There's no better place to get a feel for this vibrant and historic city in western France than by claiming a ringside seat on one of the café patios facing Place Sainte-Anne on a sunny afternoon.
Houses dating to the Middle Ages, the geometric patterns of their exposed beams picked out in reds, greens or browns, embrace a cobbled square crammed with students. A steady stream of people – mostly of university age – emerges from the subway station directly below. The ivy-draped Gothic façade of the church of Saint-Aubin maintains its dignity despite the squeals of kids on the merry-go-round spinning at its doorstep.
This is Rennes in a nutshell, a city of medieval streetscapes, palatial buildings and a history that reaches back to Roman times, injected with a youthful vibe thanks to high-tech industries and two sprawling universities. Students account for almost a third of the population – an estimated 60,000 of the 210,000 residents of the urban core.
The mix of old and new is everywhere, from the downtown tourist bureau housed in the shell of a centuries-old chapel to the cafés, shops and occasional laundromat that breathe new life into resilient 15th-century buildings. Historic Rue St. Michel, which empties into Place Sainte-Anne, is lined with so many bars catering to students that locals call it La rue de la soif – the Street of Thirst.
Rennes is the capital of Brittany (Bretagne in French), the triangular peninsula that juts into the Atlantic at France's northwestern tip. Bretons are descended from Celtic tribes – who left behind telltale standing-stone monuments, the most famous being at Carnac – and developed a language and culture distinct from the rest of France.
"Brittany was an independent kingdom for several centuries," notes Jacques Rabin, a research associate at one of the universities, "and then a virtually independent duchy [territory]up to 1532." The region was absorbed into France that year, but many citizens still consider themselves Bretons first and French second. The black and white stripes of the Breton flag are a common sight. Think of this as the Quebec of France and you'll get the picture.
Rennes, just two hours by train from Paris, is a walkable city that rewards visitors with architectural gems as they work up a Rue St. Michel-size thirst. A fire that raged for six days devastated the city in 1720 but spared Place Sainte-Anne and many other city blocks. Half-timbered houses, some five storeys high, line the narrow streets we explore, some leaning into one another for support like wounded comrades-in-arms. A few still display the original occupants' coat of arms, carved into the lintel over the front door.
The Breton parliament building, completed in the 1650s and now a courthouse, also survived, only to be badly damaged by fire during a 1994 fishermen's riot. Designed by the king's architect to assert royal authority over the stubborn Bretons, its ornate interior has been restored and is worth touring just to gaze up at the paintings and gilded woodwork that adorns its ceilings.Next door is Place de la Mairie, site of the Rennes city hall and opera house. The buildings face each other across a broad square like two puzzle pieces – the elegant oval protruding from the centre of the opera house would fit neatly into the recessed entrance to city hall. As we pass, a giddy wedding party spills from city hall, a reminder these are working buildings, not museum pieces.
A few blocks to the west, we're dwarfed by the twin round towers of Portes Mordelaises, a gatehouse complete with drawbridge. Built on third-century Roman foundations, it's a surviving fragment of the wall that encircled the city in the 1400s. Doubling back, we walk up a hill crowned by Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine, a church with impressive stained glass that rests on foundations laid in the 11th century. It fronts the 10-hectare Parc du Thabor, once an orchard tended by monks and now an expanse of formal gardens with broad pathways, exotic plants and colourful songbirds housed in a pagoda-inspired aviary. It's a lunchtime haven for residents and tourists alike.
A few blocks south, reflected in the still waters of the canalized River Vilaine, is the Musée des beaux-arts de Rennes. We check out a collection that includes works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso and Gauguin, who recorded life in rural Brittany for eight years before finding greater fame in Polynesia.
If you can stay on for an extra couple of days, Rennes is the perfect base for exploring Brittany. The rugged coastline includes a 30-kilometre stretch of rare pink granite and the nearby towns of Vitré, Dinan and Fougères – which boasts one of the largest castles in Europe – are renowned for their medieval architecture.
And the iconic island monastery of Mont St. Michel – a spire-topped island monastery that rises from the sea like a vision, a magnet for pilgrims for centuries and a staple on many bucket – is about an hour's drive north of Rennes. While it marked on maps as being just beyond Brittany's eastern boundary, the strong-willed Bretons may beg to differ. "The debate about whether it is in Brittany or in enemy territory, Normandy, is far from being settled," Jacques Rabin jokes.
Special to The Globe and Mail