Wednesday 4th June 2014, Batz-sur-Mer, Brittany
This morning Jill felt rather stiff from falling over an uneven manhole cover on the campsite. It wasn’t even one worth Ian’s while to add to his Manhole miscellany! It was chilly and raining heavily as we left Angers well behind and headed towards Brittany. After our white knuckle ride out of the city during the rush hour last night we decided that much as we’d enjoyed Nantes on our earlier visit we really didn’t want to risk coping with the evening rush hour from yet another major city as we inevitably would if we ventured into the town. So we turned our backs on Nantes, circling the city to the north and heading towards St. Nazarre and on to the Présqu’île de Guérande. This was our first sight of the sea since we returned to Europe back in April. After all those hot, stuffy days of glaring sunshine in Bavaria it was like ointment on a sore. The rain of this morning had gone and the sea was a deep greenish blue topped with thousands of little white waves as it rolled in to break on long beaches of golden sand. The wind was brisk and fresh, not a day to stand around but fantastic for blowing away the cobwebs during a brisk stroll along the seafront at La Baule where we could fill our lungs with the clean tang of the sea. La Baule is Brittany’s answer to the smart and expensive Riviera resorts of Juan les Pins, Antibes and all those affluent Mediterranean resorts rolled into one. The entire length of the seafront consists of smart flats for holiday makers with balconies overlooking the beach. They are mainly unoccupied at present, waiting for the crowds to arrive in July. There is a smart casino, cinemas and a few restaurants and cafes. Currently there is plenty of parking but it must be hell in August. We had to wait while a man with a spraycan painted an official pedestrian crossing on the road in front of us. Meanwhile, out on the water windsurfers and kite flyers on surfboards sped rapidly back and forth in the sunshine and there was a permanent jangle of the spinnakers rattling against the masts of the moored yachts in the marina. Behind the main seafront we discovered the older resort consisting of quiet shady streets of early 20th century bungalows set in large woody gardens of maritime pines. The atmosphere was very different and more agreeable than along the concrete seafront.
Further back in land we encountered a large area of marshland with salt beds. This, we realised, is the area where all those little packets of salt that people pay a fortune for to bring home as souvenirs originate. Sel-de-Guérlande is big business in France. It is also used to flavour caramel sweets, another favourite Breton export, as well as to add to jams, fruit and anything else they can persuade the gullible French it will turn into something magical. We tasted several free samples of foods with added fleurs de sel but found them not to our taste.
Further around the coast we passed through several little Breton villages of low, whitewashed houses with their steep black slate roofs, sheltered from the worst of the almost constant winds that buffet the coast of France’s far west. Having settled Modestine on a sandy campsite amidst the trembling grasses of the dunes, just a few steps from the sea, we went off to explore this quiet corner of the peninsula. On the beaches a few children were playing and tumbling in the piled up sand but the sea was far too rough and chilly for anyone to be bathing. A walk across open fields back inland brought us to a restored 17th century windmill complete with cloth suspended on its sails. Grain is regularly ground here and can be bought directly from the mill or from several bakers in the local village of Batz-sur-Mer. This, we discovered, is twinned with Salies-de-Béarn, a town in South West France on the border with Spain that has strong memories for us, both happy and sad.
Returning to Modestine we found the sunshine so warm and the hedge surrounding our pitch so effective against the sea breeze that we sat outside with our wine while Remoska cooked our supper.
Thursday 5th June 2014, Piriac-sur-Mer
We are encamped in the midst of a pine forest with facilities to match the sylvan setting after a leisurely day exploring the headlands to the west of Saint-Nazaire. Our campsite last night was on a neck of land that leads to a little peninsula which is almost entirely occupied by the little town of Le Croisic, an attractive old granite town with a few half-timbered houses.
To the north side of the town there is a lively port area lined with shops and restaurants. Here we watched a fishing boat from the breakwater leading to the lighthouse.
On the quayside is a statue of a native of the town thanks to whom we know the shape of the earth. Pierre Bouguer (1698-1758) was an astronomer who was a member of a geodesic expedition to Ecuador undertaken between 1735 and 1744 to measure the arc of the meridian and determine accurately the position of the equator. His findings were not well received by the Cassini family, astronomers at the Paris Observatory who espoused Descartes theory that the earth was pointed at the poles (a prolate ellipsoid) rather than Newton's proposition that it was flattened (an oblate spheroid). Bouguer braved earthquakes and civil war spending several years in making his measurements. They confirmed the findings of another expedition sent by France to Lapland between 1736 and 1737 to measure an arc of the meridian closer to the pole. Newtonians in France rejoiced. Voltaire wrote to Maupertuis, the leader of the Lapland expedition calling him the flattener of the earth – and of the Cassinis.
Bouguer was also a mathematician, professor of hydrography, a member of the Academy of Sciences and inventor of the heliometer. His contribution to science was recognised by the government of Ecuador on the tercentenary of his birth in 1998.
A narrow road wound alarmingly along an embankment between the salt pans producing the famed sel de Guérande which maintains the French blood pressure at a high level and is readily available throughout the town.
The medieval walled town of Guérande is surrounded by towers, ramparts and gateways. A funeral was taking place in the main church and the slow, sombre tolling of the bell accompanied us around the streets. In mediaeval times there was a custom at one gate that fishermen entering the town on Easter Monday had to pay a fee of a gallon of wine or jump naked into the town ditch.
And so on along the coast to the little village of Piriac-sur-Mer, diverting to enjoy the solitude of the Pointe du Castelli, made all the more isolated after the sentier des douaniers (coastal footpath), which ran below the military semaphore station, had been washed away in the storms of 1990 and had to be diverted. We sat on a bench overlooking the sea to admire the evening view – a lovely way to end today's travels.
Friday 6th June 2014
Today has been hot and sunny with temperatures reaching 34 degrees. We have done a lot of driving and this evening we are in inland Brittany in the Argoet or forested region. It is an attractive area with few major towns. The nearest town of any size is Carhaix, pretty well in the very centre of Brittany.
We have explored much of southern Brittany when we were here last autumn. This time our purpose is to see Joël whom we missed on our last visit as my eye health wasn’t up to the long drive back from Caen to see him as we’d originally intended. Today though we have had no luck in contacting him, nor has he responded to the email we sent a couple of days ago so it may be that he is away visiting his grandchildren down near Agens. We will pass by the house in a day or two and hope to find him.
So we are heading to Finistère and the far tip of Brittany. This is the area we love most of all. When Danielle was alive we could stand on the cliffs of Devon looking out across the sea and think of our friends doing the same thing from their local beach where Joël still keeps a small fishing boat and regularly goes to sea when the weather is good, bringing home a harvest of crabs, lobsters, shellfish and mackerel. (Actually that could explain why he’s not been answering our phonecalls.)
Today we made a leisurely start, passing through an area of yet more salt pans and following the by-ways of Ile-et-Vilaine until we found ourselves at La Roche Bernard, a place we have visited several times before but its charm never fails to thrill us. We couldn’t resist stopping for a stroll around the beautiful little town of granite houses and tiny shops. Every corner was filled with flowers be they climbing roses festooning the cottages or wild flowers of every hew growing in cracks in the ancient grey walls, clustered around tree trunks or crowding the borders of the cottages overlooking the lovely curving river with its many white-sailed yachts swaying gently at their moorings.
The town is full of old granite buildings, a number of them formerly salt stores. Brittany was exempt from the gabelle or salt tax during the Ancien Régime and this led to a good deal of shady practice, including smuggling. Now they are largely craft shops. The town ends in an outcrop of rock crowned by two rusty cannons point out over the estuary of the River Vilaine, but it was once the site of important naval shipbuilding instigated by Richlieu during the reign of Louis XIV.
It is easy to see we are in Brittany and the language is forced to share the French love of puns, at any rate as far as one tea shop, named Ty Cozy, is concerned. Ty is Breton for house, what a Cozy might be we have no idea.
We chanced upon a bar where we finally found decent internet access (and good cheap coffee) and caught up on our emails while the television in the corner broadcast details of the commemoration of the D-Day landings. Geneviève has reported in an email that there is so much going on in and around Caen. Even though movement is difficult there was plenty to see, exhibitions, crowds of veterans, ceremonies. France is making it a big event, and rightly so, as it is the last significant anniversary that many of the veterans will be able to attend. Many of the interviews, and reports of the efforts taken by veterans to be present, are very moving. Ian acquired a little pamphlet in the market in Le Croisic yesterday which was published in London by Hachette in 1943. It is a series of reports written in French on conditions in London as the host of refugees from France and other occupied countries. The refugees fervent dreams of liberation come across very clearly and they were to be realised the following year.
We picnicked beside the large suspension bridge over the River Vilaine, seeking the shade as temperatures rose to 34 degrees. The afternoon was mainly driving along the N165, the four-lane racetrack which is the nearest thing that the west of Brittany has to a motorway, under bridges painted with Breton nationalist slogans, then north along another fast road to the peaceful wood and rocky glades around Huelgoat in the middle of Brittany, where we are now encamped by a little stream running beneath the trees.
Saturday 7 June 2014 Guissény
The village of Huelgoet lies attractively beside a lake, made by a dam which helps to operate a watermill, the Moulin d'Enfer. The little stream tumbles on beyond the mill between massive granite rocks in what is the place's main attraction, the so-called chaos of tumbled boulders, many of which have their picturesque descriptions, the Virgin's kitchen, for example. The tourist office seems to hand out quiz sheets, for we found several groups of walkers clutching them, including one clustered around the huge Rocher Tremblant, which lived up to its name because, if the right spot and angle are discovered, it is possible to rock the boulder – and we saw it move, just a little but perceptibly.
We continued to the north coast, having our coffee on a col from which it was possible to see long distances across the wild landscape, uncultivated and with granite outcrops reminiscent of Dartmoor or West Penwith.
A little further on was the Abbey of Relec. The ruined abbey was under restoration so could not be visited, but the vegetable garden in the grounds made up for this. Recently set up on raised beds it gave a very informative history of the vegetable garden, charting changing styles and social perceptions from the medieval period to the 21st century and giving the culinary history of vegetables, including details of their first appearance in France and their status across the centuries. The cauliflower, for example is a relatively recent addition to the French diet, having arrived, together with broccoli, from Italy. We are enthused to try some of the lesser known vegetables in our own garden and stayed in this idyllic spot to have our picnic lunch.
On next to Morlaix which is dominated by the railway viaduct across the river valley. Under the arches of the viaduct a market was in full swing, even late in the afternoon, and we wandered the narrow streets full of half-timbered houses. But we did not allow ourselves to be detained for long as we were on our way to Roscoff to check on ferry time and prices. We then made out way west along the coast to a delightful campsite by the sea at Guissény. Because of a special offer in a supermarket we visited en route, we had coquilles Saint Jacques for supper, washed down, whether appropriately or not, with red wine and followed by mousse au chocolat.
Sunday 8th June 2014 Guissény
Today we went over to Joël's house in Guissény. There was no sign of him at home or around the garden but while we were looking a friend arrived to borrow some tools and gave us the phone number of Joël’s friend Jacqueline whom we have yet to meet. She told us Joël was out with his boat and suggested we ring back in the evening when he would be with her.
With the day to ourselves we set off to explore the Abers (deep water river inlets) in the wild, far west corner of Brittany. We pottered our way along winding roads through grey stone villages, each with its elaborately carved open granite bell-tower, along the "côte sauvage" with its crosses and little chapels perched on the cliff-tops with endless beaches of fine white sand below. At one point we saw the dunes scattered with parked cars, vans and tents. A charming young man with extravagant hair explained that it was a sort of pop festival being held over the weekend where you simply paid as much as you thought it was worth to attend the gigs. It was quiet at the moment as the sessions were held in the evenings and he was there both to listen and to play in a band.
Eventually we reached Pointe St Mathieu, France's answer to Land's End, but much less commercialised. There are the remains of an abbey and the associated buildings, a couple of lighthouses and a monument to sailors who had died for France. In three rooms in the former guard house were hundreds of photographs, together with a listing so that individuals could be identified. It was very touching –so many of the young faces did not look at all like tough heroes.
Once again we have found ourselves on the pilgrim route to Compostella. This particular route actually starts here at the westernmost point of Finistère – a mere 1958 Kilometers to travel.
These uttermost ends of Europe always provide food for thought and this is no exception. Here perhaps it is the thought of all the people who have visited this remote spot over the centuries: the Celts, the Romans in the first century BC, the Cornish migrants during the 6th century, the Vikings, the monks who toiled in the large walled gardens, the pilgrims who came to pray at the shrine of Saint Mattieu, the many traders and seafarers who once made this a prosperous town, and the soldiers who manned the gun emplacements here from the time of Louis XV until the Germans during World War 2.
We returned to the campsite and just before we started our supper were delighted to be discovered by Joël and Jacqueline who had out been celebrating a birthday. Their friend had alerted them that we were here and we are invited to stay with Joël back in Guisenny tomorrow evening.
February 2015, Exeter
At this point our notes give out. The remaining few days were spent with Joël in Guissény. Long before we woke each morning he’d departed with his boat and for supper we enjoyed the fish, crabs and lobsters with which he returned. We have now met Jacqueline who is charming and around our age. She is a retired teacher and was very willing to try out her English. We immediately became good friends. She is good for Joël ensuring there is no risk of him shutting himself away or developing the isolated life of a retired bachelor – though given Joël’s cheery disposition and wide circle of old school friends in the village there is little likelihood of that being allowed to happen!
Jacqueline invited the three of us to her home for supper on our last evening where we were joined by Emmanuel who now works as a fully qualified teacher in St Pol de Leon. It was a wonderful evening to find ourselves once again with our Breton friends who accept our friendship so unquestioningly. They are Danielle’s family and through them I can still link back to her, when in our teenage years Danielle and I first met, together with Susanne and Francoise, in my beloved Burgundian village of Champagne-sur-Loue.
Next morning we departed from Guissény, drove into Roscoff and parked Modestine at the port. Our ferry did not leave until mid afternoon so we were able to revisit well remembered corners of the town, browse the ancient granite church and the little shops on the main street and enjoy a picnic lunch before embarking for the crossing to Plymouth. We reached home just after dark.
Since then we have spent the longest spell in England since we retired. My eye developed a number of annoying complications which has meant driving distances has become very tiring. Gradually i am gaining ground but have frequent relapses. The eye is more comfortable but my vision is damaged in the left eye. Hopefully a cataract operation and strong glasses will eventually improve matters. Otherwise though, we are fit and healthy and have a lot to be happy about.
We have recently received an invitation to the wedding of Susanne’s grandson Thibault in Champagne-sur-Loue. I am old enough to remember his dad being born and it is with much joy that we will join our friends to celebrate this happy event.
If you’ve followed us this far you are now ready to join us when we set off once more with Modestine for some gentle Maxted Travels. Thanks everyone for your company so far.
A few bonus photos amidst the dunes at Guissény
We spend our time, when Joël was out fishing, pottering the shore amongst the dunes near the house. Here there is an abandoned village where, just within living memory, villagers relied totally on the sea for their livelihood, fishing, boat building and collecting algae to be burned in stone troughs to produce potash which was spread on the soil so crops could be grown.
These rather blue photos are from a film shown in the interpretation centre at Meneham. It shows actual scenes of the working lives of the villagers ….