Do you remember when a city used to feel unique? One of the great selling points of Vannes, in Morbihan, is that it still offers quirky boutiques and curious shops that you won’t find anywhere else.
Vannes is one of my favourite French cities, offering Brittany in a nutshell. It has a coastal location, a harbour, an abundance of historic buildings, some very impressive ramparts and a whole host of unusual, one-off spots to explore. Why would you go to an identikit town or a shopping mall full of big chains when you can actually feel that you have travelled and discovered somewhere new?
Firstly, this is an easy city to visit by train, as the station is an easy walk to the town, with plenty to explore along the way. For example, if you follow the side streets towards the centre via the district of Saint-Patern, you’ll pass La Yamouna bookshop, whose bright yellow frontage is hard to miss, not least because of the baskets of paperbacks outside. A quick peep through the doorway reveals rooms filled with towers of books of every description: they fill the shelves, they are piled on tables and they spill onto the floor, leaving only a narrow walkway to the rear of the shop. It’s a heaven for rummaging and a nightmare for claustrophobia, but there’s everything from ancient leather-bound French tomes to modern English paperbacks. Another bonus is that the owner, Stéphane Roussel, lived near Wolverhampton for a while so he can even answer book-related queries in English.
On the same street (rue de la Fontaine) you’ll also find L’Art est La Matière whose window displays suggest a gallery, but it’s a sale and exhibition space for local artists and craftspeople. Here, you’ll find everything from large-scale metalwork sculptures to delicate handmade jewellery, sold directly by the people who created them.
There’s a similar cooperative of artists closer to the centre, on Place Gambetta by the harbour, called Les Pipelettes, which is another artists’ cooperative. The gallery-boutique is bursting with creations from intricate paper découpage artwork to ceramic homeware and handmade fabric bags. The artists pay for a space to display their work and take turns staffing the shop and welcoming customers. Not only do these collaborative spaces mean that you get a real flavour of local creativity, they give you the chance to meet and chat with the artists and understand the passion for their work. This type of experience is far more personal and memorable than simply buying a print from an international furniture company, and the cooperative approach means prices are genuinely affordable.
While you’re by the fabulous harbour, you can linger in the crescent of restaurants or you can pop to one of the smaller establishments on one of Vannes’ many side streets. Near the market halls on rue Porte Poterne, you’ll find Derrière, a café-bar and restaurant that also has a few outdoor seats that are perfect for people-watching. Taken over by a new team this year, the menu at Derrière is modest but fresh and the atmosphere is quirky and welcoming.
Now, talking of quirky, Nouveau Genre Vintage on rue Decker is a delight of colour and retro fashion, with rails of vintage clothes and accessories, everything from a lime-green jumpsuit to a 1960s evening gown. Within the same boutique is an eco-friendly hairdressing salon, also furnished with pre-loved items from earlier decades.
And if you are a magpie for bright colours, you’ll love Bibop et Lula in rue Saint Solomon, an eye-catching boutique offering homewares, clothing and accessories in modern floral prints, jewel tones and Indian-inspired motifs. You pop in for a reversible floral sunhat and somehow emerge with an armful of goodies…
There’s one more stop if you enjoy a treasure-trove: on Avenue Saint Symphorien (towards the train station), the understated shop-front of L’échoppe St Vincent de Paul opens onto a room filled with second-hand clothes, blankets and more, while its sister shop next door is a brocante and bric-à-brac. Both are run by volunteers and proceeds go to charity, so you can buy with benevolence and a clear conscience!
To make a weekend of it, if you’re coming by train there are a couple of great options right opposite the station that are independently run. For affordable luxury, the four-star Villa Kerasy starts at €135 a night or for around €300 enjoy a room for two, massages and breakfast in the private courtyard garden, all with wonderfully attentive staff. Nearby, family-run Hôtel Anne de Bretagne starts at an incredible €66 including what has to be one of the best breakfasts in Brittany featuring homemade yoghurts and granola, fresh pastries, fruit salads, loose-leaf tea and local cheeses. Both hotels also offer packages with Le Bistrot de la Gare, a brasserie and bar whose set menu is brilliant value (€21 for three courses) and whose friendly staff make you feel personally welcomed.
You get the picture: Vannes offers plenty of unique experiences. Stay in a hotel where the staff are personally invested and greet you as an individual; savour your dinner in a bistro that makes you feel valued and visit quirky boutiques and art cooperatives to buy something special that you genuinely won’t find anywhere else. It’s the kind of travelling that memories are made of.
Lead photo credit : Vannes' pretty timbered buildings © Annaliza Davis
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