most of what we see today was built in the five hundred years that followed.The large porch is notable for its beaten earth floor, a rare survival of a once common building technique.

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The church is also filled with wonderful sculptures, ranging from colourful life size figures of saints and monumental carved altars to tiny red angels hovering in the rafters. Even the ends of the rafters themselves are carved into elaborate dragons’ heads.

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Although the church is obviously well cared for, its cobwebby nooks and dusty corners only add to its wonderful aura of age and mystery. I was particularly intrigued by two strange carved faces, which project from the wall just above the elaborately carved gothic gate that decorates the arch between the porch and nave.

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Saint Gobrien’s tomb, an unusual carved wooden structure, still survives too, although the bejewelled treasures which once decorated it, including a reliquary and a chalice, are now locked away for safe keeping. Legend tells that if pilgrims left a handfull of metal nails on top of the tomb, by the time the nails had rusted their illness would be cured.

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A ‘pardon’ is held here once  a year, but other than that this is now a pretty quiet place. The flocks of pilgrims may have stopped coming, and the saint may be largely forgotten, but the church of Saint-Gobrien thankfully still retains its wondefully magical atmosphere.

After a thoroughly enjoyable visit to this special place, what else can I say but ‘Merci à Saint Gobrien’?

P1020428

The Standing Stones of Montneuf, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, History, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Readers of this blog will know that I am a regular visitor to Brittany, and that I enjoy nothing more than scouting out its many ancient sites – menhirs, dolmens, burial mounds, the place is littered with magical reminders of our ancient history. One of the best-known sites in the region is at Montneuf, where a recently restored set of standing stones attracts crowds of enthusiastic tourists every year. With its busy visitors’ centre, helpful information boards and regular educational events, this is a marvelous place, and is definitely well worth a visit…but magical it is not.

On my recent visit to Montneuf, however, I picked up a leaflet with a map of the surrounding area, and noticed that it featured a number of interesting-looking sites in the forests and moors that spread out around the stones. The weather was changeable, and I wasn’t wearing sensible walking shoes, but fired up with the notion of discovering some magic, I set off anyway, the map in my hand and a spring in my step.

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The first location on my list was a site known as La Loge Morinais. The path led me into the forest, and drizzle began to descend from the darkening sky. On I walked, turning here and there as the map dictated. Soon I realised that I must have walked too far, and turned back to try another path. On it lead, but still no sign of the Loge. I could feel my socks getting damp, and the rustle of the rain on the canopy of leaves above my head was becoming more insisted. It was clear that I was lost.

I turned back again, took a long hard look at the map and then another at the forest around me. There was only one path left, so I took it, feeling rather pessimistic that I would ever reach my goal. And then suddenly there it was – a wooden sign pointing down a narrow path towards a clearing in the trees. At last I was there. I had found La Loge Morinais.

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

Once a huge covered passage grave, La Loge Morinais is constructed from immense slabs of local purple schist. Its cap stones may have fallen long ago, but at thirteen metres long it is still an impressive ancient monument, well worth the long treck and those damp socks.

Next my walk took me out of the forest and on to the moors of Montneuf. Luckily the sky had begun to clear, and I could take the time to enjoy the incredible views across the wild lanscape as I continued my search. I was all alone, with noone to be seen for miles around, so I was able to enjoy of the rare peace and tranquility of this unique place. My next target, La Roche Blanche, or White Rock, was much easier to find, and its distinctive name gives a fairly good idea of what to look out for.

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

There is more to this monument than just the large block of white quartz that gives it its name, however. As this photo shows, the block is surrounded by a ring of smaller stones, making a rather unusual group which is probably the burial spot of a high-status individual. On the day that I visited it was also encircled by a mass of purple heather. As I carefully stepped across it, I noticed a low hum emanating from the ground below me. Looking down, I saw that the heather was alive with hordes of buzzing bees, hard at work collecting pollen from the bright blossom.

It was just a short walk to the last site on my list. Also standing on the moors of Montneuf, although rather hidden by bushes and scrub, La Pièce Couverte is another passage grave which has lost its covering mound, its mighty stones now exposed to the open air.

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

It may not be as imposing as La Loge Morinais, but La Pièce Couverte is notable for the ‘cup marks’ that decorate a number of its stones. Although quite hard to spot at first, once you see them these man-made hollows in the surface of the rock emerge all over the monument, an intriguing remnant filled with long-forgotten meaning.

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The final stretch of my walk took me across more open countryside, past a lake and through a pretty farmyard busy with clucking chickens. Soon I was back at the main stone circle of Montneuf, with its crowds of tourists, cropped lawns and carefully tended paths. The magic I had found up on the moors and deep in the forest was gone, but the memory of it will surely stay with me for a long time to come.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Fountain, Gardens, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Nestling in a quiet valley in the middle of rural Brittany can be found the romantic ruins of the chateau of Quinipily, an ancient fortress now reduced to just a few sturdy walls and terraces. Today the remains of the castle have been transformed into pretty gardens which are open to visitors throughout the year.

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

It’s not the flowers that attract visitors to this place, however, because it is far better known for its strange statue, a monumental figure of indefinite age now known as the Venus of Quinipily. The 2.2 metre tall Venus stands at the centre of the terraced garden, staring out at the surrounding landscape from her position atop a huge fountain.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Until the seventeenth century both the Venus and the huge stone trough that is now situated below her stood in the Breton village of Bieuzy-les-Eaux, on the site of an ancient Gaulish city. Also known by the villagers as Ar Groareg Houar (the Iron Lady) and Groah Hoart (The Old Guardian), the statue was worshipped by the locals, who believed it to have magical curative powers. Pregnant women would visit the Venus, and later bathe in the trough (which can apparently hold up to 3600 litres of water) after giving birth. It was also thought that the figure could help boost fertility, and it is said that some couple indulged in some rather naughty practises beneath the statue. Finally the bishop of nearby Vannes decided to bring an end to such pagan rituals, and in 1661 he had the Venus thrown into the river. Before long, the locals fished her out, and resumed their old religious rites.

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

In 1670 the statue was attacked and thrown once again into the watery depths. At this point local gentleman Pierre de Lannion stepped in to save the Venus, and shipped her off to his castle at Quinipily, where she has stood ever since. He faced opposition from the Duke of Rohan, who claimed ownership of the statue, but after a long legal battle Lannion won the case and was allowed to keep her.

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The true age and purpose of the Venus of Quinipily have stirred up debate for centuries. Some have suggested that she may be a representation of Isis first erected by Romans who had settled in the region. Another theory is that she is in fact a Gallic goddess, or perhaps Roman mother goddess Cybele. Some sceptics have proposed that this statue is not ancient at all, but a later copy made when the original statue was destroyed in the seventeenth century.

After such a checkered past, the Venus must relieved to have finally found a safe home in the beautiful gardens of Quinipily. Here she is surrounded by huge old trees which have grown up amongst the fragments of castle wall, and althought the spring which fed her fountain has now dried up, the former ponds and cascades are now a mass of foliage and flowers, a bit wild and overgrown, but wonderfully atmospheric. I said earlier that she attracts visitors to Quinipily, but on the day that I visited there was noone else around, and I was able to enjoy the magical ambience of this intriguing place in peace and quiet, a unique experience in an unforgettable place.

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily