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Brittany's Bewitching Heritage of Sea and Stone

November 04, 1990|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

CARNAC, France — Brittany, with its ragged and rocky coastline on the Atlantic and English Channel, has always been a land of seafarers, who claim to have a virus de la mer , which produces une jolie malade (a joyful sickness) that keeps them afloat from home ports to as far as the cod banks of Newfoundland.

Carnac is the center of this area that once was inhabited by a prehistoric civilization flourishing between 5,000 and 2,000 years before Christ, about the time of the Minoans on Crete.

Entering the town from the north, one is almost shocked by the great fields of menhirs, megaliths smaller than those of England's famed Stonehenge but far greater in number, more than 3,000 in all. They, like those of Stonehenge, are aligned in such a way as to indicate sun worship.

Carnac is a lovely little village that seems to hug its main square with 17th-Century church rising from the center. One main street leads off to Carnac-Plage and the port--the former a lively beach resort, the latter where many of the town's oyster farmers tend their beds and serve the luscious Breton bivalves (mollusks) straight from the shell.

Getting here: Air France flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Paris. American, Delta, Pan Am, TWA, Continental and numerous foreign carriers get there with changes. A round-trip Paris ticket costs from $890 and $940, based on advance purchase, month and day of week flown. Air Inter will take you from Paris to Lorient (28 miles from Carnac) in about an hour. The Paris-Lorient leg costs $145 one way.

How long/how much? Give Carnac two days if you'd like to visit the numerous fields of menhirs and dolmens (burial chambers) within a few miles of the town. The beach is as good as those on the Cote d'Azur and not nearly so crowded. We found accommodation prices moderate, but dining costs can be very steep in France, though usually worth every centime.

A few fast facts: The franc recently sold for 5.25 to the dollar, about 19 cents each. June through September is the best time for a visit.

Getting settled in: Hotel Celtique (17 Ave. de Kermario, $51 double) is a vine-draped historic old house set in a garden about 50 yards from the beach. There's a charming little bar-lounge adjoining the pretty restaurant inside, with more tables on a terrace in the garden. Bedrooms are small and simply decorated with a few good pieces of fine old furniture. Dining room menus run from $24 to $32, both four-course affairs that include local oysters.

Hotel-Restaurant Lann-Roz (36 Ave. de la Poste, $52-$61 double) is another older place, this one surrounded with the owner's enchanting flower garden. Some of the bright and sunny bedrooms have balconies where you can have breakfast. Or take it on the flowery veranda. The restaurant is considered the town's finest.

Le Diana (21 Blvd. de la Plave, $166-$181 double) is a brand-new ultra-modern sparkler on the beach, complete with a pool, tennis court, workout room, Jacuzzi, mini-golf and free bicycles for its guests. Some bedrooms have seaside balconies, and there's a pretty dining room with the same view.

Regional food and drink: Seafood takes top honors: local oysters, turbot, sole, fresh salmon and bar (sea bass), which not too long ago was considered, like our catfish, a throwaway. Now it is frequently a highlight of the menu.

Just about every restaurant and dining room offers a fish soup made with two or three kinds of Breton fish, usually thick and delicious.

Brittany is noted for its cider, which is a bit spritzy. And the muscadets of the Loire are marvelous with seafood.

Good local dining: L'Ecailler (at Quais Trinite sur Mer) is named for the person who opens oysters, and most locals agree it's the best place for fresh seafood in the area.

Decor is decidedly nautical, with white furniture, blue table linens and lots of wildflowers about. The $21 menu brings six oysters, a brochette of lotte (angler fish) or fresh salmon, plus dessert or cheese board. L'Ecailler is on a marina much favored by international yachtsmen.

Les Marronniers (4 Place de l'Eglise) is one of several Carnac creperies where guests can get white-flour crepes with a sweet filling, or the wheat-flour galettes topped with a ham, cheese or ratatouille savory. Either the crepes or galettes go for about $2.75, and they can be washed down with Breton cider.

Restaurant Lann-Roz is one of the most inviting we've seen of late in both decor and menu. It has a huge fireplace, antique furnishings, great arrangements of flowers and birds singing from cages inside and on the veranda.

A five-course menu starts at $21, moving up to another for $34 and on to the six-course extravaganza at $46. Half a dozen local oysters got us going in style, and the turbot with a creamed shrimp sauce was spectacular. The dessert list starts with a mousse of three chocolates and then gets richer.

On your own: Start your investigation of the megalith fields with a visit to the Menec Lines: 1,099 menhirs in 11 lines, the tallest stones being 12 feet high. Almost as awe-inspiring are the Kerlescan Lines of 540 menhirs and dolmens.

The Miln-Le Rouzic Museum of Prehistory (town center) is a fascinating collection of tools fashioned by Neanderthals 450,000 years before Christ, plus a reconstructed tomb with skeletons from 4600 BC. You'll spend twice the time here that you've allotted.

Now drive to the port and stop at a shed for six fresh oysters, bread and butter for $1.50, a glass of wine for $2. That should put you in a relaxed mood as you stroll along the broad, white-sand beach nearby.

For more information: Contact the French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212, (900) 420-2003 (50 cents per minute) for a brochure on Brittany, including Carnac, and another on hotels of the region, plus a map of northwest France giving points of interest.

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