Thursday 24th October 2013, Surzur, Presqu’il de Rhuys
Some days can be just lovely and today has been one of them. We’ve had such a happy day and got so side-tracked we need to stay here for three nights to give us time to fully explore the peninsula. The only downsides have been blistered feet and a return of blurred vision in my eye. So this will either be brief or finished off by Ian.
The Presqu’île de Rhuys lies in the Gulf de Morbihan. The bay of Morbihan is the result of rising sea levels. Once it formed a part of the mainland but gradually the sea has risen by over ten metres flooding the area and leaving higher ground as tiny islands. It is still continuing to rise.
At the little town of St. Gildas there was once a monastery of which, early in the twelfth century, Abélard was the abbot. This apparently was after his “transgression” with Héloise with whom Abélard had both a physical and intellectual relationship. As punishment by the church he was castrated and then sent to St. Gildas where he pined for Héloise, writing to her that this was the most dreadful exile imaginable and complaining that his fellow monks were trying to poison him. Amazingly his letters to Héloise survive! Our impression of the peninsula of Rhuys has been very different and our writings most certainly less intellectual. Nor have attempts been made to poison us – though the campsite owner was proud to show us the basket of mushrooms she’d gathered around the site.
There was a clinging mist as we set off this morning but it soon lifted, revealing a countryside of bright autumn colours, hemmed in on all sides by the pale silver-grey of a sea beset with dozens of small islands with their rocky foreshores, narrow sandy beaches and dark green maritime pines. The entrance to the gulf of Morbihan is really very narrow so the waters are calm, the surface of the sea little more than a gentle shimmer in the sunshine. The rocks, islets and islands seem so closely packed into the bay that seemingly a hop, skip and jump would take you across from one to the next. Most are uninhabited, others, such as the Ile-des-Moines, can be home to several hundred people with a half hourly ferry to the mainland. To get to the ferry from here on the presqu’île de Rhuys though would require a motorway trip round Vannes and down to the sea beyond. From there you could then take the ferry out to the island. Meanwhile, with a pea shooter we could almost bomb the beaches of the island from here!
Our first stop this morning was at the peninsula’s main little town of Sarzeau. By chance it was market day and the streets packed with cars. We were lucky finding a place for Modestine and joined the jostling crowds on the main square, which was packed with stalls selling everything from traditional rugs, beds and furnishings to clothing and footwear. Most people in isolated rural areas of France rely on the markets for everything. We have nothing in Britain that compares with the bustle and variety of a French weekly market. Our interest though was in the foodstuffs. Here the fish stalls were paramount, with live crabs, and lobsters with their pincers held closed by tight rubber bands. There were cuttlefish, crustaceans, cockles and whelks. There were sea bass, john dory, skate, haddock, cod and mackerel. There were oysters, coquilles St. Jacques, whelks, razor shells and many other varieties I just don’t know the names for. Then there were associated cooked dishes – paella, frogs’ legs, seafood choucroute, lasagne with salmon and seafood, salmon mousse, rillettes of anchovies and even gâteau de mer - a sort of savoury cake containing fish, prawns and coquilles. Fish is undoubtedly the mainstay of the local diet.
The meat and cheese stalls were definitely quieter with shorter queues. Wild rabbits still with their fur on, vied with duck, chicken, pork and horse on the butcher’s slab. Cooked Breton specialities were also on offer with kik-a-far – cabbage, carrots, turnips and swede cooked with pork and a crumbly stuffing made from dark spelt flour and chunks of white dumpling cooked in with the meat and vegetables. We had this once in Guissény with Danielle and Joël, cooked as a fund raising event by the village school. It was unbelievably filling but absolutely delicious.
Breton cakes and biscuits are always popular. They are invariably made with lots of Breton butter, eggs and sugar. Far Breton is a sort of very solid and substantial sweet batter with prunes baked inside. I did once, in an earlier blog, offer to cook it for any visitors as I have Danielle’s recipe but nobody had the courage to take me up on it. The offer still stands.
We ate many samples of cheeses, gâteaux and nougats. They were all lovely. Eventually we drifted off to explore the streets of granite shops and houses on the old town and to peep inside the church. It was quite unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere in Brittany being an eclectic mix of Romanesque and classical architecture painted in white. The outside was more traditional granite but a disappointment after what we have seen elsewhere.
The sun was shining and the temperature perfect. We joined lots of others on the sunny terrace of the PMU for coffee as those around us greeted each other with bisous, filled in their betting slips or soaked up the sunshine over a glass of absinthe or a beer. The PMU cafes all serve good coffee at a reasonable price. We recommend them. They also have far more character and liveliness than many cafes.
Dragging ourselves away from Sarzeau we drove further along the north side towards the tip of the peninsula stopping beside the tidal mill of Pen Castel for our picnic lunch. The tide was just going out and the lake on the landward side of the bridge was still full of water with mussel beds marked out by poles stuck into the mud and used by cormorants to dry their wings. They looked plump and contented, as if they’d been using the beds as a sort of sushi bar.
Leaving Modestine beside the mill we went for a walk around the coast to Port Navel from where we observed the islands of the bay described previously. The cliffs are all surprisingly low in Brittany, a mere eight or nine metres of tumbled granite and tiny beaches of sand, seaweed and shells. By the time we returned the tide had flowed out from the lake through the leats that would normally have turned the mill wheels to grind the corn. Now the lake was mainly mudflats and the mussel beds were exposed.
We’d already realised we would be here for at least one more night and decided to leave St. Gildas and the castle area on the south side of the peninsula for tomorrow. So we drove to the far tip of Rhuys to the tiny town of Arzon which has so many little rocky promontories around its coast line that on our large scale map, given to us at the campsite, it looks as if the town forms the body of a large starfish, or perhaps an arm reaching towards the mainland with fingers outstretched. We strolled (or in my case hobbled) around the harbour area with its fishing and sailing boats and followed the coastline to the lighthouse on a hillock so that its beam would be seen out at sea, though we had trouble locating it from within the town, hidden behind the houses.
Friday 25th October 2013, Surzur, Presqu’il de Rhuys
We are still here, spending our third night on this site. Today we have visited St. Gildas with its abbey church. It is an impressive Romanesque building founded in the 7th century. We expected to find a small town but really St. Gildas is no more than a village, much of which consists of pleasant little streets of modern Breton houses each very similar to its neighbour with white walls, granite facings around the windows and steep black slate roofs inset with bedroom windows. The style is typical of neat and tidy Brittany, as too are the equally neat and tidy gardens with immaculately trimmed hedges, clipped lawns and borders of late flowering hydrangeas.
We walked down to the harbour, full of tiny fishing and sailing boats waiting for the wind to calm enough to venture out onto the open sea for a day’s fishing. This coast is the côte sauvage and the sea was decidedly rough compared to the calm of the bay of Morbihan. (Incidentally, it occurred to us today that Morbihan is Breton meaning small sea.) The sandy beach was completely smothered by red algae thrown up by the sea. Amidst it sea birds were finding rich pickings as they pecked and scrabbled amongst the rotting, smelling fronds. Brittany has a particular problem with seaweed on its otherwise glorious beaches and many tons are regularly removed each year, burned down and used as fertilizer on the fields. Left untouched noxious gases would build up. We’ve seen notices on a number of beaches warning of the risk of being overcome by fumes and how to get help if someone collapses!
Back in the centre of the village we eventually discovered a small supermarket and picked up some sandwiches for lunch. Returning down to the harbour we picnicked sheltered from the wind in Modestine as we looked out towards the open sea trying to identify some of the islands on the horizon. A lady returning to a nearby car realised that we were English and suddenly ran over to us, excitedly jumped up and down in front of our windscreen and shouted “good afternoon.” To which we replied in English “have a nice day”. “Thank you very much” she said and jumped into her car and drove away smiling and waving happily. We’ve met many friendly people here.
The afternoon was spent pottering around the little lanes of the peninsula, exploring the villages and finding ourselves down at various little coves and beaches. This southern corner is certainly heavily populated, filled with houses that are at least as expensive as Britain. They are also more attractive and probably better built.
Our eldest granddaughter will be six in a few days time and we searched Sarzeau for a French picture dictionary for her as she has recently started lessons at school. We could find nothing suitable, a pity as it seemed such a good idea. Giving up on our search we drove to see the peninsula’s most impressive castle, Château Suscinio, built as a hunting lodge and summer residence for the Dukes of Brittany.
Standing on the edge of a lake and surrounded by its water filled moat Suscinio looked most impressive with its drawbridge, eight massive rounded towers, its curtain walls and it ramparts. Around the top the walls were protected by ornate but highly efficient machicolations enabling those inside the castle to drop boulders down onto those attempting to storm its walls. The castle was sacked during the Revolution and two of its towers have been destroyed. It has long been listed as an historic monument but only recently have funds been found for its restoration.
Duke Jean II built a strong wall around his domain to keep people out and to protect his hunting park from poachers. Several kilometres away a small town has developed called Le Tour du Parc because of its proximity to the domain. It sounded a curious place but, when found, it proved to be no more than another development of pleasant residential properties leading down to the sea.
Immediately along the coast in each direction were wooden huts and shacks with small boats pulled high up onto the beach. Out on the mud oysterbeds could be seen as the tide was out. There were several huge piles of oyster shells, and the fishermen were selling their catches wholesale from the shacks. It was a busy little community with mudflats stretching away to the sea and the raucous screams of the gulls.
We were obliged to return the way we’d come when we found our route barred by a boat! It was lying diagonally across the roadway, its rusty hull scraping the tarmac as several fishermen tried to devise a way of removing it. How it came to be there we don’t know but maybe a dozen people were advising on the best way to shift it. Eventually someone turned up with a fork-lift truck and managed to scoop the boat up several feet above everyone’s heads. As we turned around and left, the forklift truck, with a large and rusting fishing boat balanced precariously on its prongs, was blocking the road, quite unable to turn. It could not put the boat down again, nor proceed along the road, backwards or forwards because of all the parked cars! The boat rocked back and forth at every move. Securing it in position somehow did not seem to have occurred to anyone before raising it to its precarious position above the heads of the “helpers”.
We eventually returned to the campsite around 6pm and cooked sardine pancakes with salad and cider for supper. The internet was at last available and we could catch up on our emails. Tomorrow we will move on to Vannes.