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The departments of Brittany, part 1: Côtes d’Armor & Ille et Vilaine

The northern coast of Brittany, bordering the Channel.


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Côtes d’Armor

Initially called Côtes du Nord (Northern Coast) in 1790, this department was renamed Les Côtes d’Armor (Armor Coast) on 8 March 1990. It covers about a quarter of Brittany and has 70,000 hectares of forest, 350km of coastline and many rivers. Its population of about 550,000 people is distributed over 372 ‘communes’, of which the biggest towns are: Saint Brieuc, Guingamp, Dinan, Lannion, Loudéac, Lamballe. The region has an active economy, in areas such as agriculture, fishing, food processing, tourism, electronics and telecommunications. There are charming fishing ports along the coast such as those at Erquy, Binic, Saint Quaix Portrieux, Loguivy de la Mer, Saint Cast le Guildo, Paimpol, Perros-Guirec…

There is a close rapport between the sea and the countryside here, with plenty of lovely walks, sporting opportunities and cultural trips to enjoy, and each area within the department offers a distinct landscape and identity. And don’t forget the islands: the seven islands off the Pink Granite Coast, which are a wild sanctuary for sea birds; and of course the Bréhat archipelago, fondly known as ‘the island of flowers’, a truly beautiful place.

The Côtes d’Armor department encompasses these areas of coastline: la Côte d’Emeraude (Emerald Coast), la Côte de Penthièvre, Saint Brieuc Bay, la Côte de Goëlo, la Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast); also several woodland areas, known as ‘argoat’ in Breton, where Brittany’s rivers spring up: Trégor, Guerlédan, Central Brittany, and the Dinan area.

The Côtes d’Armor department has a rich and especially varied natural heritage to offer, with numerous sites of interest designated by the departmental authority. For example: the Quellen marshlands, the wooded valleys of Traouïro, and the wide shingle beaches of Plestin and St Efflam. Also waiting to be explored is the magnificent natural site of Cap Fréhel, a sandstone headland which stands proudly 70 metres above the sea, whilst nearby the little seaside resort of Sable d’Or les Pins exudes a yesteryear charm. A remarkably diverse flora is evident all along the coast, which is also a haven for a multitude of birds.

Ille et Vilaine

There is, of course, Rennes, the capital of Brittany and the region’s frontier with the rest of France. But there is also Saint Malo, a picturesque city with a corsair history, set into the waters of the Channel. And, not far up the coast from there you will find Cancale with its famous oysters. At the other end of the department lies a land of legend, the Brocéliande Forest, home of the sorcerer Merlin in the story of King Arthur.

Marking the border with Normandy, there is the Mont St Michel and the bay which must be crossed to reach it at low tide. And we mustn’t forget Dinard, redolent of an English resort with its Belle Epoque style villas and its legendary Casino. The town sits at the mouth of the Rance, a poetic river if ever there was one, flowing out into the Channel under the watchful eye of the Solidor Tower at Saint-Servan, which was built in 1382 by Jean IV Duke of Brittany. Also here, of course, is the hydroelectric tidal barrage on the Rance.

The countryside of the Ille et Vilaine department is predominantly wooded, and three large rivers flow through it. Agriculture is well developed here, around Rennes, the region’s main administrative city. Always an important city politically, but its notable historic event was the creation of the ‘Parlement de Bretagne’ (court of justice) in 1554.

Close to Rennes, the towns of Vitré and Fougères were founded in the middle ages, and are closely linked to the legend of King Arthur. Well known in Western Christendom, King Arthur was included in the 12th century writings of an Oxford canon entitled ‘History of the Kings of France’.

Saint Malo definitely has to be on the must-visit list. It was France’s first republic, a corsair city, its high walls encircling cobbled streets lined with majestic granite townhouses. These were once owned by wealthy ship-owners who had made their fortune from privateering, but had also protected the town from the English, who tried but were never able to capture it. It was, however, partly destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War, but was subsequently rebuilt exactly as before.

Some celebrated natives of St Malo include the famous privateer Surcouf; the explorer Jacques Cartier who discovered Canada in 1534; Duguay-Trouin, another privateer turned naval commander; and last but not least, the romanticist writer Chateaubriand…

Welcome to northern Brittany, a land of legend, character and authenticity.