In beautiful Brittany countryside, some 30km west of Rennes, the Forest of Brocéliande (also known as the Forest of Paimpont) is a small remnant of a vast, ancient forest that once covered much of inland Brittany.
This atmospheric region is steeped in myth and legend. King Arthur and his knights, Merlin the wizard and the powerful enchantress, Morgan le Fay, are believed to have dwelt, loved and fought in the forest – and there are plenty of places to visit and things to see that will bring the legends to life.
Of myth and magic
Forest of Brocéliande
Many places lay claim to the legends of King Arthur and Merlin. Penny Bunting visits one likely contender: the Forest of Paimpont in Brittany
Start your Arthurian exploration in the little village of Tréhorenteuc. There's an excellent tourist office here – and be sure to visit the tiny Église du Graal (Chapel of the Holy Grail). Here, Arthurian legend, paganism and Christianity are merged, with illustrations of Morgan le Fay and the knights of round table displayed alongside paintings of the Last Supper. Look out for the Holy Grail pictured in the centre of one of the colourful stained-glass windows.
From Tréhorenteuc, it's a beautiful four-kilometre circular walk into the Val Sans Retour (Valley of No Return). This picturesque river valley winds through ancient mixed woodland of oak, beech and birch. It's believed to be the haunt of Morgan le Fay – she imprisoned unfaithful lovers here, in revenge for her own lover's infidelity.
When you've finished admiring the Golden Tree, walk alongside a glimmering lake – known as Mirroir aux Fées (the Fairies Mirror) – and follow the path through the valley, which crosses and re-crosses a gurgling stream. There are ample opportunities for children to play make-believe: hunt for fairies in holes in the tree trunks or pretend to be one of Arthur's knights, galloping along the river path.
After meandering alongside the river for a while, the path climbs steeply up a rocky slope to reach a marvelous viewpoint. Look out for a large rocky, outcrop – this is where Morgan le Fay sat to admire her domain, and if you clamber up onto it you'll be treated to a spectacular view across the valley.
A short drive north of Tréhorentec is Merlin's Tomb. From the parking area deep in the forest, a track leads to a little clearing where you'll find an arrangement of stone slabs that's believed to be the final resting place of Merlin – some say he was imprisoned in these stones by the fairy, Vivien.
On a sunny day it's a magical walk, with dappled light streaming onto knarled and twisted boughs and trunks, and little luminous blue dragonflies flitting here and there. It's easy to see how this area was believed to be the home of fairies and wizards.
On entering the forest, you're struck by a stunning sight: a golden tree, glinting in the sunlight. This was actually erected in 1991 to commemorate a fire that ravaged the forest in 1990 – and symbolizes regeneration, like a phoenix emerging from the ashes.
Nearby, and harder to find – supposedly only the pure of heart are able to locate it – is the Fontaine de Jouvence (Fountain of Eternal Youth). This circle of stones surrounding a spring was once an important and sacred Celtic site.
Legend has it that those who drink the waters will be blessed with eternal youth – but on the day we visited the water was a little murky, so we didn't test this theory.
Another mythical tomb can be found near the village of Touche Guérin. The tombeau du Géant (Giant's Tomb) is a burial chamber that – because of its four-metre length – is said to be the grave of a giant killed by one of King Arthur's knights. However, it actually dates from the Bronze Age and is constructed from four Neolithic menhirs that stood in this spot around 2200 BC.
When you've finished exploring the forest, head for picturesque Paimpont, with its old abbey and beautiful lakeside setting.
The main street is lined with pretty stone cottages, and shops selling charms, Celtic jewellery, fairy figurines and other Arthururian gifts and paraphernalia.
There are also a couple of crêperies, including the excellent Crêperie du Porche – where good use is made of seasonal and local ingredients such as pears, almonds and Brocéliande honey.
The Château de Comper, near Concoret, is also worth a visit. First built in the ninth century, then repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt throughout the subsequent centuries, the main building now dates from the 1800s – although there are some older remnants to be found in the ramparts and entrance gate.
Above: Giant's Tomb; Merlin in Paimpont; Château de Pierrefonds
The Château de Comper houses the Centre de l'Imaginaire Arthurien, featuring scenes from Arthurian legends. The castle and grounds themselves also have links with the legends – this is said to be the birthplace of the fairy Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, and the castle's Lac de Diane was her home.
Try to time your visit with one of the summer events, including storytelling, music and magic shows. The annual medieval fair is particularly atmospheric, with wandering minstrels and storytellers, harp music, craft stalls and donkey rides.
Fans of the hit BBC television series Merlin may want to travel further east in France to visit one of the programme's iconic filming locations.
The Château de Pierrefonds in Picardy will be instantly recognisable to Merlin fans as Camelot: home to King Uther, the young Prince Arthur, Lady Morgana – and of course Merlin himself.
It's easy to see why the programme's producers chose the 19th century-castle to be Camelot: the whimsical turrets, stone archways, gargoyles and impressive courtyard provide the perfect fairytale backdrop for Arthurian adventures.
Many of the rooms inside the castle will also be familiar from Merlin: the stone staircases, vast halls and eerie crypt were all used as sets when filming the series.
King Arthur in the UK
Brittany isn't the only region that's associated with Arthurian legend – the UK also has many places that claim to have links with the king.
Tintagel, in Cornwall, is supposed to be the birthplace of King Arthur, while the Holy Grail is believed to be somewhere in the crypts of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.
Tintagel could also have been the site of Camelot – the place where King Arthur held court, and the location of the famous Round Table – but Caerleon in Wales and Cadbury Castle in Somerset also lay claim to this location.
Glastonbury Tor in Somerset (left) was once surrounded by a vast lake and is believed to have been the legendary Isle of Avalon.
Ancient myth says that Avalon was the meeting place of the dead, the point where they passed to another level of existence – and which is said to be Arthur's final resting place.
Green Adventures May 2017