A Weekend in Brittany – Trip #1 of 2023

Day 1 – Paris to Rennes

What better to blow away the January blues than a Eurostar trip to Brittany? Well, I’m sure some of you could point to a nice tropical island or two. However, pastures new are pastures new. Despite many trips to France growing up there was a big gap until our trip to Lille back in March and as you can see from our map, lots of uncharted terrain in terms of bar going.

Brittany looked promising on the bar front, with its Celtic culture and vaguely secessionist vibes. Rennes itself is a university city which normally means busy nightlife, even in January.

Leg 1 of the journey involved a few hours layover in Paris where we visited Au Sauvignon for lunch, a typical Parisien café bar bistro. Extremely compact with an angular design personalised with Fin de siècle artwork and ephemera. The service was a Tasmanian devil whirlwind of half a dozen pirouetting waiting staff sashaying between the cramped seats. While foodie on our visit, there is all suggestion it slides into being a drinks focused evening wine bar, indeed a glance at the menu confirmed many of the dishes are little more than tapas bites. As a primer for the classic bistro experience however, it was a good start.

Rennes isn’t far on the TGV so we arrived and checked in reasonably quickly, heading out to the old town across the river, linked memorably by the shopping street Rue le Bastard. Grand civic and religious buildings transition into an ensemble of painted timberframe houses which culminates at Place Sainte Anne. On arrival a carousel was operating, the church lit up, and a series of cafés were serving customers outdoors despite the temperatures already plummeting to minus 1 degrees.

Our delve into Rennes’ nightlife began with a trip to L’atelier de l’artiste, a bar which manages to straddle the difficult balance between its artsier, bohemian intentions and the fact it is located in possibly the best place in the entire city to have a bar, so attracting all that comes with that prominence, positive and negative. While the bar doesn’t get rave write-ups online, we really liked it and returned later in the holiday. An outdoor fish tank, piano by the entrance, and the feel of a place enhanced by its own creations that has become more than the sum of its parts. 6 beers on tap took centre stage – none all that great – but were a hint of the emphasis on beer we would come to find in Brittany.

From the very well known to the obscure, our next stop was Cour des Miracles, a small, far more local feeling place with a younger crowd encompassing the alternative to the cosier end of bougie. Upstairs an eclectic but memorable arrangement of décor included cross stitch erotica in the toilets and local artwork that on arrival hadn’t yet been hung on the wall. After a while the place filled up, and we can say this is a good option for later night drinking or earlier musical hangouts. The small bar was staffed by some no-nonsense but friendly guys and drinks choices were very decent.

After dinner we ventured over the river into the very opposite of timber frame world, concrete blocks and arcades to the craft beer bar Amrok. This craft beer bar and bottleshop was an appropriate 1st spot to test Brittany’s approach to such a style of venue. On entry, a familiar industrial chic approach, but being in a retail unit in an arcade still felt down to earth and friendly, rather than the more angular city places you can find. Communal tables, a games machine and striking Amrok mural set the tone. Their beer selection cannily mixed local Brittanique craft with Belgian classics. It all went well.

It was time for a nightcap, so back to the centre of the action via Rue Saint-Michel. This street is the centre of the most raucous nightlife in Rennes. Happy hour pint offers, takeaways, booming music and absolutely sans f**ks given. We did try our best to find the likeliest decent bar among that row but they all appear different shades of the same thing. The right balance was struck though by Ty Anna Tavern. This Breton bar in a timber frame building manages to work in a shade of the energy of Rue Saint-Michel with its live music and drinking on the lean rather than sat down, but wasn’t anywhere near as tacky (admittedly, we did see a bowl of punch though) In fact, bonus points go to it for stocking Brittany products from the beers to spirits.

Day 2- St. Malo and more Rennes

Less than an hour by train up to the coast, it seemed inexcusable not to visit St. Malo. Not your average bucket and spade town, this former military town is ringed by a fortress wall, and its beach has a huge tidal range meaning at low tide you can walk across causeways to various forts and islands. The interior of the old town has a distinctive and intact ensemble of tall grey/brown buildings and side-streets you can briefly get lost in.

Day-tripping is nice in its own right, but for bar going during the day it can be tricky, with so many venues opening later on. L’Aviso was one such place which will have to wait until another year – we can probably recommend that without needing to personally visit. Over the years we’ve graduated towards spending a night rather than going to and from somewhere in a day, but it wasn’t possible this time.

St. Malo hosts possibly one of the oddest and most striking café bars in Europe, which we must tell you about. It’s official name, Le Café du Coin d’en Bas de la Rue du Bout de la Ville d’en Face du Port – La Java (Maison Samoy-Coulon-Goupil) can be shortened to La Java Café if it pleases you.

A veritable institution, this place exudes charm and character, a reminder of the great lengths and labours of love that make great bars. 3000+ dolls line the walls alongside jaunty carnival ephemera, added to by a mechanical accordion, chain swing seats and a confession box acting as the door to the toilets.

The man of the house, Jean-Jacques Samoy, is a notorious ‘character’ who will not stand for rude photographers or disrespect, but will be no trouble to any civil or polite customers. The wares have plenty of Breton flair too with local beers and twists to popular cold and hot drinks referencing the local agriculture and Celtic customs. While I was there I enjoyed a dark beer Telenn Du brewed with Blé, Brittany black wheat. This was from Lancelot Brewery and superb. A Gruit beer of theirs (brewed with herbs and spices, without hops) was less successful but nonetheless interest.

Truly above the norm, and a must visit when in Brittany. It will feature in our Top 100 for 2023.

On return to Rennes, I visited an attractive looking bar Cité d’Ys which was on the corner from our hotel. This had always looked busy and the clientele gave off a strong indication it would be a friendly and cool place to go. This was where we found our first Breton cask beer, Coreff Ambrée, served from the handpump. As luck would have it, it was also Happy Hour so a pint cost only 4.50 euros (which we can confirm is about as low as you’ll find for a half litre of beer in central Rennes). This was only 1 of several good quality Brittany beers, the emphasis not too subtly accentuated by a large regional flag hanging next to the menu. As for the place, it had a faux-mythology theme with fake ruins , a staircase leading to nowhere and Knights of the Round table insignia upstairs. That makes it sound awful. Trust me, it was really very understated and somehow rather effective, with its warm hues of gold, brown and reds.

The evening was spent in the north end of the centre at La Maison, Origines Micro-Brewery and The Black Bear respectively. The focus of all three was beer, and this meant a deeper dive into Breton brewing and local beer culture.

The former wasn’t a venue my sister enjoyed greatly, though I believe it will have some mileage for beer fans. Despite flash black and gold décor on promotional literature, the venue is quite ‘lived-in’ shall we say? It is definitely a mildly alternative beer monster, craft beer fan hangout with its casual backrooms. Without a stock of customers the atmosphere is somewhat lacking. The beer selection was possibly the widest in Rennes however with over 12 taps and a good proportion offering local wares. I didn’t strike gold with La Ouache, a tripel from La Dilettente but that was simply bad luck.

The next venue was far more interesting overall, a former Hotel Dieu which has been converted on a budget into a vaguely countercultural hangout with a large front yard for spring and summer terrace drinking, games and hangouts, live event space inside and a brewery. Origines’ beers have a Franco-Belgian emphasis but not entirely, and it was enjoyable as well as reasonably priced. The overall space again feels like it comes alive in warmer months, but the central taproom still had a good atmosphere and entirely local crowd.

The last spot, The Black Bear was a friendly spot where the staff and customers were happy engaging us in conversation. The venue itself has some nice aspects such as a bowing timber ceiling and cargo netting, but the furniture and cabinets facing the bar weren’t comfortable or really producing much in the way of overall atmosphere. The beer options were again strong and the evening reinforced what a standout area this in in France for beer above wine and aperitives.

Day 3- Vitré & Cesson-Sévigné in Rennes’ suburbs

Vitré, one of those formerly important medieval towns that suddenly went to sleep, ‘found’ centuries later to be an open air museum. Its impressive chateau and churches speak to its former power and are well worth the 30 minutes train ride there and back from Rennes which goes reasonably regularly. Wandering the cobbled streets past timber-framed houses, finding little nooks and alleyways and pleasing vantage points is the whole point of a visit here. There isn’t anything notable in terms of its bar offerings though. Let’s admire, and move on…

After lunch and a ride back to Rennes we headed out to a peculiar trio of venues, each industrial units in the suburb of Cesson-Sévigné. Brasserie Skumenn, Rennes’ foremost craft beer brewery was unfortunately not open that day, however the other two, Cave à Flo, and Chope et Compagnie were.

Cave à Flo is reachable on the 67 bus which sets off in the centre of Rennes by the river. A simple 15-20 minute journey, the nearest stop is only 3 or 4 minutes walk away. You are dumped in a row of large out of town retail units in something approaching liminal space. The warehouse has exterior signage but it is all unprepossessing. This was worrying, however I reassured myself the images that had drawn me here would be realised on entry. This was, satisfyingly, correct.

This bar has turned a huge, difficult to harness space into a distinctive, personalised venue. Not unlike some US roadside taprooms in layout, but with a dollop of European flavour. Brewing signage and flags decorate the walls and ceiling and large communal tables are set out in rows, drawing you to a taproom at the far end of the room. Rows of beer bottles line the wall with a modest selection of wines and spirits. It is a takeaway bottle shop as well as a bar and pub. Service was friendly and they also had cask beer, Coreff Ambrée again available via handpump. This one was better overall, in excellent shape and really producing a lingering head. Were they to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees, it would have been even better.

Despite the odd location we found a core of regulars, possibly friends of the staff as well as a pizza hatch (which, from the aroma, was clearly in use) which showed this is a known about venue. Reviews on line stretch back years and are overwhelmingly positive. As well as the main room a large terrace and games area shows this is a place that will get seriously busy in summer.

The next stop, Chope et Compagnie was a modern, craft-leaning version of the same thing, with much more generic decor and wider exposure of its warehouse space. They appear to be a chain. It wasn’t all from a template, with some arcade machines and a hang glider fixed to the ceiling catching the eye, and a decent range of beers from the tap. While it wouldn’t be somewhere we’d singularly rush off to, it is only around the corner from Cave a Flo, so it makes sense to visit both.

Later on, being our final night in Rennes we returned to L’atelier de l’artiste and Cite d’Yes, those being the most enjoyable, and attempted to return to Ty Anna Tavern for Breton shots to finish off. Damn! It had closed for a staff party at 7.30. We made do with a final stop at Penny Lane. Despite the name, there was mercifully few signs of tacky ex-pat themes on show. This was set in the vaults under the opera house. Tasteful lighting brought out the brickwork, and a balance of cocktails, beer and whiskies showed that drinks were its strong suit. The venue is a little more ‘see and be seen’ but not so much as to be off-putting. Service was prompt and friendly, and despite being almost sniffy by default about such places, it was genuinely difficult to find much to fault it.

Day 4 – Paris then Home

The trip was marred by both my sister and I having our debit cards munched by two separate ATMs on different days. This left us with only a small handful of cash left on the final for Paris which had to be used judiciously – ie – not as much boozing. With a few hours to kill, I was shown some of the central sights before we headed to a couple of bars, L’imprevu and L’Art Brut.

The former was a colourful friendly spot but unfortunately rather cold, not allowing us to really feel comfortable while there. It is also extremely expensive with the happy hour deals only bringing prices down to barely scraping acceptable.

L’Art Brut was much more like what we had hoped to find. A slight steampunk feel to the exterior, with the interior managing to blend old wood with a sort of rusting patina to good effect alongside macabre/sinister artwork distorting human bodies.

A tiny bar, it was easy to imagine how thronged this must get in an area not exactly studded with such places. It offered a surprisingly decent beer range considering it could easily survive without one, and I had the first ever Belgian Tripel from a pint glass. It soothed the anxiety over whether we’d get home safe with a few euros left in our wallets – glad to report we did, aside some of the usual delays at Kings Cross.

Kings Cross generally gets people recommending The Scottish Stores. While not a bad bar – particularly for its literary history, we’d recommend a 2 minute walk up the road to King Charles I, which is like an Amsterdam brown café has landed in London. At the minute it is still popular for those in the know, perhaps it ought to stay that way. From Kings Cross you can get there in 5 minutes and back, making it super convenient as a time killer, with plenty of real ales available.

Final reflections….

If you can find cheap tickets from the Eurostar, then this is a doable weekend break even as far away as Leeds without needing to fly. Of course, should you decide to fly there are nearby airports to Rennes such as Dinard which will work as a connection. Rennes itself is, without any embellishment nor intent to insult, a middling French city with middling sights. The timber frame architecture is a highlight and will stand out, particularly for the uninitiated, and the central monuments are diverting. Rennes nightlife is pretty buzzing with a clearly marked studenty area, some alternative venues dotted around (several of which we didn’t get to) and a strong beer culture with most places offering not only a good selection of beer but some local beers too (including on cask, which is incredible), which speaks very positively to its lack of any overarching corporate/globalised feel. Many reading will get a lot out of that. Rennes is also nearby many towns of interest such as St. Malo and Vitré above, but also Dinan, Dinard and a host of towns and cities further West in Brittany. The regional influence is about as strong as Cornish, including some attempts at bilingualism on signage. This further creates a distinctive and memorable trip.

Please let us know what you think!