Finistere land of legends in Brittany
As the sun rises on the tip of Brittany, the Angels’ Bay glistens like a sheet of glass. The tide turns, the oyster beds peep out of the water and villages begin to stir, clusters of flower-draped cottages with blue shutters and silvery roofs. The last shreds of mist drift across islands and rocks and on the Coast of Legends, the ancient tales are laid to rest for another day.
This far corner of Brittany is known as Finistère, the ‘end of the land’, but in the Breton language, they call it Penn ar Bed, ‘beginning of the world’. The north coast is rugged and wild, fringed by the English Channel, the south faces the Atlantic with sunny bays and wooded valleys. The Arrée and Black Mountains stretch across the hinterland to meet on the sacred mount of Menez Hom.
The Celts reached Armorica, the ‘land near the sea’, in 500 BC, followed 1000 years later by a second wave, this time monks and Christians who crossed the Channel to evangelize ‘little Britain’. Independent until the 16th century, Brittany retains a strong sense of identity, particularly in Finistère. Stone Age megaliths mingle with Celtic sites, outdoor calvaries and mysterious church enclosures found nowhere else in the country, built by villagers as a token of faith and a show of wealth from the cloth trade. There are holy springs and magic forests, hundreds of local saints and ghosts wandering on the moor among heather and gorse or in the turquoise lagoons of Crozon, the untamed peninsula shaped like a cross in the shadow of Menez Hom.
Crozon and a large slice of central Finistère form the Armorique Regional Park which extends into the sea. Ramblers enjoy the nature trails and spectacular views across two seas and the hills bristling with rocks. A scattering of museums reveals the diversity of the fauna and flora and the ancient skills and traditions of Armorique.
All over Finistère, festivals abound to celebrate the Breton heritage, from the colourful ‘pardons’ which honour the patron saints to the sumptuous Cornwall Festival in Quimper, all bagpipes and accordions and traditional costumes where lace hats can reach 33 cms in height.
Quimper is a delightful place, the capital of Finistère nestling in a green southern valley at the confluence of the Steir and the river Odet. Bridges tumbling with flowers mirror themselves in the water while locals and visitors alike stroll on the banks in the shade of the chestnut trees. Half-timbered buildings jostle along the cobbled lanes and the black and white Breton flag flies proudly from the townhall. You find remains of the ramparts, an elegant cathedral with Gothic spires and a gaily painted nave, a Museum of Fine Arts and a Breton Museum in the old Bishops’ Palace.
Quimper has its own legendary figure, King Gradlon, betrayed by his daughter long ago, but still watching over the town and seen riding his horse between the cathedral towers. Among the city’s original claims are the delicate earthenware items hand-painted with Breton scenes, the stethoscope invented by Laënnec and ‘crêpes dentelles’, lace-like pancakes whose recipe remains secret.
Wherever you are, Brittany is sure to tickle your taste buds with tender artichokes from the Léon plain, succulent seafood such as monkfish or Bélon oysters, and galettes, the savoury pancakes made from buckwheat. The local drink is cider, sometimes served in a cup to preserve its earthy taste. For dessert, try the delicious strawberries from Plougastel or the biscuits and ‘all things sweet’ from Pont-Aven.
Pont-Aven was sweet indeed to the 19th century painters who followed Gauguin to this pretty little spot at the mouth of the river Aven. They met in the sacred Lovers’ Wood, mused by the rustic Trémalo chapel and founded the Pont-Aven School of Art which thrived on bold colours. Drawn by the landscape and the ever changing light, artists still gather here and all around the Gauguin Square, art galleries line the streets. Crowds browse for a while then take a walk by the stream tumbling over the rocks, past the last waterwheels or the sprinkling of yachts bobbing at anchor in the harbour.
Not so far away, beyond the old walled town of Concarneau and its blue fishing nets, Bénodet is all fine sands and holiday fun but across the river, life moves at a gentle pace. In Sainte Marine, fishing boats wait for the tide, huddled in a secluded creek where a sailors’ shelter glows candy pink among the cottages. The air smells of pines and now and then, a sailing boat heads down river to the open sea.
Some say Finistère is like three fingers of a hand pointing towards the setting sun, others see a dragon’s head, wagging the fiery tongue of Crozon between the Bay of Douarnenez and the deep enclave of Brest. The dramatic Pointe du Raz battered by the waves looks out to the island of Sein, barely six metres above the water, while to the north, the coast curves towards the Ouessant islands, a haven for birds and strong-minded women who once had the duty to propose marriage to the men. Over 1000 kms of coast weave around Finistère, white sands and rocky bays, dunes, cliffs, islets topped with lighthouses, and scenic fjord-like inlets of the sea known as Aven in the south and Aber in the north.
Tucked deep into a bay once haunted by corsairs, Morlaix greets you with a 19th century viaduct towering above the old town and unusual ‘lantern houses’ with spiral staircases and galleries where lamps used to glow. Among them is the house of Anne de Bretagne, the duchess so dear to the heart of every Breton. Forced to marry two successive French kings, queen by the age of 13, Anne fought hard to preserve Brittany’s autonomy. But weakened by ill health, her daughter handed over the duchy to her own royal husband and the Treaty of Union was signed in 1532.
Follow the coast to the west and you come to Roscoff, a jewel of a place with a quaint old harbour and a ferry terminal hidden out of sight. Boats are carved on the walls of the church and on the headland festooned with hydrangea, a lonely chapel blesses the passing ships.
Roscoff is famous for its red onions, with a museum dedicated to the trade, and the world’s largest variety of seaweed, easily harvested due to an exceptional eight metre differential between high and low tide. The seaweed is used for cosmetics, health food and treatment in France’s oldest thalassotherapy centre.
From Roscoff, it’s just a 15 minute crossing to Batz island where the only taxi competes with tractors and cycles and horse-drawn carriages. Lanes from another age meander up to the village and along the shore palms and agapanthus sway in the breeze. Here is the lighthouse, seen 80 metres out at sea, there the old wash-house or the lush Delasselle Gardens where myriad exotic plants thrive in the island’s micro-climate.
On this most northerly point, the Celtic monk St Pol defeated the dragon to become one of Brittany’s founding saints. So as you lie on a deserted beach, watching fluffy clouds scurry across the sky, you may feel this is truly the beginning of the world, lapped by the waves but deeply rooted in the ancient land of legends
Text by Solange Hando