Thursday 17th October 2013, Locronan, Brittany
Well rather to our surprise we’ve made it! Here we are in the wilds of western Brittany on a delightful, wooded campsite. Outside it is dark as pitch and an owl is hooting nearby. Today though we have had a very relaxing time walking to the pretty local village of Locronan and up into the hills behind to a charming tiny Breton chapel at the summit with a view across the fields to the sea. The chapel is typical of Finistère, constructed in granite and slate and adorned externally with carved saints and demons. We returned to Modestine for lunch before driving down to Douarnenez on the coast during the afternoon.
But to begin at the beginning. We took the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff on Tuesday evening. The sea seemed so smooth I fell asleep wondering when the ship would actually leave Plymouth while in fact, according to Ian, we had been under way for some time and the sea was quite rough. I must have been tired!
Our cabin booking included an early morning breakfast. It’s a ploy to get us out of the cabins early so they can get them ready for the return crossing. Personally I’d prefer to sleep a bit longer than be woken at 5.30am by a tannoy telling us breakfast was waiting. A large contingent of French school children had spent the night in the public lounge and were sleepily consuming croissants and hot chocolate. Meanwhile we faced a plate of scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon and baked beans. It was still only 6am!
As usual we’d been the last on to the ferry and had been placed on the car deck to be the first off. As we gulped the last of our coffee and rushed down to rejoin Modestine the heavy Breton haulage lorries were already revving up for the off. Modestine scuttled off the boat the second the doors were opened and was chased through Roscoff by several enormous lorries returning from delivering Breton-grown vegetables to supply the English markets.
It was dark and raining in Roscoff and we quickly headed out from the port to nearby St. Pol de Leon where we turned into the supermarket to wait for daylight to arrive. In the back of Modestine we both fell asleep and it was 10am before we woke to find the car park full of shoppers.
We walked down into the town centre and explored the cathedral and some of the back streets of the town. Emmanuel lives in St. Pol but he would be busy at the school where he works at this time. Still, we intend returning this way to England and will see both Emmanuel and his father Joël then. They are the son and husband of my late friend Danielle whom I met when working in Champagne-sur-Loue in the Jura so many years ago. We are still good friends with her family.
We had no fixed plan for our day but open campsites are few so late in the season. We knew of this one, conveniently located for several places we wish to visit and headed in this direction. No hurry though. We stopped to visit several of the delightful Breton granite churches including Guimiliau and Lampaul-Guimiliau with their wooden carved and painted altar screens, baptismal fonts and wonderful granite calvaries in the church yard. We have written previously about the parish enclosures of Brittany. They are awesomely lovely in a naive way with charmingly carved local saints and wooden screens rich with cherubs, fruit, demons and dragons. There are so many dragons to be found in and on Breton churches! The churches are all constructed in granite and the carvings are very hard wearing. The bell towers are also ornately carved and decorated.
Our route took us near Mespaul and we speculated on what may have happened to our daughter Kate’s former clarinet teacher who bought a tiny cottage on the edge of the village and disappeared with her partner to live a bohemian life in France growing vegetables, learning to play the breton bagpipes and teaching English. On a whim we turned off to investigate. We were not surprised to discover the little house of her dreams has long since been abandoned, the windows all broken, the door rusting on its damaged hinges, the paintwork decayed and the ironwork rusted. So much for dreams. She obviously left with a bang though. Through the broken windows we could see the tarnished remains of Christmas decorations hanging from nails hammered into the wooden beams of the ceiling.
In Landiviseau we stopped to explore, discovering a crystal clear well flowing from beneath a carved and decorated granite stone into a series of troughs which appear to have once been the village lavoir.
In a local bar we got chatting to the patron as we drank his excellent coffee. He insisted on showing us on his computer several places of interest which we have been ordered to visit in central Brittany. Everyone, he told us, goes to the coast, but the interior also has its charm and we are not to ignore it. So we already have several places previously unknown to us that we must see over the coming days.
We reached Locronan around 6pm. I felt very weary from the journey. Fortunately we had plenty of easily prepared food in Modestine’s fridge and we were quickly settled. I went to bed while Ian worked on his computer and processed his photos.
After breakfast this morning we walked into the village. Locronon is on the list of the most beautiful villages of France. It is entirely built in granite with the church at the centre dedicated to the local saint, St. Ronon. So local is he that his ornate granite tomb is in the church. There is also a small bell which it is claimed was once his. Brittany has so many saints that almost every village has its own. As the man in Landiviseau said, if they find themselves running short they create a few new ones.
During the afternoon we drove down to Douarnenez, a rather drab grey town sloping steeply down to the port which is monopolised by a large sardine packing factory. Douarnenez residents have always lived harsh lives. The men worked in the fishing industry while the women would clatter down the cobbled streets in their wooden shoes to work in one of the many packing factories whenever the boats returned. For many years the economy of the town was based entirely on the sardine industry but eventually competition from Spain and Portugal brought a decline to the Douarnenez canning factories and the town suffered from extreme poverty. Only one of the many canning companies is still active in the town today and tourism has not replaced the jobs lost. The town became a hotbed for socialism and was at the forefront once the French Communist Party became formally established. It had one of the country’s first communist councils and today we saw one of the shops in the town used as offices for the Communist Party. Jean Jaurès, the famed French social reformer had strong links with Douarnenez which at that time was known as the Red Town because of its communist leanings. Even today the town seems rather rundown and neglected, something unusual in Brittany which is generally so different from the rest of France.
Having explored the port area and admired the island just off shore – Ile de Tristan, claiming tenuous links with Tristan and Isolde - we crossed the bridge, high above the steep flooded river estuary created by rising sea levels and known locally as an Aber. Below the bridge, bobbing at their moorings were hundreds of pleasure craft, fishing vessels and small sailing yachts. On the far side of the bridge lies the small commune of Treboule, far smarter than Douarnenez with it harbour for pleasure boats, several smart cafes and restaurants, pretty residential houses and its bars and hotels. There is also a very popular sailing school where the local children were learning to sail tiny dingies out to the Ile de Tristan.
Friday 18th October 2013, Locronan
Having decided to spend three nights here, today we drove out onto the Crozon Peninsula. We have visited the area before but this time we visited the Cap de la Chèvre and Château Dinan, neither of which we had previously discovered.
Traffic around here has surprised me. The roads are treated as a racing circuit by the local people who are invariably in a great hurry to get to their destination. Brittany is a surprisingly large region so journeys can be lengthy. The recent improvements in French driving have not yet permeated through to the far west of France and tailgating is the norm. I have spent much of today feeling as if I have a long train of processional caterpillars following me around. No matter where I drive, they invariably follow, driving far too close for Modestine’s comfort.
Before driving on to the peninsula we drove up to a stunning viewpoint at the top of the highest point in the area, Menez Hom. From here we could look out to the bay of Douarnenez fringed around by a rocky coastline interspersed with a few white sandy beaches, the Crozon peninsula and the river Aulne with its slender white suspension bridge. Our walk to the highest point in a very stiff and moisture laden breeze left us breathless, wet and exhilarated.
We drove down onto the Crozon presqu’île, or peninsula, heading for the Cap de la Chèvre. We stopped to pick up picnic food at the smart seaside resort of Morget, a pleasant place with a few bars, cafes, and a bakery. Currently the place is in chaos. The pavements have been taken over as roads while relaying the seafront area. Already in every place we visit we have been aware that the season is well and truly over. Shutters are up, buildings closed for the season and everywhere is generally deserted. The tourist industry in France depends on working flat out through July and August and living off the fat for the rest of the year.
We reached Cap de la Chèvre across a heathland of bracken and trees that gave way to a low, stunted shrubland of gorse and heather. On the clifftop is a signalling station operated by the French airborne navy division. There is also a monument to those killed or drowned on active service whilst flying missions around these waters. One dates right back to 1870 when a pilot ditched whilst flying a balloon to England during the Franco-Prussian war.
The scenery was impressive with white breakers throwing themselves continuously against the rugged cliffs in a surging froth of white foam. We walked along the cliff top, scrambling on the loose granite chippings covering the designated pathways. Anywhere so stunning in England would be a honeypot for tourists. Here there was us, a guard dog within the signalling station and one young Frenchman we passed as we returned to Modestine through the low stunted heather. Despite being right on the cliff top the wind was less severe than it had been on top of Menez Hom. Across the water we could see the outline of the Point du Raz lying beneath a very black cloud that was obviously raining down on it. We’d chosen well to come here instead!
By the time we’d returned to Modestine and Ian had brewed some of his superb coffee to warm us up as we ate our shared chicken baguette, there was just time to continue around the coast in search of the stunning Château Dinan. This is not, as I imagined, a château at all! Rather it is a huge granite headland that refuses to become an island , riddled around its base by huge caves worn out by the constant surging of the sea. To me it resembles the body of a huge monster lying in the water off shore, its gnarled and knobbly head resting on the mainland and joined to its body by a narrow arch of rock through which the sea froths and swirls. A footpath leads across the top of the arch but it is not for the faint-hearted Maxteds. We were content to regard it with awe from the safety of the cliff top!
Further along we discovered another headland where we could more easily scramble out to stand on its summit and look back along the coast of magnificent granite cliffs, eroded and contorted, showing all too clearly how the rocks must have been compressed and twisted like molten toffee when the granite was first extruded from the earth’s core. Out across the bay were huge stacks and islands no longer part of the mainland coast. This chain of steep rocks and the sheer cliffs together formed a sheltered bay where, today at least, the seas seemed calmer than they were back towards the more open waters of Cap de la Chèvre.
It was very overcast and grey as we returned back along the peninsula where we stopped briefly in Crozon, a small town of around 9,000 inhabitants. It is the only place larger than a village on the peninsula and the only real source of employment for the residents. Parking is abundant as it needs to be for people coming in to town from the surrounding villages for their shopping. The small villages rarely have anything beyond a bakery selling only the essentials such as daily bread – and pink macaroons and lotto tickets. What else would villagers ever require? We found little to detain us in Crozon. The church is large and modern – not a patch on some of the stunning granite ones we’d seen in the villages. So we did not linger for long.
Unfortunately we coincided with the afternoon rush hour at exactly 4.59pm, with hundreds of drivers finishing for the day and eager to clip another minute off yesterday’s timing for the twenty kilometre trip home to their villages scattered around the peninsula. They did not take kindly to an English campervan scuttling frantically along blocking their way, driven at a lethargic 70-80 kilometres per hour! And who, except us in our heavier vehicle, cares about road humps anyway? Popular culture dictates that if you go fast enough you skim over them!
So I was relieved to get back to the campsite safely where we recovered with a glass of red wine while Remoska busied herself preparing us bouches de la reine with our own potatoes and carrots grown in our Devon garden. We couldn’t bear to risk them rotting in the garage while we were away so they came along for a one way trip.
Les Enclos Paroissiaux – Pleyben, Guimilau, St.Thégonnec,
Les Enclos Paroissiaux – Lampaul-Guimiliau
See also the general index to our blogs under France-Bretagne