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Les albums d'Astérix et Obélix
Photo by matteo_it / Shutterstock.com

Remember Asterix and his friend Obelix who always seemed to be carrying a huge lump of stone on his back? Well, the lumps of stone are officially called menhirs, from the Breton words ‘men’ (meaning stone) and ‘hir’ (meaning long). These feisty characters hailed from ancient Gaul, and specifically the northwest peninsula in what is now Brittany, where they held out from Roman invasion, a setting based on factual history although there is undoubtedly much imagination too in the Asterix stories!

Exploring Brittany you can see plenty of menhirs and also dolmens, which are stones laid horizontally instead of standing upright. They may appear on their own, or in groupings of stones, perhaps unassumingly set by the side of the road or found surprisingly deep in a forest. For a truly incredible sight head to Carnac on the south coast, where more than 3000 standing stones and arranged in rows across a four kilometre area, with the tallest stones at the western end and the shorter ones at the eastern end. Or visit the largest surviving menhir in the world at Locmariaquer, in southeast Brittany. Although now fractured into four pieces, intact it would have been nearly 20 metres high!

Although experts have made good guesses at the origins and purpose of menhirs and dolmens, from being religious sites or burial chambers, to territorial markers or even early calendars, their exact function is still essentially a mystery… but this is surely part of the attraction.

Having seen the ancient stones during your stay in Brittany, if you are driving via a northern port, why not take the kids to Parc Astérix near Paris on the way back and bring the world of the Gauls and their menhirs alive?