Go: Brittany's Celtic charm
That touch of the familiar in west Brittany is shaped by its Celtic past
The Quai des Francais Libres on Île de Sein in Brittany
If west Brittany has a definitive set of characteristics – the rugged headlands, the quiet streets, the cool pride, the resolute traditions – their perfect distillation can be found on the Île de Sein, an island surrounded by shipwrecks off the northwest coast of France.
Getting there requires setting sail from the lower tip of Brittany, where the region’s forestry disperses into isolated coastline and golden acreage gives way to sandy alcoves, leaving behind an area known as “the end of the earth” (Finistère) for a distant fragment of land jutting a mere 6m high out of the Atlantic ocean.
Île de Sein is a place where the locals’ will to keep their identity intact has meant resisting change wherever possible. But while it may seem like a fragile throwback to a simpler time, some modifications have managed to creep through: the first bakery opened just last year and those young enough to attend school now conduct their lessons through a video link with neighbouring islands.
When Charles de Gaulle rallied French resistance to German occupation in 1940, his radio appeals inspired the men of the island to scramble for their boats and join the general in London as the Free French Forces. Approximately 128 of the first 500 volunteers were reported to be from Île de Sein – a distinction that resulted in the entire island being awarded the Ordre de la Libération.
Dashing to the rescue is what these islanders are best known for. Museums on the island that celebrate Île de Sein’s heritage include a maritime exhibition commemorating the efforts made to save sinking ships in choppy reefs, detailing hundreds of successes and failures dating back to 1867.
On a recent visit, when the island’s wave-beaten paths were swamped with mist, a lifelong resident recounted his experiences of being roused from bed in the middle of the night to clamber aboard a lifeboat. This was the only way of life known here, he explained, and the lives lost on those excursions paid testament to the Iliens’ sense of solidarity – one that has been rewarded with an income tax exemption. (A granite sculpture nearby is engraved with a Breton phrase meaning “we would rather die”.)
There are no cars, banks, police or trees on the island, and among the handful of bars and seafood restaurants flecked across its 2.5km expanse, it’s hard to find even one person wearing a watch. The laneways between houses are little more than 3m wide – just enough space, it’s said, to roll a beer barrel while keeping yourself propped up between the walls. In reality, these labyrinth-like passages protect pedestrians from the elements – an ever-encroaching battle against raging storms and rising sea levels that threatens to submerge the island with a battering it may not recover from.