Earlier this week, I visited one of the most special sites in Brittany: the neolithic alignments at Carnac. These rows of standing stones - as many as eleven lines in places - stretch for kilometres. Forgotten for many years (or borrowed as building material), they were 'rediscovered' from the end of the eighteenth century and are now recognised as a protected site of exceptional importance. Nonetheless, their conservation remains controversial - from the use of bulldozers in the 1980s to moving stones for roads and fences, and the restricted access today which led to an occupation by protestors in 2002.
As with so many prehistoric monuments, the meaning and construction of the alignments are shrouded in mystery. They are probably over 5,000 years old although they are likely to have been constructed over centuries - Aubrey Burl suggests that stones were perhaps added to regularly until Roman times or later. Given the amount of effort and labour involved in transporting, aligning and erecting 3,000 stones, some kind of religious purpose is often posited. Other theories include some kind of astronomical significance, memorials to the dead, or Pierre Mereaux's argument that they may have been primitive seismic instruments. Alternatively, local myth has it that they are ranks of Roman legionnaires turned to stone to protect Pope Cornelius as he fled persecution.
The alignments were first excavated by a Scottish antiquary, James Miln, who found most of the stones no longer standing. His local assistant on those late-Victorian excavations, a boy called Zacharie Le Rouzic, became fascinated by the stones. A self-taught expert, he became director of the town museum holding Miln's finding and did a great deal of work on the stones themselves, including re-erecting those which had fallen.
As well as the alignments, there are solitary menhirs, dolmens and tumuli. In fact, the local area is exceptionally rich in megaliths - well worth exploring, if you can resist the miles of sandy beach just the other side of town.
Begin in the town centre for free maps from the Tourist Information and a shuttle bus to the stones. There is also a large car park by the Maison des Megalithes alongside the stones.
The Maison des Megalithes has a book shop, information, film introduction and small exhibition. It is also the starting-point for guided tours.
A 'petit train' does a 50-minute tour in French and English, which takes you the full length of the alignments as well as to the town's beaches.
There are two ways to get inside the fences and right up to the stones. First, there are regular guided tours leaving from the Maison des Megalithes (about three a week in English). Second, there is open access during the low season (winter).