Rennes is the capital of Brittany, the gateway to the quaint villages and rugged shore lines of the vast region. We took an overnight trip there earlier this month and discovered its charm and beauty.
We took the 8:52 a.m. TGV train from the Montparnasse station Paris and arrived at Rennes station at 10:25 a.m.
Since it was such a crisp, sunny day, we decided to head straight away to Parc Thabor, the former garden of Saint-Melaine, an ancient Benedictine abbey. Set on 75 sprawling acres in the center of the old part of the city, Parc Thabor has a myriad of gardens, including a formal French garden, an English-style garden, rose garden and a botanic garden. As we strolled through we noticed lots of other attractions, including a bird aviary, a concert bandstand, a carousel, a jogging path, a vegetable garden and statuary. We couldn’t resist pulling up a chair and relaxing for a few moments to enjoy the spray and sound of a refreshing fountain.
For lunch, we were fortunate to stumble upon Le Petit Ourse, an adorable bistro.
A true mom-and-pop operation, Germain, a former chef from a well-known Paris restaurant, mans the kitchen, while his wife, Charlotte, runs the front of the house with a gracious and upbeat demeanor. Upon ordering, Charlotte described each dish on the blackboard menu with unbridled enthusiasm, leaving no ingredient unmentioned. Caught up in Charlotte’s passion, we had a hard time deciding what to choose, with each dish sounding like a culinary can’t-miss. A delicious and unusual soup had pureed radish leaves with a savory biscuit topped with bits of smoked haddock and crab floating on top. Our main course was vegetarian lasagna with eggplant and ripe tomatoes, bathed in a light broth, and followed by a dessert of rhubarb, apple and fresh flavored cream. The bill for all three courses was an incredible 17.5€.
Satisfied with our excellent lunch, we strolled to the nearby Les Champs Libres, a contemporary cultural complex. Constructed in 2006, Les Champs Libres hosts the Rennes library, a science museum and planetarium, and the Brittany Museum. An exhibition about the Dreyfus Affair at the museum educated us about the scandalous trial of the century (1895-1906) regarding Alfred Dreyfus, a French and Jewish military captain wrongly convicted of treason. The sensational trial divided France politically at the time and incited a wave of anti-Semitism.
Not too far away is the old quarter of Rennes, specifically rue Hoche and the surrounding area. It's filled with narrow lanes, half-timbered houses from the 13th century, lively cafes and bars and cute, unique boutiques.
The Parlement of Brittany is an impressive, Baroque-style gem, built in 1804 and steeped in history. It’s the last surviving building of the Parlement of Brittany, now a court of appeals, and it was burnt to the ground during a fisherman’s strike in 1994. After five years of intense restoration it reopened in 1999.
Late in the day we checked into Le Saint Antoine Hotel and Spa. Conveniently located close to the train station and most of the sites we visited, Le Saint Antoine was a great choice. The lobby staff were attentive and accommodating, and they spoke English fluently. We indulged in a wine tasting sponsored by the hotel every evening from 6-8 p.m., and we enjoyed some unusual regional wines, with some we didn’t recognize. Our Deluxe room was spacious and decorated in a contemporary style in soothing colors of white, beige and pale yellow. It had a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the city. We were pleased that the bed had a plug console next to it, so we could plug in our phones and computers.
Deciding we were hungry for some local seafood, we dined at Le Galopin, an authentic French brasserie. The chic interior had red banquettes and mid-century style chairs, mosaic tiled floors and mahogany framed windows.
We feasted on house made foie gras, followed by a raw seafood platter piled up to the ceiling with Cancale oysters from Brittany, lobster and crab. We just had enough for the classic floating island dessert.
The night culminated at Hibo, a local’s bar where only French was spoken. Known for its wide selection of beers, we had a dark, hearty one. It was a Friday night and we lucked out because there was an excellent jazz trio playing. The young hipster crowd was open and friendly, grooving to the jazz.
One of the reasons we visited Rennes was for its legendary food market, Marche des Lices, which is only open on Saturday morning. Billed as the second-largest food market in France, the indoor and outdoor market went on for blocks, and it was filled with every imaginable food product: Stalls with cheese, bread and pastries, sausages, home-made jellies, jams, honeys, seafood so fresh it was only on ice, roasted chickens, prepared foods, fruits and vegetables and wine. The oyster stalls shucked the oysters for us to eat on the spot and served white wine to go with them.
We skipped lunch and stocked up on some goodies from the market to eat on the train going home.
Le Petit Ourse
48 Boulevard de la Liberté, 35000
*Reservations a must
Le Saint Antoine Hotel and Spa
27 Avenue Jean Janvier, 35000
Le Galopin Brasserie
21 Avenue Jean Janvier, 35000
10 Rue Dupont des Loges, 35000
Marche des Lices
3 Place du Bas des Lices, 35000
* only open Saturday 8:30AM-1:30PM