Travel News

Great Brittany

Take a walk on the wild side. Follow Brittany’s windswept coastline west to a remote region suffused with maritime folklore, sustained by a Celtic heritage and renowned for bountiful produce. Oysters, butter, cider, strawberries and super-sized savoury crêpes – this is one grand land.

By Amy Egan
Finistère is the kind of place where you can take a chance on a quiet road winding down to the water and find a gently crumbling château where oysters are sold fresh from the river. In the courtyard of Château de Bélon, young men in gumboots and gloves are sorting the highly sought-after Bélon oysters. They tell us the same family has farmed the waters of this idyllic inlet, where the Bélon River meets the Atlantic Ocean, since 1864. It is the mingling of sweet and salty currents, they say, that gives Bélon oysters their signature metallic-with-a-hint-of-hazelnut taste.
As they busily pack baskets to fill orders from around the country, the men point out the tables overlooking the inlet. One mentions they also sell wine. If we like, we can choose our oysters and eat them by the water. The meal is simplicity itself, yet there is something magical about the combination of oysters straight from the river, eaten with earthy rye bread, salty butter and a crisp white wine under towering trees on a mild summer evening.
Our riverside picnic perfectly captures the laid-back charms of Finistère, in Brittany's west. Although it's less visited than resort-strewn northern Brittany, Finistère boasts a spectacularly diverse landscape, with ancient forests, untamed, empty mountains and wide estuaries meandering towards a dramatic coastline that overlooks rocky islands. It also has a rich Celtic heritage and a refreshing lack of pretension. The seaside villages here are lived-in places with simple houses and busy fishing harbours. The farmhouses have thatched roofs and are dwarfed by vast hydrangeas not because it's picturesque, simply because roofs have always been built this way and the abundant rainfall produces plants of staggering size. Even in Finistère's more cosmopolitan cities, such as Quimper, where historic timber-fronted shops display up-to-the-minute Paris fashions, the residents are just as devoted to promoting the more traditional aspects of their lives, such as pottery and Celtic folk music.
Life here has always been shaped by the Atlantic; mermaids, drowned cities and shipwrecks all feature heavily in local mythology, while the coastline's more dramatic aspects - the cliffs, perilous seas and eerie mists - have become the public face of the region. Yet away from these landmarks, it is the unexpected, out-of-the way places that strike us most - the windswept ruins, monolithic rocks and tiny churches set above isolated coves. And, of course, the beaches, from quiet bays with beautiful rock pools to dunes that descend into vast expanses of white sand, broken only by the hulking remains of World War II bunkers.
Even deep within Finistère's countryside, water prevails. Brittany has Europe's highest tides, which can alter the landscape completely, as we discover when we take a boat from the village of Sainte-Marine inland along the Odet River. Thick forest lines the water's edge, with an occasional gap in the trees revealing a fairytale château, an idyllic village or the wooden skeleton of a long-abandoned boat. Arriving back later than advised, we find the tide has turned and the once sleek, glassy water where the inlet opens to the ocean is now a writhing swell of unpredictable black, against which we must battle our way back to shore.
After making it onto dry land, we pass the Relais Thalasso spa centre in nearby Bénodet and are tempted inside by lap pools filled with 32-degree sea water, hot whirlpool baths and a steamy hammam. The locals claim spa treatments were invented here in Bénodet, and they certainly offer a more relaxing way to experience the region's waters.
Rejuvenated, we turn inland to explore the countless hiking paths that weave through Finistère. La Route des Ports de Pêche links some of the coast's most charming fishing villages, while La Route du Cidre takes in the rolling hills and orchards of the celebrated cider country. Along the northern coast, the Path of the Lighthouses follows the cliffs from Brest along the windswept Wild Coast, while the nearby Armorique Regional Natural Park offers walks from the dramatic Crozon peninsula to the Huelgoat Forest, setting of ghoulish legends and, we are told, once inhabited by King Arthur and his knights. Further inland, little-known tracks lead through the sparsely inhabited Black Mountains, where the grim reaper is still said to search for lost souls. South of here, we later follow yet more trails, surrounded by gorse and brilliant purple heather, to the striking cliffs of Pointe du Raz and the Bay of the Departed, named for the countless ships that have been destroyed by its violent currents and dangerous reefs.
Artists have long been captivated by the legends, light and landscapes of Brittany. In the 1880s, many painters, including Paul Gauguin, left their Paris studios for the small town of Pont-Aven. It was here that Gauguin broke rank with the Impressionists to develop his own style of painting, which would later be instrumental in the development of abstract art.
These days, Pont-Aven is one of Finistère's more elegant towns. Arriving at sunset, we find that most other visitors are French, here to admire the art galleries and exquisite shopfronts, or to stroll along the riverfront. The nearby fishing port of Concarneau has a similarly sophisticated ambience and is popular for its fishing museum and the Ville-Close, a 14th-century walled town that stands on an island in the harbour, connected to the mainland by a drawbridge.
Further north, the beautiful city of Quimper is a maze of narrow cobbled streets lined with medieval timber-fronted buildings that today house fashionable boutiques and some of the region's best restaurants. Set at the meeting point of the Odet and Steir rivers, the city is known for its flower-laden footbridges, Gothic cathedral and faïence, the colourful hand-painted pottery. Quimper has also been at the fore of the recent revival of Celtic music. A program of festivals, both traditional and modern, draws growing international crowds and Celtic musicians year-round, and culminates in July's enormous Festival de Cornouaille. Even the ancient fest-noz, an all-night dance that began as a way to flatten the earthen floors in new homes, has been revived.
While visiting Finistère's better-known sites, we are surprised by the lack of crowds, even on glorious summer days. Until, that is, we meet the fishing boats in Guilvinec, where the docks are part of an initiative to open local industries to the public. Throngs of people, tourists and locals alike, hang over the railings for hours, entranced by the vats of sole, turbot, eels and lobsters being unloaded. Fishing has long been the lifeblood of Finistère and remains vital to its economy today, producing more than 25 per cent of France's seafood. While Brest is the major commercial port, the coast is dotted with smaller operations with their own specialties, from the oysters in Riec-sur-Bélon, to the sardines in Quiberon. Even the ancient traditions of salt and seaweed collecting endure.
To sample one of the area's revered seafood platters, we head to Chez Jacky in Port de Bélon, a waterside restaurant that is renowned for serving Finistère's finest seafood. Most of the balcony is devoted to vats of sea water, which occasionally erupt in a bubbling foam, aerating the oysters and shellfish inside and delighting the younger guests. There is no question as to the freshness of the produce here. It's a typical French seafood restaurant scene, replete with nautical decoration and a reed-thin waitress overseeing too many diners with superhuman efficiency. The seafood, however, is anything but typical. It takes us nearly an hour to work our way through the signature seafood platter of lobster, crab, prawns, soft-shell clams, periwinkles, mussels and, of course, the famous Bélon oysters.
The pride in Finistère's produce isn't reserved solely for its seafood, though. Following insistent local advice, we pay a visit to the weekly market in Pont-l'Abbé, a historic town in the bucolic Pays Bigouden area. The market is set in the shadows of a 14th-century castle, which now serves as a cultural museum and offers workshops. If you have a hankering to learn how to make the lace headdresses that symbolise Finistère's Celtic heritage, this is the place to visit.
Pont-l'Abbé is also the only place where we hear people speaking Breton. Although there are attempts underway to revive this ancient language, by teaching it in schools and using it beside French on road signs, Breton's general use is dwindling, and it is really only in these remote rural pockets of Finistère that it continues to be spoken in daily life.
Celtic traditions date back to the fifth century, when a group of Britons fleeing the invading Anglo-Saxons came here from across the water, bringing their own language, costumes and music. France later reclaimed Brittany, as the area became known, but thick forest and mountains still stood between the naturally insular Celts and the rest of the country. And Finistère's out-of-the way coastal setting meant the region continued to remain a world apart - with its ancient Celtic culture intact. While Finistère means "land's end" in French, the Breton name "Penn ar Bed" translates as "head of the world".
The Pays Bigouden is indeed a world unto itself. Here at the market, the queues are made up almost exclusively of locals who are friendly with the stallholders, know the farms where the produce was grown and have always shopped here - probably just as their parents and grandparents did before them. Almost every stall has a van behind it showing a nearby address, and the produce is pristine.
Nearly a third of France's butter comes from Brittany, and in the market we find fresh pats flecked with salt, some of it harvested by hand from the salt flats of Guérande. The grey, mineral-rich salt itself is also on display, as are local ciders and sausages, from the favoured andouille de Guémené pork variety, to duck sausages made that morning. The local seafood is astounding in both its abundance and its variety, and we can't resist the famous strawberries from nearby Plougastel, which we are told come in 20 varieties, or the solid loaves of grainy, organic bread. Stall after stall sells the traditional "kouign amann", or butter cake, which is, we are assured, made to the original recipe developed in 1860 in nearby Douarnenez. We also stumble across many examples of far Breton, a rich, custardy cake filled with sticky Agen prunes.
Creating these time-honoured local specialties remains an important part of Finistère's culture. Cider, for example, has been made here for generations, but as high demand led to commercialisation, a new breed of organic producers emerged. We visit Paul Coïc, a local who planted four hectares of apple trees 10 years ago and now supplies local restaurants specialising in regional organic food. He produces three ciders in a labour-intensive, traditional way, similar to that of winemaking, along with a syrupy natural apple juice and some fiery spirits. It's a relaxed set-up - Coïc takes us around his picturesque orchard but is more interested in describing the renovations to his centuries-old farmhouse, and finding out how we came to be in Finistère, than in selling cider.
Biscuits are another age-old phenomenon in Finistère. Even the smallest towns have large, brightly painted biscuiteries and the variety is infinite - from the fine galette d'Armorique and the cake-like galette de Quimper, to the delicate galette de Pont-Aven. At a tiny market in Sainte-Marine, ordering just three butter-rich, crumbly palets Bretons throws the stallholder into a spin, and she disappears to ask her father what such a tiny order is worth. He laughs, and she returns saying the biscuits are a gift. Despite high demand, artisanal biscuit-makers still respect traditional methods. At La Biscuiterie de Quimper-Styvell, Thomas Cogrard shows us how to make Breton lace crêpes, or crêpes dentelles, according to a recipe from 1886. As Cogrard demonstrates the elaborate manipulation of the fine batter needed for the wafer-thin biscuits, he tells us he is one of only three bakers who still make them this way.
If every town in Finistère has a biscuiterie, even the smallest villages boast at least one crêperie serving the ubiquitous Breton galette. Made with buckwheat flour and cooked on one side, these savoury crêpes have, at times, replaced bread as a staple. These days, they seem to be all the locals eat, particularly the complète, with cheese, ham and an egg that is cooked on the galette. Locals recommend the Crêperie Tachen Ar Groas, a simple white building surrounded by lush flowers just minutes from the beach, as the best in Brittany. Coming straight here after a swim in the pristine Atlantic and having a crêpe and a bowl of local cider is one of the simple pleasures that sum up life here in Finistère.
  • Author: Amy Egan