By Catherine Watson

The giant stones march in rows across the tidy French landscape like soldiers from another time, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong.

Linger at this prehistoric site in northwestern France, as friends and I did, and the stones acquire purpose, even personality. The effect is strange enough to make the alignments at Carnac one of the most haunting places I know—even on a warm, sunny afternoon, like the one in July when we were there.

Menec Alignment, by Catherine Watson

The vicinity of Carnac is dotted with Neolithic monuments. This is just a portion of those that make up the Menec alignment, largest of the arrays of standing stones here. It is so popular and easily approached that it is now protected by a fence, and admission is controlled. Photo by Catherine Watson

Around us, grain was mellowing to gold in the fields, cows were grazing, butterflies were darting, and everything looked sweetly normal—except for those weird rows of marching stones. I began to feel that the land belonged to them, and they were tramping over it in another dimension, where the nearby road, the cars, the tourists—and we ourselves—did not exist.

It felt like being inside a modern-art installation, the kind that contemporary art museums would kill to own. But this was real, and we were the ones out of step, out of time.

The granite army began falling into formation here some 6,000 years ago, give or take a millennium or two, our English-speaking guide, Veronique Martin, explained as we walked between the rows at Menec, the largest array of standing stones.

“This is the biggest concentration in the world of what we call megaliths,’’ Martin said. The word simply means “big stone,’’ but she wanted us to understand that these were more than that.

“We are in architecture,’’ Martin stressed, gesturing at the phalanxes of gray monuments. “And like all architecture, it has a message for us.’’

The problem is that no one knows how to read it.

All that’s known for certain is that this place mattered to generations of ancient people. It continues to matter: Carnac is the name of a village, still occupied, near the coast of Brittany, one of the prettiest parts of the country.

The region is dotted with prehistoric monuments, Martin said: More standing stones like these, called menhirs. Man-made hills called tumuli.  And dozens of dolmens—stone lean-tos that typically contained burials. One local woman showed me a ­small dolmen in her garden; she had left it alone, except for planting flowers around it.

The names for these Neolithic monuments come from Breton, the Celtic language spoken in Brittany well into the 20th century and still used on road signs here, along with French.

Inland, Brittany is a place of apple orchards, pink hydrangeas, prim farm houses and rough stone barns, many now being restored as weekend getaways. On the coast, quaint villages cluster around inlets, still home to fishermen but increasingly attractive to vacationers and retirees, whose yachts and sailboats bob like seabirds in the little harbors.

All this prettiness makes the prehistoric relics look even more out of place—kind of like running across Stonehenge somewhere south of Des Moines.

Martin told us that the alignments date from the Neolithic period—the New Stone Age—when early humans had stopped being hunter-gatherers, settled down and learned to raise crops and livestock and, apparently, monuments.

About 11,000 BC, she said, “people came from Asia Minor in two population movements—one across the big plain of Central Europe and one along the coast of the Mediterranean.’’ Several thousand years later, “they met in Western Europe.’’

No Neolithic dwellings have been found in the vicinity of the alignments, she said, but that doesn’t mean people weren’t living nearby. Sea level was 20 to 25 feet lower then, so dry land extended much farther out than it does today. In other words, the remains of the builders’ villages could now be under the blue waters of the Bay of Quiberon.

Menec’s rows of stones rise gradually in height, from east to west, Martin pointed out, and “the biggest stones are always in the highest places—always.’’

To modern eyes, this suggests a crescendo. Does it mean they were ranked from low to high? Or that the west held more significance than the east?

Martin spread her hands and gave a classic Gallic shrug.

There are dozens of other possibilities, and we raised many of them on the spot, bombarding her with instant theories:

Could the rows of gradually taller stones mirror the upward growth of plants? Were they memorials of some sort? Did they serve an astronomical purpose? Did people come here on long pilgrimages, the way they still come to Christian sites all over Europe? Would they have commemorated their journey by putting up a stone? Did different groups add to them over time? Or did local people commit to a long-term plan and carry it out, down through generations, the way their descendants would build Gothic cathedrals?

More shrugs. “We don’t know,’’ Martin said.

Archaeologists are still puzzling over questions like ours, but the stones should be accustomed to such controversy by now. Their otherworldliness was recognized even in ancient times—by the Romans, then the Celts, then the early Christians.

By the Middle Ages, local people said the stones were Roman legionnaires, frozen on their way home. I like that theory best.

Other superstitions swirled around them, right into modern times. Certain stones could help a woman get pregnant, local peasants said, while other stones were good at making people fall in love. There was even a special song about them, and some local people still know the words.

Despite their supernatural powers, the alignments weren’t scary enough to prevent centuries of locals from scavenging and reusing the stones. About half of the original thousands have been lost. Well, not exactly lost: As Martin put it, “Every house in Carnac is a menhir.’’

A century and a half ago, Brittany’s beauty and mystery began attracting artists and tourists, and they have been coming in increasing numbers ever since. By the 1980s, the alignments at Carnac were too well known for their own good.

“There were too many visitors,’’ Martin explained. The grass was being trampled around the standing stones, which are set upright in shallow holes. “If you have no roots to retain the soil, you have erosion,” she said, and over time, the stones would fall.

Finally, in the early 1990s, she said, the French government fenced off the alignments at Menec, and now during the busy summer months, visitors can enter only as we had—by buying tickets at its small visitors’ center and going in with a guide.

2010 - KERZERHO, by Catherine Watson

Some of the giants in the grove at Kerzerho, near Carnac. This is one of many smaller groups of standing stones and is less visited than the main Menec array. Photo by Catherine Watson

Nearby, however, other squadrons of menhirs stand unfenced—meaning you can walk right up to them if you know where to look. French friends knew: They took us to Kerzerho, a smaller group just off a busy road, at the edge of a  woods.

We followed a path into leafy shade and found ourselves among giants. The mood was instantly different.

Where the sturdy Menec array reminded me of a purposeful army, with ranks of closely matched soldiers, Kerzerho’s were individuals, varying in shape, height and angle. It wasn’t hard to let my imagination run, and soon they turned into ancestor figures or  tribal elders, wise and benign. Walking among them, I felt instantly at peace.

The grove where these giants stand is small, and in places the trees were thin enough to allow glimpses of peaceful Breton life beyond: A young woman pushing a baby carriage; a row of new suburban-style homes; a field of wheat awaiting harvest.

In the quiet and the dappled light, my archeological questions vanished, and I no longer wished for answers. I thought instead of Druids, of legends, of spells—but nothing evil: Kerzerho was too gentle a place for that.

Catherine Watson is a travel writer, photographer and writing coach working in the U.S. and abroad. A former travel editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, she is the author of two books, “Roads Less Traveled” (Syren, 2005) and “Home on the Road” (Syren 2007). Watson’s national awards include the top two in her field – The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Photographer of the Year. To view Catherine’s books, visit Catherine’s Web site:

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Text copyright ©2012 Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.
Photography copyright ©Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.