Story and Photo by Caroline Cunfer
Rennes was my first love affair with a European city, a city that would become my treasured European home. Situated in the heart of the Brittany region of France, Rennes is where I spent my junior year of high school living with a host family, gorging myself on baguettes and salted butter, and essentially trying to be as “française” as I possibly could. The two universities dominate the city– 60,000 of the 200,000 residents are college students. Rennes is quintessentially and utterly French, composed of a dizzying labyrinth of cobblestone streets constructed in the Middle Ages, outdoor cafes to pause for cafe crèmes and conversation, crayola-colored buildings that topple into each other, corner boulangeries selling almond croissants and chouquettes.
Rennes has a distinctive culture of its own. It is not by any means Parisian (“How was your trip to Paris?” was the infuriatingly routine question I was asked upon my return to the US). English is more or less nonexistent, and I found it ridiculously comforting that I could walk into any store and be responded to in French. Crȇperies selling warm galettes (essentially savory crepes made from a buckwheat batter) and bottles of cidre are the Starbucks of Rennes. Mugs with puns about the amount of rain are sold in the city’s two souvenir shops (“In Brittany it only rains twice a week– one time for three days, the other time for four days”) alongside the staple of every pure Breton– a “bol Breton”. On Christmas Eve around the fireplace, my host mom gifted me a bowl with “Caroline” written in the traditional script, and I was officially part of the family. I would place that bowl on my desk in Hayden, filling it occasionally with my host mom’s favorite tea when I find myself longing for my French home.
Despite the city’s dazzling complexion, Rennes is unfortunately victim to a perpetual drizzle. In my nine months spent in France, the sun didn’t break through the overcast skies–other than a few random days throughout the year– until the month of March. The rain recommenced in April. When the sun peeks through the clouds, the city flocks to Parc du Thabor, a park that became my springtime oasis. Children buy ice cream cones from the pink cart, “sportives” jog through the winding pebbled lanes, men in orange jumpsuits tend the blossoming peonies, students lay on the grass sipping lemonade.
Stunning architecture dots the city, and concealed history lurks around each corner. On Saturday mornings, the famous outdoor market at Place des Lices sells whole shrimp and galettes-saucisses, jars of raw honey and a rainbow of jams, fried rice and fresh artichokes. On Sunday the city shuts down, and families gather around the kitchen table to linger over raclette cheese served with roasted potatoes and ham. At dusk, children run to the neighborhood bakery to bring floury baguettes home for dinner. Life is simple, beautiful, unhurried.
Rennes is intimate, Rennes is modest. Rennes is eating galettes tucked in a corner at Crȇperie Sainte Anne while the rain drips outside. Rennes is befriending the owner of my favorite macaron shop, knowing half of the population that takes my bus in the morning, consistently toppling on cobblestone and sipping caramel hot chocolate out of a bowl at Le Haricot Rouge. Rennes is home.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baedeker.