Go: Brittany's Celtic charm
That touch of the familiar in west Brittany is shaped by its Celtic past
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.
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.
The rustic decor is themed after the traditions of the local Bigouden women and their coiffe headdresses made from white lace (those belonging to the owner’s grandmother are framed along the walls).
As for the food and drink, there are more options than pots and pans hanging from the cross-beams: the menu is filled with an eclectic range of crêpes and galettes (savoury pancakes made from buckwheat flour) folded around the likes of flambéed shellfish or salmon and chive whipped cream.
Once you’ve settled on the right sequence you can work your way through a course of cloudy apple juice, refreshingly subtle cider and a breathtakingly sharp Calvados (apple brandy).
Whether your itinerary is centred around water sports and seafood, or megaliths and museums, there’s a touch of the familiar to Brittany’s charm since both the culture and language of this once-independent kingdom have been shaped by a strong Celtic background.
And while that similarity extends to a climate that can be as dramatic and unpredictable as our own, the region remains unspoiled by the tourist trail it serves.
CityJet operates a weekly flight from Dublin to Brest until August 31st, from €189 return. Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Rennes three times a week, and once per week from Cork, until the first week of September. Brittany Ferries sail Cork to Roscoff once per week; Irish Ferries sail to Roscoff from Rosslare several times a week.
Hôtel Kregenn, Quimper.
A centrally located Best Western with snug rooms for €85 in the off-season.
Villa Tri Men, Combrit.
A converted country manor situated by a tranquil harbour with highly rated food and excellent views. A standard room varies from €120 to €190 between seasons. trimen.fr
Le Cosy, Quimper.
A quaint and crêpe-free restaurant tucked into two small rooms above a grocer, specialising in seafood, gratins and tartines, with a prix-fixe for €29.
Men Lann Du.
An atmospheric crêperie steeped in history with a dazzling array of pancakes which are regarded among the best in Brittany.
Le Tatoon, Île de Sein.
A seafood restaurant with minimalist style featuring a terrace just metres from the water. letatoon.com