Go: Brittany's Celtic charm
That touch of the familiar in west Brittany is shaped by its Celtic past
Just 130 inhabitants remain today – having dwindled from 1,500 in the 1950s – but the population swells every August when 2,000 visitors spill in to sample the local delicacies: salmon cured in the island’s smokery, spreadables such as seaweed tartar or snapper and wild fennel pâté, lobster stew, salted caramels and heather-flavoured teas.
The boat from Audierne’s port of Esquibien leaves for the island at 9.30am and returns at 5pm (it takes an hour and costs €33), but it’s best to hold out for fine weather so that the views aren’t veiled by a translucent grey. If the sun is still shining once you’ve returned to the mainland, the tranquil fishing enclave of Saint-Marine in Combrit, a shimmering idyll reminiscent of west Cork, is well worth the 45-minute drive south.
West Brittany’s inexpensive accommodation and hearty cuisine make for a strong selling point but to connect the dots and make the most of the destination, a driving holiday is essential. If you’re willing to go for a boutique hotel that’s off the beaten path then a stay at the Villa Tri Men in Combrit is a worthy draw for its beautiful views of the Odet estuary.
The rooms have been remodelled in a nautical theme, its lawn slopes toward the waterside and a two-mile-long sandy beach awaits in nearby Benodet. Otherwise the medieval town of Quimper (the same distance as Combrit from Audierne) is regarded as the cultural capital of Brittany and serves as a fine gateway to the surrounding coast and Gauguin country.
Its old quarter is crammed with half-timbered houses where each floor extends further than the last, leaning over snaking walkways with brightly painted shutters that form a chorus of colour.
The twin spires of La Cathédrale de St Corentin, with its gothic facade, overlook cobblestone squares bustling with crêperies, cafés, ice-cream parlours and faïenceries specialising in personalised ceramics – a fine tin-glazed pottery the town has been producing since 1690.
But perhaps the best way to absorb Quimper’s distinctive character is from a quiet distance, slipping away from the carousel and pony rides of the centre to traverse the Odet river and meander the promenade winding up to Mont Frugy, a panoramic hillside wrinkled with woods.
A true Breton experience cannot be considered complete without trying the region’s two most famous attractions: crêpes and cider. To that end it’s worth seeking out Men Lann Du, a hard-to-find crêperie on a farm just outside the town of Plomeur, southwest of Quimper. You may find yourself welcomed by a proprietor tapping her foot gingerly on the clay floor to emphasise that this tavern-like hall, lined with oak benches and tables, has been proudly passed through generations of the same family.