By Megan Harlan
I've successfully avoided most challenging, outdoor athletic activities adults are sometimes lured to take up: No rock-climbing, marathons, or sky-diving for me. I know my limits, and I'm a stretchy, low-impact sort of worker-outer: Yoga and Pilates are go-tos. And I love to walk. I mean, I really love to walk. Here's a flex that impresses no one: I'm a pretty good walker, too. My partner and son are runners: competitive types, medal-winning on occasion. Yet both will admit I can out-walk them. Once I hit my stride I can go all day, whether in a city or out in the wild. Taking long rambles is how I prefer to learn a place; to work out knots in my creative writing; to keep mind and body in some balance.
Where I live, the Bay Area, is often called a walker's paradise—and much of it is. That Northern California's (usually) temperate climate, rolling hills, and dramatic coastlines often resemble Brittany's is one reason my family feels so drawn to this French region. But here's where Brittany's natural places have an edge: Very often, you're strolling along somewhere and glimpse a megalith—a stone monument that people five or six or seven thousand ago decided to permanently affix right there. Brittany has thousands of them, many hidden away and not featured on any map. Spotting one feels a bit magical, every time.
Those ancient builders picked the most beautiful sites. If you see a standing stone rising like a beacon, you will notice how particularly stunning its immediate setting is: a spot offering a view in all directions, or tucked amid an old growth forest, or shadowing a natural spring or creek. Neolithic people chimed their stone monuments with natural features to effects that still resonate.
Here I want to share two ancient sites less than a half-hour drive from Dinan. Neither is "famous" in the way that Carnac is—though admittedly most people have never heard of Carnac, the world's largest surviving megalithic site, situated in a gorgeous stretch of southern Brittany, and subject of a future post. Very little has been translated into English about these two sites. But each is extraordinary and enchanting in its own way—and we had them all to ourselves on our visits.
First up is an alignment—a series of menhirs, or standing stones—so large and spread out, it was like a treasure-hunt searching for all 48 stones. The Lampouy alignment stretches over several high plateaued hills in a hamlet called Médréac, and here I am next to the largest menhir, in a grouping called "les Long Points":
Looking closely at the most towering stone, I was surprised and delighted to see that it's composed almost entirely of white quartz:
Over in Ireland, a couple of prized Neolithic standing stone alignments are also composed of white quartz—but it's a rarity among Stone Age sites. Certainly this feature must have been considered important enough to haul this colossal stone—at least 15 feet high and 5 feet in girth—to this hilltop. And then to get it stand upright for the next 5,000 years.
(A quick note on "stones" versus "rocks": As a guard at Stonehenge reminded me during my visit there some years back, a rock is a natural mineral; a stone is a rock that's been honed or manipulated in some way by humans.)
The Lampouy alignment is actually comprised of five clusters of menhirs, all oriented north-north-west/south-south-east and together spanning a distance of a third of a mile. A creek runs alongside much of it. Here's the lone surviving standing stone set off at the furthest point to the southeast:
Meanwhile, at the alignment's most northwestern point—and a good hike across the road from the central cluster—stands this massive menhir:
Nearby, a hand-carved sign reads Voie romaine, or Roman Road: a folk place-name as tantalizing glimpse into another of Brittany's historical eras.
Lampouy is such a sprawling site that as you move over the broad hilltops, it's easy to imagine the crowds of people that may have once gathered here, the vast ceremonies they might have held.
A far more intimate and mysterious vibe awaits at la Maison des Fées, or the House of the Fairies. This being Brittany, prehistoric "houses of fairies" are found all over the place; this one is officially called Allée Couverte Préhistorique Maison des Fées. It's located in the ravishing old growth forest of Mesnil, on protected national land.
From the little parking area along the road, you walk a quarter-mile or so through soaring canopies of chestnut trees, beeches, and pines, when suddenly in a clearing, a very long, low, rectangular stone building appears. All I can say is that Brittany is often compared to fairy tales for a reason:
The "fairy house" is a kind of dolmen, a Neolithic passage tomb (circa 2500 BCE) measuring some 40 feet long and just a few feet wide. Like Lampouy's dozens of menhirs, this structure is also oriented on a north-north-west/south-south-east axis. Celestial movements—whether solar or lunar—connected to this axis may explain this orientation. Movements of the sun and moon probably held profound spiritual meaning to the builders and their society—not to mention being vitally important to the seasonal nature of their farming.
Speaking of religion: The dolmen's walls are carved with several goddesses, depictions now mostly defaced. Archaeologists have also unearthed treasures dating from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages—including soapstone necklace beads, a bronze arrow head, and pottery. And an ancient skeleton.
I'm not going to get "woo" here; or, maybe I am, just a little. Because the truth is few architectures or monuments feel as moving to me as these very ancient ones, appearing without warning in a field, forest, or hilltop. The span of time they've survived is so vast, the language spoken and beliefs held by their Stone Age builders are lost forever. Yet just imagine those beliefs: they must have been something else to drive people to haul these multi-ton stones into gravity-challenging alignments. And in Brittany, I'm grateful to be able to easily visit these great stone works, give them a pat on their flanks—and soak in their deep, lasting relationships to the natural world.
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