Our destination after San Malo was the south coast of Brittany. The little port village of Portivy is on the Quiberon Peninsula. We’re staying on the ocean side, Le Cote Sauvage (the savage coast), and our gite is just across the street from the beach. First thing in the morning, I have it to myself until the fishermen show up, taking tenders out to their fishing boats anchored off shore.
But what we came to see were the more than 3000 standing stones in the Carnac region of Brittany. These are no ordinary rocks. Think Stonehenge on steroids. The several types of megaliths are menhir (standing stone), dolmen (a single chamber tomb with two menhirs and another rock across the top), tumulus (an earth or stone mound over a dolmen) and alignments (rows of menhirs). We were rock hunting.
The alignments near Carnac were especially impressive. The Menic Alignment’s stones in 11 rows stretch more than two miles, with another 1029 stones in the Kermario Alignment nearby.
But you could come across these formations anywhere. We spent five days , crisscrossing an area about 12 x 10 miles and east to near Arzan around the Gulf of Morbihan. We found megaliths everywhere. This is the largest collection of standing stones in the world. Random menhirs show up in people’s yards. Not only are they cool, but they would be a huge bother to remove. They can stand 20 feet high and were sunk deep into the ground. The stones are old, starting erection in 4600 BCE, 1500 years earlier than Stonehenge.
Some of these megaliths are well known and show on maps. Some we just found as we drove around. We went to the tiny village of St. Barbe because Dianne had heard that the church was interesting. Indeed, it was rustic, with pretty doors, statues of St. Barbe, and a fish on top of the steeple. A nearby bush provided rosemary for our salads in the coming days, and a house three doors down had a menhir in the front yard.
Just outside the village, we drove past, then stopped to examine, three huge stones in a field parallel to the small road. Behind the three stones ran two perpendicular rows of stones. A farmer was using the enclosure as a field. This was our first encounter with a grouping of stones.
The village of Erdeven had a formation of huge menhirs significant enough to show up on the map. They took our breathe away. I counted 167, but that number is disputable; some of the menhirs were in neat rows but others were placed randomly and difficult to count.
The stones seemed to mess with my mind. I had symptoms of profound relaxation, as if I had been deeply meditating and then dizziness; Dianne did too. We staggered back to the car, almost drunk-like. We were to have this experience again and again when we were among the stones, especially when touching them. The only formations that were fenced off were the alignments in Carnac, and even they have stones close enough to the fence to reach.
Not only could we wander among the stones, we could crouch down and enter the tumulus mounds. I can’t imagine being able to do that in the litigious US. One tumulus even contained stones that had carvings on them which had been painted to make them easier to see. Of course we couldn’t tell the age of the carvings; for all we know they could be graffiti. Very little of this can be monitored, given the large number of megaliths and locations.
Over the millennia, some of the megaliths were removed, used in other construction, pushed over and altered. We stumbled across one example of a formation that had been changed into a shrine to honor Our Lady of Lourdes.
We saw an example of an alteration with an entirely different intent at Carin de Petit Mont. This large (180 ft2) elaborate cairn was started 6000 years ago and covers several dolmens. During WWII, the Germans constructed a bunker with 6.5 ft cement walls inside the cairn that could house 20 men. In the process they destroyed one of the entrance passages and two of the dolmens, one partially. But it was perfect for their purpose; the Germans used the natural facing of the cairn as camouflage.
No one knows how many megaliths were erected. The sea level has risen significantly since then and many are now under water. Indeed, Dianne told me that the last time she was here, she followed a line of menhirs down a hill and out into the Gulf of Morbihan. These were originally erected on dry land. Unfortunately, she could not find them again on this trip.
The miles of alignments could not have been constructed at one time. Some experts believe that new menhirs were added each year to the multiple rows. But other than the approximate age, and the fact that they were hand-hewn of local rock, experts do not agree on much when it comes to the megaliths of the Carnac region.
For me, the mystery is part of their appeal; we are free to come up with our own theories about these powerful stones. I find them magical.
For my other essays on our rural France journey, see:
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