Capital of Brittany, Rennes is one of the football powerhouses of the north west. Home of 2019 French Cup winners Stade Rennais, Rennes challenges the historic capital of Nantes for regional superiority in the Brittany Derby – even though its rivals officially left the region in 1956.
With Lorient and Guingamp recently prominent, the term ‘Derby de la Bretagne’ is a somewhat convoluted term these days – but the classic face-off is between the two fiery fan cultures of Rennes and Nantes.
Or rather flag-off. Nantes supporters wave the Breton colours of black and white along with their own yellow and green in a bid to show themselves as the true bearers of Breton tradition. Rennes fans wield the stripes and ermine spots of Brittany’s Gwenn-ha-du flag while also revelling in their Celtic heritage.
The cultural background of Stade Rennais is a complex one, personified by the recent renaming of their century-old stadium. Simply known since 1912 as the Stade de la Route de Lorient, a reference to its position west of town on the road to Lorient, the stadium became the subject of a long-term debate over its renaming. Rejecting the potentially lucrative choice of a sponsor, in 2015 Rennes turned to their followers to choose. The options reflected the club’s Breton and Celtic roots, Stade des Hermines a reference to the regional ermine emblem, Roazhon Celtic Park featuring the ancient Breton name for Rennes.
In the end, 60,000 voted for Roazhon Park, its seats now sporting the red and black of Stade Rennais. Outside, huge concrete supports lining route de Lorient bear the ermine spots of the Breton flag.
Suitably, the club’s first manager was Welsh, Arthur Griffith, who also played for the red-and-blacks, winning the regional Breton league in 1908 and 1909. Until 1904, the club’s main rivals had been FC Rennais, winners of the inaugural Breton league in 1903.
Both clubs had been formed in 1901. FC Rennes were early practitioners of the game, which been brought to Brittany by students from Jersey when resident in Saint-Malo. Alongside Saint-Malo in Saint Servan, British sailors and merchants had set up business, even their own college, playing football in the town’s squares and forming their own club.
Over in Rennes, a small group of friends, all former students of local colleges, founded Stade Rennais in 1901, losing their first match 6-0 to FC Rennais. Within a year, Stade Rennais had bounced back to win the Ligue de Bretagne in 1904.
With Brit-dominated Saint Servan looking stronger, FC and Stade Rennais joined forces, adopted the red and black of FC Rennais. It took the experience of Welshman Griffith for the new club to break the regional dominance of the upstarts from Saint Servan, today’s US Saint Malo.
After World War I, the club kept with British managers, hiring George Scoones from Jersey, a stalwart defender who had played for Stade Rennais at the newly opened Stade de la Route de Lorient from 1912 onwards. As player-coach, Scoones led Rennes to their first French Cup final, in 1922, a defeat to Red Star. His son of the same name also played for Rennes in the 1930s. Scoones senior died shortly before the Nazi invasion of Jersey in 1940.
Founding members of the French Division 1 in 1932, Rennes have since come through fallow periods to put in creditable campaigns in the league – though without the silverware won by their later-formed rivals Nantes.
Both clubs compete at youth level too. Each of their respective academies is recognised as the best in France, Rennes producing the likes of Sylvain Wiltord and Yoann Gourcuff.
Supporters, meanwhile, try to out-Breton each other, the Roazhon Celtic Kop unfurling the largest Gwenn-ha-du flag ever made at a game in 1994-95.
Rennes-St-Jacques airport is 6km (four miles) from town. The No.57 bus runs every 20-30min daily to République (journey time 20min, €1.50 on board), the hub of the city’s one-line metro and extensive bus network run by the same company, STAR. The €1.50 single ticket is valid for 1hr for bus and metro, a one-day pass is €4, two days €8.
By train, Rennes is 2hr-2hr 15min from Paris-Montparnasse, single tickets around €40 online. Rennes station is just south of the city centre, around a 10-15min walk or two metro stops to République.
A taxi (+33 2 99 30 79 79) from the airport to town should cost €16-€20 depending on the time of day.
Selling itself on its proximity to the stadium, the Brit Hotel du Stade is a modern mid-range lodging whose rack rates actually drop significantly at weekends. Just over 1km from Roazhon Park, it wouldn’t be too convenient for a night out in Rennes.
Actually closer to Roazhon Park, and on the city side too, Le Lorient Hotel is a comfortable and cheaper two-star, whose only drawback is the fact that reception only operates at certain times of the day.
Another is Le Florin, clean and generally affordable. As elsewhere, though, breakfast prices are pretty steep.
Narrow, pedestrianised rue St-Michel (aka rue de la Soif) in the centre is lined with bars, nearly all quiet if not closed by day. The Madison Bar is one of the busiest, with all kinds of drinks deals to keep punters happy.
Guarding the entrance to St-Michel, with its terrace set on a little square, the lovely Bar du Champ Jacquet feels local and authentic, surrounded by pretty half-timbered houses. It’s also a sports haunt, with a TV screen inside and booths for communal imbibery.
Rue St-Georges is the grown-up equivalent of rue St-Michel, more restauranty than drink-fuelled, while still offering the likes of the party-centric St Georges itself and the football-focused Golden Gate bar.
On rue Paul-Bert, Tiffany’s is a local institution, a late-opening billiard bar that screens Rennes matches.
Naturally, Rennes is not short of Irish bars: O’Connell’s is the most prominent, opened in the World Cup year of 1998 and still busy, right on place du Parlement de Bretagne, while Kilkenny’s Pub is a bit more tucked away on rue du Vau Saint-Germain, rugby fans happy to find it.
Towards the station, the Shamrock is perhaps a better spot for football watching, open from 5pm. If you’ve just arrived and need a celebratory drink, then Le Surcouf is not only a convivial Breton brasserie but its terrace outside and island bar inside allow you to relax over a glass without the pressure of having to dine.