Monday 21st October 2013, Ploëmel, Morbihan
Today we have visited two places, one familiar to us and one new. The little town of Pont-Aven, situated astride the river Aven where it becomes tidal is very picturesque with its series of mills strung along the rock-strewn river. It has been a favourite spot for artists since the late 19th century when Gaugin visited in about 1888, staying in the Hotel des Ajoncs in the main square. We strolled down to the tidal stretch of the river, scattered with rotting wrecks which would have formed a suitable subject for artists, then back past the mills and along a street lined with gallery after gallery (just how many works of art can the average house accommodate?) to the Bois d’Amour, a path through the woods beside the Aven river, much beloved of painters.
On our previous travels we had bypassed Quimperlé so we thought we would seek it out this time. It is quite picturesquely set at the junction of the rivers Ellé and Isole, indeed the lower town is on an island, but it does not seem to make the most of the setting. Much of the riverside is inaccessible and the main town square in course of rebuilding with a confusing square roundabout in the centre. There was a lot of traffic passing through but the pavements were very quiet, as so many French provincial towns are, especially on a Monday. The main street, the rue Brémond d’Ars, is lined with impressive houses which bear witness to a prosperous past and at the end of the street is the massive and austere Romanesque bulk of the former abbey church of Sainte-Croix. As its name implies it was built to a plan copied from the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in the form of a Greek cross, the nave raised above the short lateral arms over a crypt with the tomb of the 12th century founder of the abbey. Also beneath the nave is a striking 15th century entombment of Christ. Other sights in the town need to be hunted out. We came across the House of the Archers, a splendid 16th century mansion, tucked away in a side street. It now houses a museum of the town and puts on exhibitions and concerts.
Anxious to secure a campsite place before dusk, we joined the free motorway that encircles Brittany to move on eastward to this campsite which is located just north of Carnac.
Tuesday 22nd October 2013, Saint Pierre-Quiberon
We are surprised each morning that we stir at the crack of dawn to find it is already past eight o’clock and it is difficult to be on our way before ten. We were determined to see the megalithic sites to the north of Carnac, but the road workers had made an early start and a wrong decision at the exit to the campsite meant we chose a route where a series of deviations combined to bring us almost back to our point of departure after ten or fifteen kilometres of frustrating driving.
Even on a second visit (we passed here in 2006) the megalithic alignments are impressive. Constructed some 6,000 years ago, they must be one of the earliest large-scale sacred sites in the world. The Ménec alignments are the largest complex, with about 1100 massive stones stretching downhill to the east for a kilometre in eleven rows from a large circular enclosure, in the middle of which the hamlet of Ménec has been constructed. Further to the east are the alignments of Kermario, the stones larger and with an impressive dolmen at one corner. They are grazed by a rare breed of local sheep and closed to the public. Further on again there are the alignments of Kerlescan in thirteen rows, which is accessible to visitors. A path leads off past a riding school, where children on half-term holiday were being shouted at by instructors, to the Manio Giant, a massive menhir in a clearing, 3.5 metres tall. Nearby is the mysterious Manio Quadrilatreral, an oblong enclosure . The museum of the stones puts their history in context. They date back to around 4000 BC.
Leaving Carnac mid afternoon we drove down to the sea to visit an old friend – a tiny Breton chapel on the water’s edge with a granite fountain and a sacred well in the grass beside it. We imagine it was the baptistery to the chapel. We first discovered the chapel before we retired. The landlady of our chambre d’hôte told us proudly that her father had been responsible for restoring the wooden barrel vaulted ceiling of the chapel and painting it midnight blue, spangled with silver stars. She sent us off to see it and we found it so charming this makes the third time we have visited the village of St, Philibert to sit inside the tiny chapel as Breton singing soothed us via a discrete speaker system and the calm of the tiny chapel enfolded us. Outside seabirds cried as they flew around or scuttled over the mudflats in search of crabs and worms.
We had a choice, either to return to last night’s campsite or drive out across the causeway onto the isle of Quiberon on the edge of the Bay of Morbihan. We opted for Quiberon and before long were settled on this pleasant site on the low cliffs overlooking the bay. While supper cooked we strolled down to the sea to watch the waves gently breaking onto the granite rocks and the sandy shore. The sun was still shining at 7pm. Returning to the campsite we poured ourselves some wine and settled to watch it disappear into the sea (the sun, not the wine). Within seconds a black cloud changed everything. The sun was blotted out, a clap of thunder echoed and huge raindrops spattered down on us as we folded chairs and tables and disappeared inside Modestine. From then on the rain fell and throughout the night we were buffeted by squalling gusts of wind.
Wednesday 23rd October 2013, Surzur, Presqu’il de Rhuys
This morning we were up before daylight with the moon and stars still shining as we crossed to the showers. After breakfast we drove the short distance along the coast to the town of Quiberon at the tip of the peninsula. Yesterday’s rain had completely disappeared to be replaced by brilliant, warm sunshine. We stopped first at Port Heliguen, a busy fishing and boating harbour with a plaque commemorating Dreyfus who landed here after returning from years of wretched imprisonment on Devil’s Island.
Down at Port Maria the ferry out to Belle Isle was about to depart. Last night we’d wondered about making the trip but the weather decided us against it – that and the fact that it would cost us 65 euros return for the two of us. We watched the ferry make its way out from the port into the bay of Morbihan for the 45 minute trip. While the bay is sheltered compared to the Atlantic sweeping in on the other side of Quiberon, the boat was still bobbing about like a cork and we were not sorry to be left behind. Without transport out there we’d have seen very little anyway and it would have been another 300 euros to take Modestine!
Instead we sat on the terrace of a seafront cafe with our coffee, basking in the warmth and watching all the grandparents out with the kiddies. It is obviously half-term in France and they have been dragooned as childminders.
We discovered the retail shop for the Belle-Iloise fish cannery. It is as exotic as any chocolaterie or parfumerie with displays of bisque d’homard, soupe à poisson and boîtes de sardines and maqueraux. Baskets of assorted tins could be sent anywhere in the world though the prices were far from cheap. Watching the video of the history of the Belle Isle fishery we could understand why. The work is exhausting, fishing in all weathers and the fish sorted, prepared and packed in cans by hand. We did not buy anything as we have discovered in the past just how salt tinned fish can be, especially the much acclaimed soup.
Leaving the town of Quiberon behind, we made our way along the Côte Sauvage. Here the waves crash violently against the rugged coastline and the population is around zero. There is a wide expanse of moorland with a few windswept and stunted trees and little else. It is indeed wild and empty. To protect the coast there are special free parking places for cars. Unfortunately for us the height restriction was 10 centimetres too low so we were unable to park except in the area for huge camping cars, hidden away back from the sea. There was a charge of 6 Euros for this to include overnight accommodation if required. It is a necessary measure to prevent huge camping cars drawing up for several days free camping along the cliff top. It was a pity for us, though we did eventually park at the entrance to the parking area and risked a quick scamper across the moorland to look more closely at the sea. Maybe at this time of year it doesn’t matter so much but nobody objected to Modestine being left beside the road for five minutes.
Leaving the Presqu’ile de Quiberon we returned to the mainland and drove inland to Auray. The hero of this town is Cadoudal, the last of the Chouans or French royalists. His personal struggle lasted until 1804 when he went to Paris in an attempt to kidnap Napoleon. He was arrested, tried and executed, his body being passed to medical students for dissection. The bits and pieces were collected up and interred in a mausoleum on the outskirts of his native town. Today the town has about 11,000 inhabitants, the main square in the upper town dominated by a proud hotel de ville with the market hall unusually tacked on behind it. The square is lined with imposing houses and a street leads down to a panoramic view across the Auray river to S. Goustan, the old quarter, reached by an ancient bridge with several arches through which the waters rushed, much to the alarm of a paddle boarder who was attempting to navigate through it. The quay on the St Goustan side of the river is named after Benjamin Franklin, who landed at Auray from Philadelphia in 1776 and stayed at an inn there on his way to Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French. The whole quay area is very attractive, with many half-timbered buildings from the 16th century. It was once a major port but suffered after the growth of Lorient and the arrival of the railway. Apparently the only trade that kept it going towards the end was the supply of pit props to Welsh coal mines.
We crossed the bridge and climbed back up to the higher town, looking in vain for the car park where we had left Modestine. Eventually we found her and arrived at this very pleasant campsite in Surzur at the head of the Rhuys Peninsula in time to enjoy a cup of tea in the warm sunshine. The campsite has supplied us with a detailed map of the peninsula and we are looking forward to discovering it tomorrow.
"The Dreyfus Affair" - including the roles of Emile Zola and Jean Jaures See the entry for 18th January 2010 - The museum of French Socialism at Castres