Nantes, France — If you want a French vacation -- and want to stretch your dollars -- don't linger in Paris, but head for one of France's historic provincial cities, rent a car, and make your own private tour from there. You will find prices in the provinces are far less than those in the French capital.
I used the bustling industrial city of Nantes, near the mouth of the Loire River, as a jumping off point for exploring Brittany to the northwest, and the not so well-known region of the Loire Atlantique to the south.
From the point of view of the French administration, Brittany consists of four departments (counties) north of the Loire. But for Bretons the area south of the Loire, now known as the department of the Loire Atlantique, also is part of their historic homeland.
Nantes, which straddles the Loire, is capital of the Loire Atlantique, but was at one time capital of Brittany and is the home of the massive moat-surrounded chateau of the Dukes of Brittany.
The marriages of Anne of Brittany, first to Charles VIII of France and then to Louis XII, led to the union of Brittany with France in 1532.
Scattered graffiti on walls near the chateau and elsewhere calling for "the end of the (French) occupation" are reminders of Breton separatist aspirations.
The Bretons are fiercely proud of their history and their culture -- they are Celts with close ties to the Welsh and the Cornish of Britain -- and they want more regional autonomy. But the militant separatists, who write the graffiti, represent a small though sometimes noisy minority.
There are two ways to tour Brittany by car, adding whatever variants you care to choose.
You can follow the coast road, the route of L'Amour ("land of the sea" in the Breton language), or you can take a tour of the interior, known as L'argoat or "country of the woods." The winding coast road is 750 miles long, the shorter and less traveled Argoat is around 400 miles depending on where you join it, and on how much you include in it.
I chose the Argoat, making side trips to Brittany's northern and southern coasts.
The route is traced in some detail in a useful little guide to Brittany put out by the French Government Tourist Office. You need good maps to follow it. There is no single Argoat road. You have to take a series of departmental (county) roads, marked D. on the map, with sometimes a sortie on to bigger national roads, marked N.
I joined the Argoat in Pontivy, 90 miles northwest of Nantes as the crow flies, and from there I headed west.
Between Pontivy and Chateaulin (76 miles) is a string of ancient and often strikingly beautiful chapels. Most lie a mile or two down a sideroad, sometimes located in a village, sometimes lost in the heart of the country, with only a farm nearby.
Take for instance Saint-Nicodeme, eight miles beyond Pontivy. You turn a bend in the narrow land and suddenly you are confronted with a tall open belfry soaring skyward. With the wind whispering through nearby poplars and clouds scurrying across a brilliant summer sky, the effect is dramatic.
After passing through picturesque old towns with romantic names -- Guemene-sur- Scorff, Kernascleden, le Faouet -- I stopped for the night at a white-washed inn just beyond Spzet: cost for dinner, bed, and breakfast and a hot bath in a modern bathroom, $14. In out-of-the-way places like this you can find good lodgings with full board for as little as $18 a day.
Tucked away amid the trees on a sideroad just outside Spezet is the Chapel of Notre- Dame du Crann, which dates from the 12th century and has a curious sloping slate roof and some fine stained-glass windows. When the guardian there learned that I was from the united States, he told me with pride that he came from a family of 11 children and that three of his sisters are in North America, two in the United States and one in Canada. "But I never see them," he added wistfully.
The westernmost tip of the Argoat route brings you to Quimerc'h and a splendid lookout point over the Faou River and the roadstead of Brest, the big French naval base near the tip of Brittany. Turning inland again, you head east and then north.
After Brasparts, the countryside changes from farmland and woods to open moorland dominated by Mont St. Michelde-Brasparts and Le Tinckinkador, which at 1,260 feet is Brittany's highest point. In late summer heather throws purple swathes across the moors. East on the road lie the peat bogs of Yeun Elez, described in Breton folklore as the gate of hell and now partially covered by an artificial lake.
It is striking country to drive through and has magnificent views. Then the scene returns to rolling fields interspersed with woodland to remind you that this is indeed the Argoat -- country of the woods. In early summer splashes of yellow broom light up the hedgerows or set a whole hillside aflame.
You need to do some careful map reading in this area so that you don't get lost in the network of country roads. One detour is a must: to Bulat-Pestivien, five miles east of Callac, and site of a handsome church of the Breton Renaissance.
Guingamp, once a quiet market town and now a developing industrial city, is the point where the Argoat and Armor routes meet, and it was from there that I made my sortie to brittany's northern coast, stopping overnight at the popular resort of St. Quay-Portrieux.
Back next day to Guingamp, I resumed the Argoat tour, completing the circle to Pontivy. Then I pushed on eastward to Josselin, site of a fairytale chateau whose graceful towers are reflected in the tranquil waters of the Oust River.
Beyond Josselin is the Bois de Broceliande, now known by the less lyrical name of the Forest of Paimpont, where King Arthur of the Round Table and the magician Merlin are said to have had their haunts.
My trip to the southern Breton coast took in the walled city of Guerande, the colorful fishing port of Le Croisic, and a glimpse of the fashionable resort of La Baule, whose three- mile-long sandy beach is one of the finest in Europe.
From La Baule it now is an easy journey across the Loire estuary to the south side of the river thanks to a magnificent two-mile-long suspension bridge, a toll bridge opened two years ago. Previously, the only way across was by ferry unless you made the long detour via Nantes. The bridge by- passes the busy port of St. Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire estuary.
Three points stand out in my brief tour of the Loire Atlantique south of the Loire, part of Breton territory.
* The town of clisson, at the confluence of two rivers, which is dominated by the ruins of its old chateau.
* The 15th-century Renaissance chateau of Goulaine, 12 miles south east of Nantes. The present owner, Robert, the 11th Marquis of Goulaine, has a strong sense of history and has gone to great trouble to restore his family home.
* The fishing port of Pornic, which like Le Croisic further north, combines sea, boats, and old buildings in a vivid mosaic. Pornic's tree-surrounded 12 th-century castle belonged to the notorious Bluebeard, Gilles de Rais or Retz.
A word about prices.
None of the hotels I stayed in cost me more than $22 a night including breakfast. The price would have been the same for double occupancy. in Nantes, where you might expect prices to be higher, I paid less in a pleasant hotel near the Chateau than I did at Josselin. Both were classified as two-star hotels.
Watch the classifications. Over the entrance to some hotels you will see two stars followed by a double N. The two Ns mean "nouvelles normes" (new standards). This is an indication that the hotel has been inspected and approved recently. Some hotels carry the year of inpsection: 1977 or 1978. A hotel which carries two stars but doesn't have a recent date or the double N may not qualify for the new classification.
In the provinces you can eat well for $5 up. And in brittany there is at least one creperie in every small town, the crepes costing $1 each or less.
Useful addresses: The French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020; La Maison de la Bretagne (The House of Brittany), a center of information for all things Breton, which is located in the Montparnasse Tower, 17, rue de l'Arrivee, Paris, 75015.