Halles Martenot - Rennes

Place des Lices square

Once an arena – from the Middle Ages to today

Its name evokes images of knights competing in tournaments, but we love coming here every weekend. The Place des Lices is one of the busiest in Rennes, especially on Saturday morning, when the marché des Lices market takes place. This is a gastronomic tradition that has continued for almost 400 years. However, the Place des Lices has plenty other stories to tell…

The epicentre of Rennes’ way of life

At the heart of the historic centre, the Place des Lices is the epicentre of Rennes’ way of life and cultural heritage; it is a pleasant area, with its Halles Martenot market built in the Baltard style, lined with terraces of bars and restaurants that have clear views of a unique architectural skyline that brings together the styles from different eras. From here, you can see the towers of Saint-Pierre cathedral. Further away are the two joined Horizons towers, designed by Georges Maillols, which echo the matching half-timbered private mansions.

The market take place every saturday morning,

These remarkably tall buildings watch over the Lices market, which has taken place every Saturday morning since the first in 1622. This is the beating heart of Rennes, of food lovers who come on the weekend to shop for Breton products and of partygoers and students who meet here on Thursday nights. It’s not rare for everyone to be here from sunrise, gathered around stalls to try (no matter what the time) the oysters and a good galette saucisse (a grilled pork sausage wrapped in a savoury crepe). Once upon a time, it was the medieval rampart that was the setting for popular events. Go back in time a bit to imagine a place at the city gates, surrounded by fields, where jousts between knights were held.

The setting for jousting knights – and torture

“The name of the Place des Lices takes us back to the medieval period. In this spot outside the rampart, fields were transformed to hold events like knights’ jousts,” explains Gilles Brohan, head of cultural heritage and architecture at the Tourism Office. “[The French word] Lice is the name of the wooden barrier that separated each knight during the jousts. The most famed, Bertrand du Guesclin, earned his stripes here”.

The place is also a symbol of justice, as it was here that the gallows were set up, in the exact location where the clock currently is. It’s a landmark that is now used as a meeting spot. However, how many of the passers-by know that those condemned to death were brought here along the controversially named “rue des Innocents”? This street connects the Place des Lices to rue Saint-Louis. “Anyone who entered or arrived at rue Saint-Malo to visit the city saw the gallows, a symbol of justice and power, placed here,” tells Gilles Brohan. The tortured prisoners were beaten and hanged to be visible.

When Bertrand du Guesclin competed incognito

On 4 June 1337, a huge tournament took place in Rennes at the Place des Lices for a ducal celebration. Betrand du Guesclin, the future Constable of France, was only 17 years old and forbidden to participate in a tournament. However, the temptation to demonstrate his valour in combat was too great. He joined in the tournament anyway by borrowing his cousin’s armour, so as not to be recognised. The young man who was to become a hero of the Hundred Years’ War did not do things by halves. He unseated a dozen knights using his spear. The problem was that his next adversary was none other than his father. Du Guesclin preferred to yield as a sign of respect in front of his lord and refused to fight. A short while after, another knight wrested the visor from his great helm during a joust and everyone recognised the young man who was to become the terror of the English some years later, nicknamed the “Black Dog of Brocéliande”.

It’s a story that is undoubtedly romanticised somewhat and you can learn more about it, and others, on a guided tour that will immerse you in the atmosphere of Rennes in the Middles Ages.

The square came to life with the creation of the market in 1622.

Following the Middle Ages, the square became busy for more pleasant reasons. In 1622, the market was set up here and today, the tradition continues every Saturday morning. “In the 17th century, the market transformed the square, which became frequently visited. Due to a lack of space inside the walls, the parliament members who wanted to live there built private mansions to reflect their status,” says Gilles Brohan. This is because space was far from lacking on the square. The huge mansions were astonishing; in 1658, the first were built at numbers 24 and 26. These were the two matching half-timbered houses – the hôtel de la Noue and the Racapée de la Feuillée.

The others were built from stone, such as the hôtel de Montbourcher in 1658 at number 30 and the hôtel du Molant, between 1666 and 1670, at number 34, which currently houses the Le Carré restaurant and its lovely terrace. The neighbouring auction room was established in the stables of this building, where very important figures stayed during the era of parlement authority. “The city’s first magistrate, the jurisconsult, then the Intendant of Brittany, stayed here at the end of the 17th century,” says Gilles Brohan. “With its courtyard and gardens, the hôtel du Molant is representative of the classical design in this private mansion. There is no ostentatious decoration on the façade, except for a profile of Louis XIV, but the simple fact that it was built in stone demonstrates a certain affluence”.

The Halles Martenot appeared in the 19th century

Musée de Bretagne, Collection Arts graphiques

In the 19th century, a final structure was to transform the square: the Halles Martenot, named for architect Jean Baptise Martenot, were built in 1871 in the image of the Baltard Halles market in Paris. Designed as a mix of bricks and steel in the architectural style typical for the period, the two halls, which have a total area of 1,300 m2, were renovated in 1989. On market day, the one furthest to the south was used by butchers. As for the other, it housed producers of local products. A third hall was added in 1907, but it has since been demolished. Incidentally, the Halles Martenot almost had the same fate, as they were threatened by a project for a car park. Fortunately, the Halles are still standing and regularly host salon events and exhibitions that keep the square bustling outside market day.

The Marché des Lices: France’s second-largest market

This is an unmissable meeting place for foodies. From 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday morning, all of Rennes comes here to stock up on seasonal fruits and vegetables and fresh fish and seafood. It is a huge display of Breton products, where chefs and restaurant owners come to source their supply of products for their à la carte and weekly menus. Between the stalls, musicians also still have their spaces: there is always something happening at the marché des Lices.

The tradition of the galette saucisse

Between the two halls, the food trucks and vans are always busy: queue patiently to try the galette saucisse, the quintessential Rennes specialty. At the market, you can also find a plethora of organic products, ciders, breads, honey, artisanal beers, locally produced specialties to have a look at, though there’s no point resisting temptation! You should also give in to another local tradition, the apéro marché (market aperitif), which simply involves being peacefully installed on a terrace to savour the hustle and bustle. It’s the weekend, so relax and enjoy the ambience and sunshine!

Plenty places to best enjoy the city

You can find yourself on the Place des Lices at any time of day or night. On the menu are recommendations from one end of the square to the other: from the bar terraces close to the place Saint-Michel to restaurants, there is always something to do. At Délirium Café, you can admire the remains of the medieval rampart that stretches right along the square to the Portes Mordelaises. The terraces with the best views of the market are very busy, so it’s best arrive early at Pavillon, a bar-brasserie that leads onto the flower market; at La Grappe, a charming wine bar; at Webb Ellis, a pub in a strategic location; at Iodé, an oyster bar that is a pleasant reminder that the ocean is close by and also at l’Abri du marché for fans of galettes and mussels.

For food lovers, there are other spots that are also worth a visit: the Cours des Lices, Le Carré restaurant and Angello dei Lices, where you can find the best pizza in Rennes (and among the best in the world). At the lower end of the Lices, you can also find other terraces outside bars and crêperies where it’s nice to spend a few hours. At Gazoline, for example, where you can play palet with friends and family, or at Le Chantier bar or Amaryllis, where gatherings can easily stretch into the night. As for shopping, among the beautiful half-timbered houses, you can have a look around Aperçu, a delightful boutique specialising in decor and gifts, and in the neighbouring shop, La Poudrerie, a beauty bar and make-up institute that will transform you into a beauty queen. Lastly, to make the most of a weekend in Rennes, Hôtel des Lices could not be any more central. 

Curious ermines watch over cultural heritage

As in other streets of Rennes’ historic centre, giant ermines have been set up in the windows around the Place des Lices: next to the Janata restaurant and the building in the corner at the stairs. Brittany’s symbolic animal is not there by chance, as this is the work of the Bonne Kozh project. As part of the renovation of the city centre’s cultural heritage, while waiting to welcome new businesses, the ermines are occupying windows during remodelling. It’s something to make the Place des Lices even more photogenic, with these curious little animals and their mischievous expressions.

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