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Rennes, the Breton Surprise

A walk around Rennes, the capital of Brittany, takes you back to medieval times. A large number of houses with wooden framing are still preserved in the streets of the historic centre. Wood was a popular building material in this region until the mid-17th century, when it was replaced by stone after the large fire of 1720 that burnt down more than 900 houses in the city centre. However, these old wooden buildings can be seen in the streets running from Rue de Chapitre and Champ-Jacquet square, with a statue of John Leperdit, the mayor of Rennes during the French Revolution.

Rennes has some beautiful spots, one of my favourite being the Place des Lices, where terrace cafés are jam-packed with the arrival of the good weather. In summer, evenings in Brittany are endless and the sun doesn't go down until after 10 p.m. Some centuries ago, this place was the setting of medieval jousts. Nowadays, its market is the second most important in France, bringing together more than 300 local and regional producers.

Two of the symbols of Rennes' medieval past are the Duchesne tower and the Mordelles Gates –Portes Mordellaises– which were part of the city walls in the 15th century. The Neoclassical Cathedral of Saint-Pierre is close by, as is the Basilica of Saint-Sauveur, both landmarks of the city's religious architecture.

The fires of the early 18th century marked a turning point in Rennes' urban design. After that, constructions were built in stone, notably the city hall, by the royal architect – Jacques Gabriel – who designed it to be immortal.

Another must-see is the Palace of the Parliament of Brittany, with lavishly decorated rooms representative of 17th-century French pictorial art. This building is an emblem of the historical region of Brittany, which has a culture and a language of its own. Some street names in Rennes are in Breton, as well as in French, the former being the only surviving Celtic language outside the British Isles.

Contemporary art has a notable presence in Rennes. Examples of this are the Parmiggiani fountain, the Cap Mail building, by the prestigious Jean Nouvel, Quai Ouest by Christian Hauvette, and Champs Libres by Christian de Portzamparc. The Champs Libres premises are divided into three areas: the Musée de Bretagne – with a surface area of 2,000 square metres – a six-floor library, and an area devoted to science, with a planetarium. Rennes also has a great art gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts, an old university palace designed by Vincent Boullé, featuring works by Rubens, Veronese and Picasso, among others. In music, the city is well known for Les Transmusicales de Rennes, a festival that has been offering new and eclectic music for its last 32 editions.

Finally, Thabor Park, a very pleasant spot, is one of the most important green areas of the Breton capital. This 10-hectare French-style garden, which used to belong to the monks of Saint-Melaine– features a rose garden, an aviary, statues and greenhouses, amongst other attractions. Musical comedy and dance performances are held here on Sundays in the months of May and June; many people attend these entry-free events.

Rennes is a city with lots of charm and can be easily discovered in a single weekend! Check out our flights here.

Text by María Jesús Tomé

Images by María Jesús Tomé / Oficina de Turismo de Rennes