Quimper, France

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Quimper cathedral

Quimper, France

The cultural heart of Brittany, the charming small city of Quimper is a gateway into France’s most distinct region.

Believed to be inhabited since the neolithic, Brittany is home to some of the world’s most ancient structures, with mysterious monuments dating back to the 5th millennium BCE. In (relatively) more recent times, Brittany was invaded by Celts in the 5th century BC, and then conquered by Julius Caesar in 56 BC. Following the fall of the Romans, the region saw a further influx of Celts – driven from Britain by Anglo-Saxon invasions, establishing the region’s unique Celtic – rather than Frank (French) – identity.

Quimper

In the 9th century, Brittany’s national hero Nominoë rebelled against French rule. Brittany remained an independent Duchy until merging with the Kingdom of France in 1532, following a series of strategic royal weddings. Though now a part of France, Brittany remained culturally distinct, with the local language, the Celtic Breton, spoken by the majority of the population until the 19th century. Under the Third Republic, French was forced upon the population of Brittany. Children were not allowed to speak Breton, and were punished if they did. Signs in schools read: ‘It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor.’

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the distinct language and culture of Brittany saw a revival thanks to the Celtic Revival, which saw Breton nationalists develop ties with similar movements in Ireland and Scotland. In the late 20th century, Brittany was recognised as one of the ‘six Celtic nations’, while Breton saw a revival thanks to the opening of bilingual schools. Today, over 200, 000 speak Breton, and the majority of young people identify more strongly with Brittany than with France.

Originally settled during Roman times, Quimper (from the Breton Kemper) is closely associated with the legendary 5th century King Gradlon, who came from Cornwall in Britain. Quimper was the capital of the countship of Cornouaille, which was united with the Duchy of Brittany in the 11th century, before passing, with the rest of the Duchy, to the Kingdom of France.

Quimper’s most impressive building is the magnificent Cathedral Saint Corentin, which is believed to one of the finest examples of Gothic religious architecture in Brittany. Construction began in the 12th century, while the spires were only completed in 1856. Make sure to have a stroll around the quaint historic centre, with streets and squares lined with quaint half-timbered houses painted in a variety of colours. Head to the Place au Beurre, a pretty square surrounded by restaurants and cafes to enjoy a break in one of Quimper’s most beautiful locations. On the outskirts of the city is the Chateau de Lanniron, the former summer palace of the Bishops of Quimper, an elegant residence surrounded by magnificent gardens.

In the 17th century, Quimper boomed thanks to its faïence pottery industry. The first factory in Quimper was founded in 1690 by Jean-Baptiste Bosquet, and was expanded in 1743 and 1809. Quimper now has a museum devoted to its pottery heritage, while the original factory is still open for you to pick up a souvenir.

Today, Quimper remains shaped by Breton culture. The streets are lined with crêperies, selling Brittany’s favourite snack. Make sure to sample savoury crepes, usually made with buckwheat, and sweet ones, made with plain wheat flour. Quimper is also home to the Musée Départmental Breton, which displays archaeological finds from around the area, and has an extensive collection of Breton costumes and furniture.

Breton costume
Woman wears traditional Breton costume.

For an authentic experience of Brittany at its most distinct, head to Quimper in summer for the most famous festival of Breton culture, the Festival de Cornouaille. For five days each year, the city comes alive to the sounds of traditional Celtic music and dance. Locals dress up in traditional Breton costume for the Great Sunday Parade, while visitors enjoy a warm welcome to France’s most fiercely independent region.

Five and a half hours drive and four hours by train from Paris, Quimper is an ideal launching point to explore the history and scenery of Brittany’s rugged Atlantic Sea coast.

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