Are you fascinated by coastal sceneries and charming rural landscapes? Are you looking for rustic motives? And you also don’t mind enjoying some great food on the way? Then head towards France.
Forget Paris for a while. Although the French capital is a definite must-see, France is much more than Paris only. I’d like to treat you to a quick guide through Normandy and Brittany, two of the country’s 18 provinces that will provide you with an abundance of opportunities to create beautiful images.
1. The itinerary: Where to take the great shots
Although Normandy and Brittany are probably not the provinces that most people have in mind when thinking of France, they offer rich material for great photos. Frankly, before I started planning the road trip through the region, I knew little about it. All I knew that there was this Monet painting that I wanted to recreate with my camera and Mt. Saint Michelle, a well visited UNESCO world heritage site. So took it from there and found that the north-west coast of France is the landscape-photographer’s paradise.
Know that I always plan my road trips rather precisely in order to capture a certain image I have in mind about a place. Sometimes it turns out fantastic, sometimes not so much. But even if the photos don’t always turn out the way I had pictured them – mostly due to weather and light conditions, or rather due to the lack of time – I’m still content. I was on the road for about 10 days in France, which means I mostly got to spend one or sometimes only a half a day at one location which is obviously not ideal if you are chasing perfection, but good enough to capture a few nice images. What I’m saying is that getting great shots in little time is difficult, but despite this the journey is absolutely worth it because the places I list below are simply magical. Of course, if you can afford it, take your time and stay longer. However, if on a tight budget, try to economise the time you have at your disposal and make sure to arrive to some of the destinations during the time of the day that provides you with favourable light conditions. If you can, book your accommodations near the coast. This will save you empty hours of driving and provide you with easier access to beaches during dawn or sunset.
So now, here’s the deal, each stop of the road trip, starting with Étretat and ending with Nantes.
Étretat equals a stunning coast with dramatic waves and Monet’s elephant. Go hiking along the beach and up the hill to get the best views of the famous cliffs and iconic arches. The best time to take photos apart from sunset, believe it or not, is after rain when the cliffs are wrapped in a soft mist.
Honfleur is a delightful fisher village with a charming harbour and an endless number of art galleries. You can take vibrant photos of the port pretty much any time of the day. If you visit in the summer, don’t miss the carousel near the centre.
Mt. Saint-Michelle is a place many are familiar with. A magical cathedral on a hill stretching into the ocean. You’ll get the best views when walking to or from the parking lots towards the entrance. Be there early in the morning to avoid the masses. If you can afford accommodation somewhere near, make sure you don’t miss the first rays of sunlight.
St. Malo, is your first stop in Brittany, offers great coastal views, pleasant beach walks at low tide and a rustic sandy beach with stunning skies. Make sure you hike up to the fortress for endless ocean views.
Ploumanac’h is know for its Côte de Granit Rose, for its pink granite coast that is. The unusual rock formations stretch for several kilometres between Trebeurden and Perros-Guirec, but you’ll find the most attractive coastal walks are around Ploumanac’h. Go for a long stroll to explore the area; you’ll find extraordinary cliff and formations everywhere. Great shots are guaranteed.
Pointe de Pen-Hir is the headland of the Crozon peninsula, a place for remarkable rocky cliffs and impressive views. The Cross of Pen-Hir, erected in the early 60’s to the Bretons of Free France, is a well frequented D-day memorial, so do expect crowds, especially in the summer months. Nevertheless, when the rocks are covered with a carpet of green, purple, and yellow against the backdrop of the turquoise ocean, using a wide angle lens will provide you with some stunning images.
Quiberon is a small Breton town resting on a 15km-thin peninsula, the Presqu’île de Quiberon. Due to the strong winds from the Atlantic Ocean the western coast is a surfers paradise, whereas the eastern coast has more sheltered beaches. Wherever you are on Quiberon, you will not lack in beautiful landscapes. Don’t miss the megaliths casually sitting everywhere on the peninsula. If on the road in July, don’t miss the night market and street performers.
Vannes is a small but ravishing town. Wander around inside the medieval walls exploring the historical lanes and enjoy the lavish gardens.
Rochefort-en-Terre is perhaps the most charming rustic village you will ever see in France. The enchanted stone buildings are decorated with red geraniums and the whole village is full with lavish blossoms from spring to the end of the summer months. The vivid colours of the flowers will beguile you.
Once the historical capital of Brittany, Nantes is now a lively city with all the conveniences of an urban sprawl. If you are looking for something unusual, don’t miss out on The Grand Éléphant of the Les Machines de L’ile. The gigantic mechanic elephant walks a round on the Ile de Nantes with about 50 passengers on board. It is an exceptional spectacle you wont encounter anywhere else. Make sure to be there on time and ready to move with the show to get great captures. Check the exact times of the elephant’s walk on the official website of Les Machines de L’ile here.
Perhaps it is important to mention that before arriving to France I was on the road between Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium, so I was driving down from the North, but you can do the itinerary the other way round as well, meaning starting from Paris to Nantes and finishing with Étretat. The Google Map below should give you an idea of the distances and the area you will cover if doing this itinerary.
2. The weather
Be prepared for everything. Depending on when you go, you may enjoy hot and sunny days in both provinces, but Normandy and Brittany have a rather humid weather throughout the year.
So when to go? March through October is a pleasant time to be in this part of France. In the spring, flowers cover the coastal landscape and you will not lack colour rich motives for your photography, but beware of the unpredictable weather. If you are looking for blossom filled fields, May is the perfect time of the year to capture the spring facade of the region. June is probably the best time for enjoying the magnificent beaches and countryside in quiet solitude while taking stunning shots. At the beginning of summer visitor numbers are still relatively low. By July and August temperatures would reach 25-30°C, providing pleasant conditions for beach goers (if blazing winds can be called pleasant), but it also means more tourists and higher prices. Mind you, it might be difficult to get accommodation if you’re a more spontaneous traveller. Temperatures drop in the autumn and crowds slowly disappear. Although the weather is rather mild in the winter months as well, many of the tourist attractions may be closed.
Now, keep in mind that going to the seaside on this stretch might be a windy experience. Both provinces are know for the strong winds coming from the Atlantic ocean, but I reckon this makes the region a fascinating location for dramatic skies and long exposure photography.
3. The people & their language
There are obviously some cultural differences between the two provinces partly due to history. Brittany’s Celtic roots are reflected in some place names and the local lingo. The people in this region are generally friendly, but don’t expect anyone to speak English. Don’t even expect them to try to understand your attempts in English. So it’s a good idea to learn some basic phrases in French before going. Study words for you might need to understand a menu or just have a pocket dictionary with you. Especially if you’re linguistically not inclined, It will save you some frustration.
4. The gear
At the time of my road trip I used an inexpensive Panasonic Lumix FZ200. Despite being affordable, Lumix cameras produce relatively good quality images. My version came with a 24x digital zoom and a LEICA 25-600mm / f2.8 lens. Obviously, it’s not a DSLR and has a pretty small sensor, but it’s handy and the optimal gear if you wish to travel light. Like most bridge cameras, the Lumix too allows you to shoot in RAW which leaves more room for post-processing, if needed.
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