Whichever way you look at it, Carnac (Karnag in Breton) is an education.
For one thing you have the world-famous Carnac stones — prehistoric standing stones laid upon the landscape by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany. Or were they?
For another, there are two centres to explore and enjoy — Carnac-Ville and the very popular resort of Carnac-Plage, where the five beaches include Saint Colomban, one of the best windsurfing spots in France.
And if your idea of holiday self-indulgence is to luxuriate in a stress-relieving thalassotherapy (sea water) spa, you’ll he thrilled to know that one of the country’s finest is right here in Carnac-Plage too.
So although we needed absolutely no excuse for exploring this fascinating fringe along the Bay of Quiberon, our main motivation was to look up and photograph those legendary old stones. And no, we don’t mean Jagger and company (though that would have rocked too).
Now we are the first to admit that history is not everyone’s idea of fun. After all, it’s a subject invariably and inevitably littered with dead people. And it’s true that many of Carnac’s ancient megaliths are connected with graves and burial grounds. But the indisputable fact remains: the extraordinary display of stones across the Carnac region — somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 in number — annually attracts many visitors from every corner of the globe. And you don’t have to be an archaeologist to appreciate the sheer scale and enormity of it all.
The most spectacular and famous of Carnac’s stones are the alignments — avenues of standing stones which snake across open countryside for several kilometres and are in fact the largest in the world. The alignments consist of three main groups: Le Menec, Kermario and Kerlescan.
For us, the Kermario avenues are the most impressive on account of the size of some of their constituent stones. The view from the observation tower, showing the Le Menec and Kermario alignments stretching away in the distance, is breathtaking — especially when the sun is low in the sky and the stones take on a warm, golden hue.
Another treat: We were fortunate enough to be offered a personally conducted tour of Le Meneè, which of
course we were eager to accept.
“The alignments attract all manner of visitors,” ebullient tour guide Marina Morven told us, “from New Age enthusiasts who attend ceremonies and gatherings in the area to people simply keen to learn more about our Neolithic ancestors. And many tourists think the alignments are Celtic, but the Celts didn’t come here till much, much later - around 800 years BC.” She was referring to the fact that Carnac’s stones have been dated from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, which in western Europe occurred around 4500-2000 BC.
She also told us that a lot of the stones have disappeared. Until 1991, all visitors had unfettered access to the alignments, but every year between 800,000 and a million visitors took their toll on the sites. Plants were trampled, the soil eroded and the very stability of the stones threatened.
“Sometimes visitors didn’t respect the stones,” Marina explained.
So to protect them the alignments were fenced off, and although you can still wander inside at will during winter, in summer months you have to be accompanied by a tour guide.
The Carnac area also boasts huge early standing stones, the best known being the fallen Grand Menhir Brise (Great Broken Menhir, Menhir meaning stone) at Locmariaquer — at over 20 metres high originally the tallest in Europe.
In fact Locrnariaquer, to the east of Carnac, is a must-see location for any stones fan as there are three major prehistoric structures here, each created to serve a different purpose.
One is the Grand Menhir, another is the reconstructed dolmen (tomb) known as Table des Marchand, and the third is the restored Er Grah (or Er Vingle) Tumulus — a covered stone burial chamber with no entrance.
The mind boggles when you first lay eyes on the Grand Menhir, which was part of an important and complex Neolithic site near the tip of the Locmariaquer peninsula. Once a huge single standing stone more than 20 metres long, weighing 280 tonnes and cut from a single piece of granite-like rock called orthogneiss located several kilometres away, this menhir was indeed grand.
Quite how it was transported to the site remains something of a mystery, but it must have represented something very special to have warranted such an investment in energy and effort — especially as getting it here was only part of the equation. It then had to be erected and polished using quartz percussion tools. Pretty amazing stuff all round.
All the sadder then that far from standing proud and tall, it now lies on the ground, broken into four pieces. What could cause such a mighty megalith to topple over and break its back? Speculation down the ages has ranged from vandalism Gallo-Romans (and if they were caught we trust they at least got the equivalent of an ASBO) to the earthquakes experienced in 1236. Today’s smart money tends to favour the idea of deliberate destruction in Neolithic times.
Not that any of this misfortune in any way deters the many 21st-century tourists who pose alongside the Grand Menhir for holiday photographs — no doubt encouraged by the fact that in a particular light, one side of the standing stone is more than a bit spooky, resembling the face of a wizened old man or woman.
A line of 18 other standing stones once graced this site too, erected around 4500 BC (probably for
religious purposes) but taken down (for reasons unknown) in about 4300 to 4200 BC.
Some of these stones were later re-used, which brings us to Locmariaquer’s second major prehistoric attraction — the reconstructed Table des Marchand dolmen.
Dolmens were common graves generally used over and again for several centuries. This is Carnac’s best known, its name relating to the enormous table-like slab of stone which covered the burial chamber, 7 metres long, 4 metres wide and nearly a metre thick. Not the sort of thing a prehistoric builder would carry on his back.
The dolmen was built around 3900 BC and used until something like 2000 BC. Excavations have
revealed that the decorated sandstone slab at the very end of the burial chamber came from that earlier line of 18 stones. And if visiting graves is your thing, you’ll be pleased to discover that you
are allowed inside the dolmen to marvel at its architecture and the thought-provoking wall and ceiling carvings created by the hand of prehistoric people.
The third major structure at Locmariaquer is the restored Er Grah (or Er Vingle) Tumulus — a covered stone burial chamber with no entrance. And in recent decades, covered it most certainly was — by a car park! Which no doubt goes some way to explaining why it was lost to archaeology until the early 1990s, having been created in several phases from around 4500 to 4000 BC.
And to add further 20th-century insult to injury, Er Grah was a closed vault tomb — a type of burial chamber which, on account of its size and the nature of the funerary objects discovered within, was believed to have been reserved for important people. So that’s where the idea of reserved parking came from!
There are other prehistoric relics to see in the Carnac region, but it’s those alignments which raise the most interest and the biggest questions — namely what was their origin and purpose?
In archaeological terms, the stones are defined as representing a Neolithic burial and ceremonial complex, which personally we are quite happy to buy. But then, it’s very disrespectful to pooh- pooh centuries-old local tradition. Maybe the standing stones really are battlefield memorials. Or structures erected by the Romans to protect their tents. Or the product of massive earth upheavals. Or Roman legions turned to stone by either Merlin, wizard to King Arthur, or St Comely because he discovered they wanted to murder him.
Fortunately, a holiday in Carnac can give you plenty of time and space to ponder such fascinating notions, whether you’re on your feet or on your back. Chilling out on the beach, for example. Breezing along on your windsurfer. Or soaking up the sheer bliss of that famous Carnac spa.
CARNAC MUSEUM OF PRE-HISTORY
Discover the story of Neolithic and other cultures in the Carnac area. The many exhibits include:
• An early 20th-century model of the Le Menec alignments, made before the tourist road was built between the lines of stones.
• Bead and pendant jewellery (made of variscite, a rare rock) from St Michael Barrow, Carnac and Er Grah Barrow, Locmariaquer.
• Soapstone beads from the Roch en Tallec Dolmens, Carnac.
• A fired earthenware round-bottomed vase with three hooks (believed to date from the 5th millennium BC and the oldest piece of pottery in the museum’s collections).
• A flint dagger from the Mane Roullarde passage grave, La Trinite-sur-Mer.
• 5 polished axes from the Le Manio Mound, Carnac.
• A full-size model of a stone coffin from Le Castellic Mound, Carnac.
SHORT GLOSSARY OF PRE-HiSTORIC CARNAC
Alignment: an avenue of stones.
Barrow: generic term for mounds which covered and marked prehistoric burial sites.
Cairn: the dry-stone structure capping a megalithic tomb.
Dolmen: tomb with a distinctive ‘table of stone’ roof supported by stone uprights.
Gallery grave: long narrow late Neolithic burial chamber.
Passage grave: variation on the gallery grave, with a passage leading to the chamber.
Megalith (derived from the Greek ‘mega’, meaning big, and ‘lithos’, meaning stone): term used by archaeologists to describe any monument made of large blocks of stone.
Menhir: a stone varying in height from 1-20 metres and standing alone or forming part of an alignment or enclosure.
Tumulus: stone burial chamber covered in earth and stone and without an entrance.