Once upon a time in Rennes

Eight minutes past 10 o’clock in the morning. As I prepare to leave the SNCF train, the first thing I check is that I haven’t forgotten my umbrella. A persistent and elegant drizzle is washing the train’s windows and I wonder if the rest of the day is going to look the same. I take a glance at my return ticket, which confirms that I have time until 8 P.M. to discover everything about the capital of Brittany.

One of my goals for this year is to visit more of France’s gems, be it other big cities or small towns, nestled in yet unearthed places. Up until now, I had only visited Paris and a fragment of French Riviera, which are definitely the most sought-out destinations. It’s time to discover something more thrilling and less talked-about. Rennes seems like a pertinent choice. 2 hours ride from Paris is enough to take a nap (which seems inevitable on a stormy winter morning) and eventually do some work; time flies because I’m also interested in a constantly evolving landscape.

And here I find myself, standing on a bridge overlooking the juxtaposition of seemingly endless railway veins, clutching my unfortunate umbrella which is on the verge of breaking (dear wind, please be gracious with it). It takes only a ten-minute walk to pass the symbolical threshold, separating the more industrial side of the city from its precious and playful central part; the one with scattered medieval timber houses. I wonder what kind of face Rennes would have if the terrible fire in 1720, which reduced a big number of such houses into nothing but ashes, had never took place. These lovely houses and their distinct architectural style give the city a certain village allure; the atmosphere is enveloping and strangely comforting. Despite the rain, the streets are packed with people, especially in the famous market of Place des Lices, which now looks like a sea of umbrellas. I circle in the small perimeter to spot the essential and the most impressive buildings, testaments to the grandeur of classical style, such as the Parliament of Brittany. Then there’s an opera of Rennes; the city hall, which is eerily empty – while I stand there trying to apprehend the architectural particularities of the building, an old lady crosses the palace and the color of her coat blends totally in the scene, making her almost disappear; Saint Georges palace and its garden are just as equally monumental. January has stripped the garden off its vivacity, but not graciousness.

When the rain becomes unbearable, I find a quick shelter in a Brioche Dorée to warm up and have a cup of tea; its second floor has a perfect view over central streets and the constant flux of movement. After several hours in Rennes, I had already seen the essential (and by essential I honestly mean essential; not only the most photographed places). And as I’m sitting in this café, I feel that Rennes is in some way an urban equivalent of ‘cozy evenings by the fireplace with a book in hands’ – the expression is cliché, but it still conveys the sense of comfort that might take various forms for each one individually. Had the weather been different, I probably would have missed something very important. And I’m not saying this only to console myself; as I’m writing these lines, the memory of Rennes seems chimerical, almost imaginary. Rain in Paris looks absolutely different.

After a short stop at Brioche Dorée, I decide to head in the direction of the famous Parc du Thabor. As I draw away from the very center of the city, the streets become empty. An occasional car passes by; traffic lights change colors for nothing. The park is impressive, its greenery is spectacular even in mid-winter; its absorbing silence augmented by the absence of people. The alleys look sad and abandoned, though; in some months they will fill up with laughter and playing children again. The surrounding area leaves a soothing memory as well: dark fairytale houses, hidden behind large gates, blossoming alleys, fragments of pastel facades. I wander aimlessly for some time until I find myself in the city center again. I feel obligated to visit a museum or at least an art gallery; somehow the visit would seem incomplete without it, especially under given circumstances. Musée de Bretagne is an obvious solution. How symbolic it seems that the two things I see there are an exhibition on magic and witchcraft and a documentary “Sigur Ros: Heima”; both of which are bewitching.

I guess this is it. I have an hour left to my train to Gare Montparnasse in Paris. The city is dark and I know I will have to pass less welcoming streets to reach the station. I know for sure that I haven’t learnt everything about this city; this journey is probably only a minuscule step towards knowing Brittany better. However, I can’t help but romanticize my experience of Rennes; its image will always be wrapped in magic and in mist.

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