With its rows of standing stones, Carnac, on the south coast of Brittany, has long fascinated man. Along the northern side of the town, around three thousand standing stones, called menhirs in French, stretch in alignments for several kilometres. The three main alignments are Le Ménec with 1,169 stones, Kermario comprising 1,029, and Kerlescan has 555 stones.
Dolmens, burial chambers of vertical stones supporting a horizontal slab, are also dotted around the countryside, and Carnac boasts the largest grave mound in continental Europe: the Saint-Michel tumulus. Megalithic monuments are everywhere and visiting Carnac you soon become familiar with the vocabulary. The Maison des Mégalithes information centre, beside Le Ménec Alignments, is the place to go for information or to book a guided visit.
Shrouded in mystery
As burial chambers, dolmens and tumuli clearly belong to the universal function of burying the dead. The alignments, however, are still shrouded in mystery. Why did man erect so many menhirs into lines? Folklore, legends and superstitions have abounded for millennia. More recently, archeology and scientific research have thrown some light on the question, but we still don’t really know for sure. Perhaps Carnac was a religious site, perhaps even a place of pilgrimage, or the stones were dedicated or linked to the sun or moon, or formed some kind of calendar for agriculture? However, one thing is certain: given the effort required to remove large pieces of granite from local outcroppings and move them to the site, where they were then wedged into the ground, they must have held an important function in the society that was forming at that time.
Connecting to the past
If the stones could talk, they would have such stories to tell. They were erected between 3,000 and 4,000 BC, during the Neolithic Age, when man evolved from hunter-gatherer to sedentary farmer and started to settle in villages. During this long period there were significant advances in agriculture and tools, that permitted man to grow crops, domesticate animals and shape his environment. The Museum of Prehistory, in the town centre, explains this and is well worth a visit.
I fell under the spell of the standing stones in the early 1990s when I first visited Carnac. Coming from New Zealand, I had never seen anything man-made that old, and it was a moving experience. The stones make an impressive sight in their lines, like sacred sentinels, all similar, yet each one an individual statue with its own unique character. I was amazed how these simple stone shapes, that mimic the upright human form, made me feel connected back in time to very early man and all those who had lived around the menhirs and interacted with them over thousands of years.
The experience was richer because at that time you could wander amongst the alignments and even sit on the stones. No wonder the main alignments were later fenced off in order to protect them from further damage, in particular loosening of the earth at the base of the stones, caused by the ever-increasing number of visitors. These days, if you want to get up close with the stones, visit between October to March when you can freely enter the enclosures. During the high season, however, it is only possible to go on the site by taking part in a guided tour.
During that first visit I spent most of my stay exploring the alignments and also becoming acquainted with Carnac’s tallest menhir, the 6.5 metre high Giant of Manio, sitting alone in woodland, with only a low stone enclosure, Le Quadrilatère, for company. I also got to know the town centre with its square and St Cornély’s Church, tourist boutiques and small galleries.
It wasn’t until I returned to Carnac a few years later that I ventured south to the coast to discover a very different side of the town: Carnac Plage, with its long white sand beach, la Grande Plage, where the sky opens and the horizon stretches away – a stark contrast to the alignments, where trees and stone upon stone fill the landscape and anchor it firmly to the ground. I was struck by how Carnac contains the intrinsic duality of Brittany, as the Bretons say: armor, the coast, and argoat, inland, lightly wooded land.
Carnac Plage does have its alignments too, but they’re of a different sort: lines of striped beach tents, little sailing boats across the waves and queues of holidaymakers and locals at the iconic glacier, L’Igloo, watching the waffle cones being made while they wait to have one filled with some of the 170 different ice cream flavours available.
I keep returning to Carnac. Each time I wander around the town centre, sit for a while in the interesting St Cornély’s Church, eat my fill of galettes and moules frites and try yet another flavour at L’Igloo after wandering along la Grande Plage. And I am always drawn back, with the same sense of awe and wonder, to the menhirs, in particular the Giant of Manio, who feels like an old friend now.