The trendy new quarter
Welcome to the mail! Previously known as the Promenade du Mail before being rechristened, on 1 April 1996, with the name of the former French president, this boulevard in Rennes was created in 1677 (see below) and given the mythological name the mail des Champs Elysées. For a number of years, it has once again been the place to go to “have a well-deserved break” in good company. As a trendy new quarter, it has become the go-to place for brunch or a drink in the evening, not to mention at the weekend, before you head out on one of the many cycle routes, in the direction of the setting sun, like a lone cowboy, laden down with organic produce for a picnic.
“I only go out on the mail” is the new adage of Rennes. It is now the place to hold all get-togethers. And if you are passing through Rennes, it would be remiss to not have a stroll along the mail, the new nerve centre close to where the two branches of the river meet and where Rennes’ ancient name came from. It couldn’t be easier to get to: starting from the quays and the place de la République, you will see the liner-shaped Cap Mail building designed by Jean Nouvel, where the promenade starts and stretches to the jardin de la Confluence garden.
The ramblas at the city’s confluence
In the afternoon, it’s a tree-lined road of almost 700 metres punctuated with plane trees, Lebanon cedars and little “follies” that are ideal spots to take a break in the shade. When the sun shines on Brittany, you could almost believe that you were in the south of France. Particularly in the afternoon, and more so during the cocktail hour, the bar and cafe terraces and glasses fill up right before your eyes. People come here to play palets and mölkky to enjoy time with friends well into the night.
Have a drink, brunch or eat on an outside terrace
The mail François Mitterrand is the place to go to sit en terrasse: between les Grands Gamins, Oh My Biche, la Cabane, La Piste and l’Echappée, there is a multitude of options. Large tables are set under trees and in front of colourful façades. And don’t be afraid to share them with strangers, that’s how it works in Brittany.
As for what’s on the plate, we recommend the accras and tapas at l’Echappée (the people also have the Hibou and the Saint-Germain) that you order at the counter before heading out to sit on the terrace or into neighbouring la Piste, which is also managed by the same team. A little further east, les Grands Gamins is one of the nicest bistros in the area and was one of the first to initiate the trend on the new mail. “Conviviality and good humour” is their attitude at all times. The weekend brunch is very popular and it’s worth making a reservation or arriving early. Further up, Oh My Biche, a coffee shop that offers grilled cheeses and seasonal dishes at reasonable prices, is another lovely spot.
Full of new places
On the other side of the mail, if you are looking for a healthy restaurant for food lovers look no further than My Bouvier, a tea house, bakery and snack bar by Thierry Bouvier, established in a bright, loft-style “contemporary workshop”. Although it is the most recent to open its doors on the mail, in June 2018, la Cabane adds an Iberian touch to the “Ramblas of Rennes”. The new tapas restaurant/bar is set up in a house with a green façade and a Creole feel. The barrel tables on the terrace and the inside with its delightful mezzanine give it a bodega-style atmosphere: tapas, Basque and Spanish beers, it’s all here. Menus and continuous service from noon to 11 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday.
- Les grands gamins, café-restaurant, after work, brunch, 40 mail François Mitterrand https://lesgrandsgamins.fr +33(0)223258911
- La piste, bar, 68 mail François Mitterrand +33(0)257215399
- L’échapée, street-food bar, 68 mail François Mitterrand
- M Bouvier, tea house, bakery and snack bar, 89 B mail François Mitterrand http://mythierrybouvier.fr +33(0)299690000
- Oh my biche, coffee shop, 18 mail François Mitterrand +33(0)982286636
- La cabane, bodega and tapas bar, 12 mail François Mitterrand +33(0)299689389
Stock up on organic produce and bargains
The mail is not just a place to party and enjoy propping up the bar. We have found the best places to stock up on regional and local produce, including local beer and much more. Firstly, head to the mail’s organic market, which is held every Wednesday afternoon. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., around 20 producers from Ille-et-Vilaine and other departments of Brittany offer bread, fruits and vegetables, crepes and galettes, fish, poultry and much more. There is enough on offer to buy everything you could possibly need for your locally-sourced organic picnic.
On the second Sunday of each month, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Rennes flea market welcomes bargain hunters at the top of the mail. It’s the meeting place for second-hand goods traders and second-hand book sellers, where you’ll find inexpensive furniture, second-hand clothes and vintage decorations. Another gourmet address to keep in mind is le Coin Mousse, a beer cellar where it is well worth trying (in moderation of course) a selection of their French craft beers. A little further along the Grands Gamins, l’épicerie du Mail grocery store also offers a wide range of high-quality Breton beers, wines and fresh produce. Just like at le Coin Mousse, you can sample the produce while sitting on the terrace. Because Brittany is also a wine trail destination!
- Mail organic market, every Wednesday afternoon, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m..
- Rennes flea market, every second Sunday of the month, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m..
- Le coin mousse, 4 mail François Mitterrand, +33(0)223461871
- L’épicerie du mail, 36 mail François Mitterrand https://lepiceriedumail.fr
A huge playground
The mail has rediscovered its original purpose: as a playground. Most establishments provide Breton palets, a favourite pastime for the people of Rennes. A board, discs, a little agility and practice… don’t be afraid to ask the locals to explain the subtleties in the rules of palets. You’ll quickly come to love it. Like pétanque in the south of France, palets is mainly an excuse to meet up and have a good time with family and friends. For children, there are artificially grassed areas or small play areas with swings and slides, so they can have just as much fun as their parents.
Right at the end of the mail, other games await at Warp Zone, an iconic e-sports bar for fans of retro games, online gaming and arcades. They also have a cocktail bar – open to all, not just gamers – that enjoys the advantage of being particularly well positioned to watch the sunset during summer.
- Warp zone, e-sports bar, 92 mail François Mitterrand.
Festival theatre and convivial events
The mail is the theatre for a number of participative events and festivals often take over its spaces. The Fleurs du Mail theatre festival takes place in June and the Les Tombées de la Nuit team loves to put on events, especially since Dominoes in 2015. During World Music Day on 21 June, crowds gather to listen to contemporary music performers. In April, it’s both the start and finish line of the Rennes Urban Trail. Even in winter, you can warm up at the Christmas market and ride the Ferris wheel from where you can enjoy stunning and unique views of the city. In February, the Urbaines festival transforms the city into a stadium for street sports and other sporty people occupy the spaces all year round. For all 12 months of the year, the mail is alive and bustling with concerts in bars, themed evenings and cultural events.
And if you hurt yourself on the mail?
Street workout you say? This street-based sport is becoming increasingly popular. CrossFit equipment is available in the middle of the mail. A few sets of pull-ups, push-ups and burpees could be just what you need to eliminate all the calories gained on those bar and cafe terraces. For those who are keen on interval training, athletics tracks are outlined on the ground at different distances for sprinting and warming up before heading along the towpath for a waterside run. “No pain, no gain”: we also like to work a little on the mail!
And if you want to treat yourself after all those exercises, head to the Kerfit wellbeing and fitness studio that offers massages and lower impact sports activities (aerial yoga, pilates, etc.) This new wellbeing studio is tucked away in a peaceful courtyard. If you are looking for a traditional gym during your stay in Rennes, there is also the Elancia gym on the mail.
- Kerfit, sports and wellbeing, 4 mail François Mitterrand https://kerfit.fr
- Elancia, gym club, 48 mail François Mitterrand www.elancia.fr
History of the mail: a tree-lined promenade
In French, the term mail refers to a tree-lined promenade, with the name originating from a very popular 17th-century game that was a type of predecessor to polo. In Rennes, its initial construction dates back to this period: in 1677, the Duke of Chaulnes decided to map out a long tree-lined street that was not really intended for this sport, but primarily as a place for parliamentary elites to stroll. The Rennes mail was therefore called the “Mail des Champs-Elysées”, in reference to a neighbouring area with spaces filled with plants and the Duke’s stables. The mail of this era was closed at night by a drawbridge. “Above all, the mails were places to walk where people came to be seen and show off. However, the one in Rennes also had a political side as it was a dead-end facing the west and the setting sun. Symbolically, it was a way of conveying in its layout the desire to develop Brittany, starting with Rennes, and to spread the king’s decisions out to the ends of the earth”. explains Gilles Brohan, head of the heritage department at the Tourist Office.
In the 1800s, the dead-end becomes a traffic route
The mail was later reorganised and became less elitist, “in the 18th century, trees were planted there and the canals were doubled to drain the Vilaine” adds Gilles Brohan. During the 19th century, the mail hosted festive events, patriotic banquets and a summer fair, while the winter fair took place on the Champs de Mars.
The turning point in the mail’s purpose came in 1840. At the same time as the reorganisation works on the Ille-et-Rance canal and the diversion of the Vilaine’s course, the mail became a traffic route intersected by the main Paris-Brest road. A number of garages and industrial businesses set up there, which meant the area lost is peacefulness and charm. A station for the Ille-et-Vilaine tram was even built on the place de la Mission. In the car-crazy post-war period, it was overrun by sad open-air parking spaces before rediscovering its initial purpose in 2015 as a shaded promenade primarily for pedestrians and cyclists and somewhere pleasant to stroll, go shopping or have a drink on a terrace.
An architectural mix between the old and new
The mail is a good reflection of the variety in Rennes’ heritage that mixes different styles and different eras. Although the approaches to the promenade were built later and although many more modern buildings have replaced the old houses, there are still some architectural curiosities to see if you just look up. Begin at the start of the mail, near to the lock that opens towards the Ille-et-Rance canal. Take a look at the little lock-keeper’s house on the other side, which harks back to the presence of the old port. Just behind it, another boat can be seen: Cap Mail, the luxury liner-style building designed by the Ateliers Jean Nouvel, with its plate-glass panelling and its living wall on the river side.
Art deco, ceramics and unusual architecture
Opposite this piece of contemporary architecture, an odd pink house catches the eye at number 8. On the archway is a decorative keystone sculpted with a horseshoe, pliers and a hammer, highlighting without a doubt the previous presence of a blacksmith, established when the mail became a traffic route to Brest in the 19th century. Just a bit further along on the same side, at number 48, a building from the 1960s combines angles with a rounded façade. Opposite, a new building has continued this same curve. The 1930s building at number 52 has kept its art deco balconies, a style that can be found everywhere in the city. At number 54, the house, which is the corner with the rue Coulabin, is decorated with colourful ceramics around the moulding. Across the road at number 56 is a building from the 1930s that was formerly a shirt manufacturer.
At number 68, we go a little further back in time with a traditional 1920s house that is decorated in brick and ceramic. Impossible to miss, it is where the La Piste bar is established. The fresco by graphic designer Maxime le Clanche and the Atelier Vandale depicts a cyclist and is a nod to the name of the bar and the cycle path.
Not far from there, on the odd numbered side, an unusual architectural feat has gone up at the end of the mail. The three-storey building, with its unconventional design by the Barré-Lambot architects, was prize-winning, but the restaurant for which it was built has since closed. Staying on this side of the mail, retrace your steps to number 91 to contemplate the entrance to a large house with a double archway and a tent-shaped roof. This is actually a copy of a house in Lille that dates back to 1912.
Now that you’ve uncovered these surprising discoveries on the mail, it is time to sit and simply enjoy it, on a bench or under one of the “follies” set up in 2015. These shaded structures comprise an unusual net of slatted leaves in a mesh of braided copper by artist Stéphanie Buttier.
You’ll feel at home on the mail!