Along with our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.
For those of us who love to eat, there are few better spots on Earth to visit than France. (Croissants, crepes, pain au chocolat, brie, quiche … need we say more?) And while Paris may be a natural place to start, I recently found my own foodie bliss in Rennes, the capital of Brittany.
I kicked off my day at France’s second-largest market, the Marche des Lices, which sets up shop every Saturday morning along Place des Lices in the historic center of Rennes. This colorful, multi-block sprawl of stalls is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the tongue, brimming with offerings from more than 300 regional food producers — mangos and melons, avocados and onions, shellfish and soft cheese, cider and salted butter. (The latter are both particular specialties of Brittany.) It feels as though everyone in Rennes shows up with basket in hand, chatting with vendors who reach out with tempting chunks of peaches or olives on toothpicks, hoping to lure a sale. The market is the perfect spot to pick up a few edible souvenirs of your trip to France, such as fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt) or a bottle of the region’s famous cider.
It’s practically illegal to leave Brittany without noshing on a crepe. They come in two types: sweet (made of wheat flour and stuffed with goodies like chocolate, fruit or whipped cream) and savory (known as gallettes and made of buckwheat flour). La Creperie Saint-Georges, located at 11 rue du Chapitre, has an extensive menu of both, with each dish named after a famous George — from designer Giorgio Armani to novelist George Sand. For lunch, I opted for the George Clooney, which was stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and tomato, and came with sides of salad and cucumber sorbet. Other options included the popular ham/cheese/egg combo, along with quirkier offerings like smoked salmon with potato and beets. Dessert crepes filled with chocolate and almonds proved impossible to resist.
That evening, my travel companions and I gathered at Chateau d’Apigne — a 19th-century castle that’s been transformed into an eight-room luxury hotel — for a unique dining experience called “The French Way of Life.” Before sitting down for a multi-course dinner, we learned how to set the table in traditional French style under the guidance of Madame Joelle Ruault, a respected expert in table etiquette who’s shared her wisdom with luminaries at the French presidential palace. We donned white gloves (so we wouldn’t leave unsightly fingerprints on the wine glasses) and laid out tablecloths with folds lined up just so. Plates were placed a finger’s width from the edge of the table, and knife blades were turned inward to avoid expressing aggression toward our neighbors.
After our settings were declared tres bien and we sat down for our meal, Madame Ruault showed us a series of traditional French serving dishes and utensils — many of them centuries old — and invited us to guess what they were used for. It proved a fun and enlightening game; who knew that the French once had scissors specifically designed to halve grapes? But beyond the novelty, our lesson in French table etiquette offered a fascinating glimpse of the history and culture surrounding the delicious food we’d been enjoying all day in Rennes.
Editor’s Note: The French Way of Life experience can be organized through the Rennes Office of Tourism. The cost begins at 220 euros per group (no minimum or maximum size), plus 50 euros per person for the meal.
For more memorable off-the-beaten-path trip ideas, see our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences.
— written by Sarah Schlichter