Saturday, November 5, 2011

Carnac, France: Where tradition and beauty are set in stone














Carnac, in the very south of France, isn't as well known as Stonehenge. But its megaliths are just as mysterious


St. Cornelius, known as Cornély in France, opens his arms in blessing from a niche above the old stone church in Carnac. Legend has it that he was persecuted by Rome for his opposition to animal sacrifice and chased by soldiers all the way to the Brittany coast. Trapped, he turned around and changed them into 3,000 rough-hewn stones that still stand in military rows on a chain of fields just north of here.

There are other hypotheses about the Carnac boulders, carbon dated to 4000 to 2000 BC. They mark one of Caesar's camps during the Gallic Wars from 58 to 50 BC. Or they were snake worship sites for ancient Celts whose territory included parts of England and Ireland as well as Brittany. Or maybe they were goblin lairs and fairy treasures. But St. Cornelius works for me.

It's the same story with other prehistoric monuments in Western Europe. No one knows for sure who built them or why, although sites have been found, from Scandinavia toSpain, that have various configurations: upright stones, known as menhirs or megaliths, standing alone or in groups, as at Stonehenge, England; dolmens, Neolithic tombs made of massive boulders, laid on top of one another; and tumuli, or artificial mounds, where ancient man buried the departed under heaps of rubble.

My first encounter with these mysteries was at Avebury on the Wiltshire moors in England, a medieval village surrounded by concentric circles of standing stones. When Christianity arrived, villagers desecrated the megaliths, believing them evil. But on a recent trip to Brittany — whose coast must have fit together with that of England like a puzzle piece before a lowering sea created the English Channel — I discovered that the Carnac megaliths fared better. Although sometimes mined for building material or marked with Christian crosses, they have otherwise escaped the wrath of superstitious zealots in one of the earliest instances of French laissez faire.

It takes about four hours to drive from Paris to Carnac, which occupies a segment of the ragged Brittany coast near Quiberon Island and the mouth of the Morbihan Bay. Once one of the poorest, most isolated corners of France, it is now one of the most chic, not because of the megaliths but because of the beaches colonized almost equally by French and English vacationers.

Carnac's old port, La Trinité-sur-Mer, is as full of sails and topsiders as Hyannis, Mass., reached along a waterfront road lined by handsome summer houses, thalassotherapy spas, nature preserves, salt marshes and sandy Atlantic Oceanshores. A tourist train takes sightseers along the Carnac Riviera and through the town center with its Museum of Prehistory, market square and 17th century church dedicated to St. Cornelius.

The first thing I saw when I drove into town was the whitewashed chapel of St. Michel atop a 30-foot tumulus that covered a tomb that contained prehistoric axes and ornaments. At its foot is the Hôtel Tumulus, built as a residence in 1900 by St. Michel excavator Zacharie Le Rouzic. It's still run by family members and thus an ideal place for amateur archaeologists. I checked into a simple, sunny room under a gable, swam in the pool and dined on fresh fish in the veranda restaurant.

Continue Reading on the LA Times

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