Rennes, city of art and history and more…
The first impression of the city of Rennes when arriving by train is that you have entered a city of some measure, the initial clues being a multi-million rebuilding of the railway station, le Gare de Rennes. This has been in itself a huge transformation to what could be considered to be an architectural masterpiece, and the redesign of the Metro underground facility, which serves the rest of the city of Rennes.
In the immediate area of the station there are newly built international hotel groups, as well as more local hotel establishments, bus connections and a wide selection of eateries.
Le Gare de Rennes is on the railway line that connects Paris and Brest, and connects directly with St.Malo and also with Redon, which is to the south-west of Rennes.
A short hop on the metro (le métro de Rennes) brings you to République which is in the city centre. There are several other stops that service the centre of Rennes, such as Sainte Anne and Charles de Gaulle, but the metro stop at République is one of the most popular as it provides a connection to the 57 bus that in turn services the St Jacques airport.
Read more here about getting from the railway station at Rennes to the St Jacques airport.
As you surface at République, you will find yourself in the heart of Rennes, with its numerous cafes, restaurants and cosmopolitan feel. This is a proper city containing many high street style shops and boutiques, as well as more local offerings. There are parks, chill-out zones with people lounging on old-english style beach deck chairs and street musicians.
A short walk towards the tourist office (‘office de tourisme’ situated at 11 Rue Saint-Yves, Rennes) will enable the first-time visitor to make some decisions about what they want to see in the city. Rennes is steeped in history, and the unravelling of that history starts with the tourist office itself. Apart from all of the maps, books about the history of Rennes, and the offers of paid guided tours of Rennes, one half of the tourist office is a sort of mini-museum about the culture of Rennes. I have never seen a tourist office like it!
Stepping out of the tourist office clutching the obligatory leaflets, straight away, there is an abundance of historical buildings that either deserves a visit or at least a photographic record, and it goes on; old narrow streets flanked by ancient half timbered buildings that have been privy to events down the centuries.
This heritage doesn’t go unnoticed by the appreciative tourists who greedily capture the images on phones and camera’s.
History of Rennes, the quick version
Rennes is a city of art and history – officially. In 1986 there was a convention entitled ‘City of art and History’ which was signed by the then Minister for Culture and Communication ahead of the opening of a permanent exhibition dedicated to the city’s heritage.
And what a heritage.
The site where the city stands, is known to have been occupied since prehistoric times. In the Celtic era the city got the name “Condate” a Gallic name derived from the convergence of two rivers The Ille and The Vilaine. This also gave the name “Ille-et-Vilain” the department of Brittany, France in which Rennes is situated.
Under the Romans in 51 or 52BC, it became the county town of Civitas, and then much later became Rennes, a name derived from a Celtic tribe the Redones, who had settled and made it their capital.
One of the earliest references to Rennes came from a social commentator, Dubuisson-Aubenay in the 17th century who mentions “Les gars de Rhennes” (The lads from Rennes)
He also mentioned that they were mostly drunk and unruly!
The two rivers on which the city was founded played an important part over the years, water contributed to the rapid industrial development of Rennes, there were tanneries, mills and wash houses that were all linked to the river Vilain and the Ille et Rance canal. This carried on until the end of the 19th century, when there were new means of transport and alternative energy sources.
There had been worries about the safety and hygiene of the water, so an underground water network was formed.
This, and the creation of water recuperation basins and fountains, helped the rehabilitation of water in the city.
In many parts of Rennes, and indeed the whole of Brittany, there are still many half timbered houses, this is because there were so many forests surrounding the city, so the medieval tradition of building half timbered houses extended well past the middle ages and into the middle of the 17th century.
This tradition only stopped because Rennes had its own famous historical fire, lasting a whole week in 1720 when 33 streets and some 850 houses were burned to the ground making 8000 people homeless.
After this time stone construction became the norm because it was quicker and less of a fire risk.
World war two
During world war two in June 1940, 3 German aircraft bombed an ammunition train which blew up and destroyed French and British troop trains that were parked alongside. Around 1000 people died. The very next day, German soldiers took over parts of the city.
Towards the end of the war, the German troops in Rennes were bombed by the US and Royal Air Force causing hundreds more to die.
In the early 1950’s the rebuilding plan was developed and work began to house and re-house some 220000 inhabitants.
Today, Rennes still has around 200,000 inhabitants, and regularly sees some 60,000 students year to year.