Carolyn Reynier explores the many delights in and around rock star La Roche-Bernard in Morbihan…
Degemer mat e Breizh– welcome to Brittany! The 376m-long deck arch Morbihan Bridge, spanning the River Vilaine between Nivillac and Marzan, and bearing the four-lane Route Nationale 165/E60, is the gateway to southern Brittany.
To the south, overlooking the river, sits the Petite Cité de Caractère of La Roche- Bernard (population 700). To the northwest is the prefecture Vannes and the Gulf of Morbihan, Carnac and its standing stones, the Quiberon Peninsula and boats to the isles. To the south lies the Brière natural regional park, the elegant seaside resort of La Baule, and the Loire-Atlantique prefecture Nantes.
La Roche-Bernard with its ancient lanes, home to potters and artisans, dates back to medieval times although there are traces of prehistoric occupation in the immediate surroundings. Its inland port is protected from Atlantic winds and has no tides; you can learn more about its important naval history in the Musée de la Vilaine maritime (the river, which rises in the Mayenne, flows into the sea and is thus called a fleuve. rather than a rivière). The marina offers various nautical activities-rowing, kayaking, and paddleboarding-and Vilaine en Fête is a week-long August celebration of bucolic river navigation. If you prefer solid ground underfoot, you can enjoy riverside and country walks or take in panoramic views from the arched footbridge beneath the Morbihan Bridge.
If this sounds like the place for you, let’s see what you can buy here and in the surrounding countryside. “La Roche- Bernard is a little town that has existed since the Viking age,” says Christine Guégan at Agence Bretagne Sud. “There’s lots of history.”
A visiting Viking chief sailed up the Vilaine and, convinced of the rocky outcrop’s strategic position, built a keep there. In the 10th century, Bernard, seigneur de la Roche, fortified the site in order to control passage on the river, and gave the place its name.
The little bourg-the word means market town, large village or, as in this case, village centre-sits at the entry to the estuary surrounded by larger communes with populations of 2,000-5,000, says Christine.
Nivillac, Marzan, Arzaland Férel are on the doorstep. And, with the Loire-Atlantique department just 200m away, so is Herbignac. This commune lies north of the Guérande peninsula and was an important Gallo-Roman pottery centre. Today’s potters will be interested to know that the 22nd edition of the Marché de Potiers will be held here in May at the Château de Ranrouët. If you miss the marché, the château is still worth a visit and you can explore the area, which borders the Brière marshes, along footpaths or by bicycle.
In La Roche-Bernard most of the terraced stone houses have back gardens and many have been renovated; sometimes stonework has been rendered. Expect to pay €350,000 €400,000 for a renovated property.
You can spend more if you want: a five-bedroom central property (a former pharmacy) with garden is on the market for €990,000 (ouestfrance- immo.com).
“La Roche-Bernard is tiny so there are very few houses available for renovation unless someone dies and the children want to sell the property,” explains Christine.
You’ll find modern housing estates in the surrounding communes and old stone properties in hamlets. One interesting possibility on the market is 10 minutes from the beach and five from the RN165. This three-bedroom stone longère in the Arzal countryside is currently divided into two separate dwellings but could make a fine family home, with attics for conversion, garage and grounds for €252 000 (Nestenn Immobilier Muzillac).
If you’re looking for a renovation project, just three kilometres from La Roche- Bernard, in Marzan on the right bank of the Vilaine, a three-bedroom 1950s house on three levels is on the market for €162,750 (Agence de l’Océan). When you need a rest from the restoration, you can discover the rich built heritage of the Marzanais countryside on foot. by bike or an horseback.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Searching for an old farmstead, a corps de ferme? Have a look at the communes of Marzan, Nivillac and St-Dolay. “Nivillac is a large, spread-out commune with farmsteads scattered about the surrounding countryside,” says Christine. You might find the renovation project of your dreams there.
La Roche-Bernard’s proximity to the Brest-Nantes RN165 allows folk living here of in surrounding communes to easily commute to work in Vannes, St-Nazaire or Nantes.
The main road makes the sector very accessible yet we have the pleasure of living in very agreeable communes, Christine continues. “The Vilaine runs nearby, the coast is 20 minutes away.” You have a choice of sandy beaches or creeks around Damgan, Ambon and Billiers.
Long-term lets are popular thanks to the easy commutes. Although there is some seasonal letting, La Roche- Bernard is really too small for that market. You need to head downriver to Arzal, for example, or Pénestin on the coast. But there is a downside.
Lively La Roche-Bernard with its homeowners and long-term renters operates year-round. There is no real “season”, nothing closes, says Christine. From April to September/October, depending on the weather, there are always lots of people. Over the winter months there are just the local residents “but it’s still animated”, whereas Penestin “is a dead town because there are only closed-up houses”.
There’s good walking in the area including the GR39, the Grande Randonnée hiking trail, which runs 323km from the Mont-St-Michel in Manche to Hoscas, which is southeast of Herbignac in the Parc naturel régional de Brière.
TAKE TO THE WATER
You can explore the Vilaine on one of the Vedettes Jaunes launches based at the Barrage d’Arzal (vedette means star as in film star, but also small launch or motorboat). Thirty kilometres upstream from the river’s mouth is the sheltered little port of Folleux. There’s fishing here, kayaking and paddleboarding, the GR39 and woodland paths for walkers, VTT (vélo tout-terrain) trails for mountain bikers, and a weekly riverside market in summer.
Carol Sealy and her New Zealand husband Chris live in a large house in the old quarter of La Roche-Bernard, opposite the mairie. They’ve had a holiday cottage here since 1984 and decided to move permanently in 1997 when they retired. They then did up a 13th- century manoir at Josselin, ran chambres d’hôte and gites for 12 years, decided “it was retirement time again” and have been back in La Roche- Bernard since 2012.
A NEW PROJECT
They bought the house from British people who had decided to move to Spain, and spent a year working on it. “This whole area is protected by the Batiments de France because it’s all in the old quarter so we did a lot of rebuilding, just internally.”
It’s a pretty little town, very small, the old quarter has beautiful 15th-/16th-century parts around the little château, it’s on the River Vilaine, not far from the coast, she continues.
Tiny it may be, but active La Roche-Bemard has over 50 associations so there’s no time for thumb-twiddling, Carol took out French nationality in 2015 and along with an English friend started up the Club Français Anglais. “It’s good fun. We meet once a month and just chat and have something to drink and eat, usually with a theme for the evening. We play boules in the summer, and just do lots of different things.”
She is also president of the Aviron Traditionnel de Vilaine Maritime association, which rebuilds Scottish-style wooden St-Ayles skiffs, “We’ve got two boats now and we row up and down the river.”
What attracted the couple to southern Morbihan? “The coast is very pretty, and the weather is much better than in northern. Brittany, it’s quite protected so we don’t get too much of the Finistère gales,” she tells me. “There’s a new motorway bridge now,” she continues, “but as you come over the original bridge, you look down and see this little town nestling below, there’s a great rock overlooking the river with a couple of canons on top.”
I ask Carol about the bihans – little figurines, 30cm tall, perched in properties around. the town. A local Belgian sculptor started making a few and placed them in or on properties at night-time.
“All these old houses have little niches where you can put things,” says Carol. “He would go round and put one on a house in the middle of the night, outside the window, all around. He then started selling his bihans and now pretty much all the houses in La Roche-Bernard have one.”
A SMALL MEMORIAL
Legend has it these little people lived here in ancient times. “It’s all come out of his imagination.” Each bihan reflects what the homeowner does-except one depicting a man writing. The sculptor’s best friend, who penned the stories, died recently and he wanted to create one for him. “It’s quite prominent because it’s right opposite the town hall so people notice it.”
In Alexandre Dumas’ Le Vicomte de Bragelonne-the last novel in his trilogy. which started with Les Trois Mousquetaires-d’Artagnan passed by La Roche-Bernard trying to get to Belle-lle island. He was on horseback but you can fly into Nantes Atlantique or Rennes Bretagne airports, both less than an hour away. Kenavo emberr- adieu!
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Lead photo credit : © MORSIAN TOURISME DA MEANLA ROCHE BERNARD TOURISME
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