Things to see and do - Brittany
Where to go?
The relief of Brittany is the result of an evolutionary process, which has taken place over millions of years. Crafted by the forces of the sea, the rugged coastline symbolises the mystical beauty of the region, while the dynamic between land and sea has come to define its people and their culture.
The name Armor (or, more, rarely Arvor) means “country near the sea“. It was given to the coastal region by the Gauls; the interior was Argoat.
The Breton Coast
It is extraordinarily indented, which makes it 1 200km/745.6mi long; it would be only half that without its saw-teeth appearance. The jagged nature of this coastline with its islands, islets and reefs is due only in part to the action of the sea and is one of the characteristics of Brittany.
The most typical seascapes are to be found at the western tip of the peninsula. Sombre cliffs, rugged capes 50–70m/160–224ft high, islands, rocks and reefs give the coastline a grimness which is reflected in sinister local names: the Channel of Fear (Fromveur), the Bay of the Dead (Baie des Trépassés), the Hell of Plogoff (Enfer de Plogoff).
There are many other impressive features, too: piles of enormous blocks of pink granite sometimes rising as much as 20m/64ft, as at Ploumanach and Trégastel; the red-sandstone promontory of Cap Fréhel standing 57m/182ft above the sea; the brightly coloured caves of Morgat. Unforgettable are the Brest roadstead, the Bay of Douarnenez, the Golfe du Morbihan and its islands. The successive estuaries between the Rance and the Loire offer magnificent views at high tide as one crosses the impressive bridges that span them (Pont Albert-Louppe and Pont de Térénez).
Some low-lying sections of the coast contrast with the more usual rocks. In the north, Mont-St-Michel Bay is bordered by a plain reclaimed from the sea; in the south, the inhospitable bay of Audierne, the coast between Port-Louis and the base of the Presqu’île de Quiberon, and the beach at La Baule give a foretaste of the great expanses of sand which predominate south of the Loire.
Wherever the coast is directly open to the sea winds, it is completely barren. This is so on the points and on the summits of the cliffs; the salt with which the winds are impregnated destroys the vegetation. But in sheltered spots there are magnificent, profusely flowering shrubs. Arum lilies, camellias, hydrangeas and rhododendrons, which would be the pride of many a skilled gardener, grace the smallest gardens.
The climate is so mild that plants which grow in hot countries flourish in the open, e.g. mimosa, agave, pomegranate, palm, eucalyptus, myrtle, oleander and fig trees.
Tides and Waves
Visitors should first learn the rhythm of the tides, a division of time as regular as that of the sun. Twice every 24 hours the sea advances on the coast – this is the rising tide. It reaches high water mark, where it stays for a while, and then drops back – this is the falling or ebb tide – until it reaches low water mark. It remains at this low level for a while, and then the cycle begins again.
The timetables for the tides are displayed in hotels, on quays and in local papers. Look at them before planning a trip, as they may affect the timing of your programme.
It is at high tide that the coast of Brittany is most beautiful. The waves advance on the coast, break on the rocky outspurs and surge in parallel crests into the bays; a shining liquid carpet fills the estuaries. This is the time when a journey along a coastal road or a walk to the harbour is the most rewarding. At low tide, the uncovered rocks, stained with algae and seaweed, are often dirty and can be disappointing. At the mouths of the great coastal rivers there is only a poor thread of water winding between mudflats. The greater the tide and the gentler the slope, the greater the expanse of shore is uncovered; in Mont-St-Michel Bay the sea retreats 15–20km/9.6–12.4mi. On the other hand, low tide is the joy of anyone fishing for crab, shrimp, clams, mussels, etc.
On the north coast, the tide sweeps in, in exceptional cases to a height of 13.5m/44ft in the bay of St-Malo and 15m/49ft in Mont-St-Michel Bay.
When the wind blows, the battering-ram effect of the sea is tremendous – sometimes the shocks given to the rocks off Penmarch are felt as far off as Quimper, 30km/18.6mi away. Attacking the softest parts of the cliffs, the sea makes fissures and brings down slabs of rock. In this way, caves, tunnels and arches are formed. Peninsulas joined to the mainland by strips of softer material are turned gradually into islands.
The waves do not only destroy; they also have a constructive effect. The sand they carry, added to the alluvial deposits brought down by the rivers, forms beaches, gradually silts up the bays (Mont-St-Michel Bay is a striking example), and connects islands with the mainland; this is the case at Quiberon and it will also be the same, in due course, at Bréhat.
Brittany, the most maritime region of France, is home to many devoted sailors. Breton people, if one is to believe a well-known proverb, “are born with the waters of the sea flowing round their eyes and the ocean has flowed in their veins from birth”. Here, sailing is more than a sport: it’s second nature, as inevitable as sunshine and rain. For some, it is part of daily life or earning a living, for others it is an abiding passion.
Regatta, a sport for everybody — In times past, sailing used to be a sport for the élite, but now it is a popular sport, as is windsurfing – a fad that took off in the 1980s. The nautical industry abandoned craftwork to turn towards the mass production of boats made of synthetic materials. The change in production methods made recreational boats more affordable – there are now some 700 sailing schools operating within the French Federation of Sailing and another 1 000 centres, which are located all around France. Sea-lovers, and not only a few of them, enjoy going on regattas along the Breton coast, examining the sky, anticipating the thermal breeze, pondering over the depressions, in order to swell the spinnakers and the Genoa jibs better and to cleave through the waves of the big blue ocean.
Things have changed a lot since the first regattas, which were merely gatherings of fishing dinghies that took place around 1850. All kinds of single-hull and multi-hull ships are moored at the marinas’ landing stages. If boats could dream, perhaps as they rock gently in their berths, they would imagine participating in a regatta, even a modest one, or perhaps the “Spi Ouest-France”, which is organised every year at La Trinité-sur-Mer. Famous competitive sailors attend this event and mingle with the crowd of enthusiastic wannabes and fans.
Great sailors — All the great French sailors are not Breton, of course, but Brittany represents the sea to such an extent that most of the them have a strong attachment to the region. Many are well known to “old salts” from the seas of the world: Bernard Moitessier, Yves Le Toumelin and Éric Tabarly (tragically lost at sea off Southwest Wales in June 1998). Tabarly had a reputation for fair play and love of the sea that inspired many landlubbers to consider the ocean as something more than a vast, liquid steppe without life. Among the sailors who trained by his side and are now following in his wake are Olivier de Kersauzon, Jean Le Cam, Marc Pajot, Yves Parlier, Philippe Poupon and Alain Thébault.
Sailing has grown in popularity as the number of competitive events has increased. High-performance craft are sponsored by a variety of companies eager for the visibility that media coverage of races provides. Shipyards in Lorient, Vannes and Nantes turn out racing craft made of highly resistant materials, such as spectra, kevlar or titanium, to be captained by the likes of Florence Arthaud, Isabelle Autissier, Laurent Bourgnon, Frank Camas, Alain Gautier, Loïck Peyron or Paul Vatine. Long-distance races can be especially dangerous: besides Tabarly, sailors who lost their lives while pursing their passion include Alain Colas in 1978, Loïc Cadarec in 1986 and Gerry Roufs in 1997.
Great races — Solo and team races take place most of the year, in one corner of the world or another. The world of sailing is livened up by solo or team races and crossing records almost all the year round. Websites allow aficionadi to follow the big events minute-by-minute without having to put on their rough weather gear!
Some prestigious races start or finish in Brittany. The most famous is probably the Route du Rhum race, for single-hulls and multi-hulls, which takes sailors from Pointe du Grouin to Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe. It takes place every four years (the next being in 2010). Other big events are La Baule-Dakar, (famous for the difficult crossing of the Bay of Biscay in autumn); Québec-Saint-Malo (featuring whales and icebergs); the transatlantic race Lorient–Bermuda–Lorient. The Figaro race in July occasionally starts from a Breton harbour; Round Europe race calls at main ports from the North to the South of Europe and many other races and regattas are organised in Brittany.
The sea has always posed problems for mariners and since the very first sailors, means have existed to warn salts about the dangers of approaching the shore. The first lighthouses were built in the 17C, but it wasn‘t until the 19C that they became the norm. The oldest Breton lighthouse is at Stiff on Ouessant, where construction began in 1685.
How do you build a lighthouse when there are dangerous rocks, currents and storms? The one at Armen took 14 years, because in 1870 the workers could only work for a total of eight hours during the whole year, and in 1873 for just six hours! The rock it’s built on is just 1.5m/5ft at low tide.
These days, means are being developed to light lighthouses with renewable energy from sun and wind. Originally, coal fires were used, then oil lamps in front of a reflector, until Augustin Fresnel invented a system of lens formations, still in use today. This economised on fuel and increased luminosity.
Today most lighthouses are automated, which means that no direct human intervention is needed. The keeper monitors the automated systems, maintains the lighthouse and provides radio links and weather reports.
Eighty lighthouses are still working along the Breton coast and some can still be visited. These include Saint-Matthieu, Trézien, the Île Vierge, the Stiff and Créac’h. The latter boasts one of the most powerful lights in the world, reaching 120km/74.5mi in clear weather. The old engine room houses a museum of lighthouses and buoys.
Sole, turbot, skate, bass, sea bream, crustaceans, scallops... take your pick! Even so, the catch is not nearly enough for local needs, and a town like Saint-Brieuc receives supplementary supplies from Lorient in the south. On the Atlantic coast, the season for sardine fishing lasts from June to September.
Open-sea fishing takes place as far off as the coasts of Iceland, and represents the main activity of big Breton ports. For tuna fishing, both dragnets and live bait are used in the bay of Biscay; seines (large fishing nets) are used along the African coasts. White tuna is fished from June to October; the season starts somewhere between Portugal and the Azores. Tropical or albacore tuna is the quarry of a fleet of some 30 boats with refrigerated holds, equipped at Concarneau and operating from the ports of West Africa during the season.
“La Grande Peche”
This is the name given to cod fishing in the shoals of Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland. It made Paimpol and St-Malo famous in the past, but nowadays it is only a modest activity practised by factory ships equipped with machines for cutting the fish into fillets that are frozen immediately.
Most shellfish is harvested along the rocky coasts using lobster pots and traps, but long-distance fishing is also common. Lobster boats, equipped with tanks as well as refrigeration or freezing used to leave from Camaret, Audierne for the coast of Mauritania for several months at a time.
Along the coast, in deep waters and far from home, the fishermen of Brittany have succeeded in adapting to modern techniques, despite the implementation of restrictive quotas, due mainly to the internationalisation of the fishing industry. Lorient and Concarneau make Brittany the leading French region for the fishing industry.
At the instigation of Louis XIV’s minister of Finances, Fouquet, the method of preserving fish in barrels gradually replaced the customary drying and salting of fish. Sardines used to be preserved in oil, until Nicolas Appert invented the canning process in 1810. In Brittany, the industry faces competition from developing countries, but there are still factories operating on the Presqu’ile de Quiberon and in the harbours of Douarnenez and Concarneau.
Oceanography and Aquaculture
Researchers at Ifremer (French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea) work to find solutions to avoid depleting the resources of the sea. Aquaculture offers promise for the future. Fish farms are already successfully breeding salmon and turbot in Finistère.
Oyster and mussel breeding has become commercially important, which has long been the great production region for flat oysters (belons) and has also developed its Portuguese oyster beds (sold as Creuses de Bretagne or Fines de Bretagne). Brittany’s annual oyster production amounts to 30 000 tonnes of creuses and 2 000 tonnes of plates, which is a quarter of France’s national production. Mussel breeding on poles known as “bouchots” is carried out along the coast from Mont-St-Michel Bay to St-Brieuc Bay and in the Vilaine estuary.
Algae and Algae-Processing
Harvested and used as fertiliser for many years, then as raw materials for the chemical industry, the various types of algae are as likely nowadays to be found on restaurant tables as in sea-water spas. Wrack cultivating and harvesting, using specially equipped boats, are now subject to regulations. This activity is mainly based in the Abers area.
After years of crisis, this ship-building industry is once again competitive on an international scale, with the creation of the Atlantic Dockyards at St-Nazaire. Capable of dealing with ships of up to 500 000 tonnes, they have above all turned to the production of container ships, oil rigs and cruise ships; 2003 was a red-letter year as they produced the largest ocean-liner ever, the Queen Mary 2. Rising to the challenge of this prestigious undertaking, the dockyards have proved their dynamism and skill.
Plains cover most of the country and although you must not expect to find great expanses extending to far horizons, the traveller crosses a series of rises that may confuse the directionally challenged! Between the uplands flow deeply sunken rivers with brown, rushing waters. The land resembles a chequerboard, with banks and dry-stone walls forming the boundaries of fields and pastures. Pollarded oaks grow on most of the banks, and it is these which make the countryside, seen from a distance, seem heavily wooded.
Mountains! The word rather overpowers the Breton hills, but this is what the coast dwellers call the central part of Brittany. The barrenness of the heights, the saw-toothed crests contrasting with the undulating plains that they overshadow, and the strong wind give an impression of high altitude.
In clear weather a vast expanse can be seen from the Roc Trévezel (384m/1 260ft), the Ménez-Hom (330m/1 082ft) and the Menez Bré (302m/966ft).
Forests and Moors
Brittany once had immense forests of oak and beech. Successive generations since the Romans have wielded the axe in these woods, and there are now only scattered strips of woodland: the forests of Paimpont, Loudéac, Huelgoat, Quénécan, for example. These woodlands are very hilly and intersected by gorges, ravines and tumbled rocks. A perfect example of this type of country is to be seen at Huelgoat. Unfortunately, most of the woodlands appear neglected and brushwood predominates. Fine forests are rare and these Breton woodlands owe their picturesque quality more to their relief than to their trees.
Fallow moors, where the great forests once stood, now form empty stretches relieved from gloom when the gorse wears its golden cloak and the heather spreads a purple carpet on the hills. Elsewhere, moors have become tilled fields. Such are the Landes de Lanvaux, where the visitor finds reclaimed land, rich in promise for the future.
For a long time the Argoat was essentially an agricultural and stock-rearing region, but more recently industrial development has been encouraged by local authorities.
Nearly a third of the land under cultivation is given over to cereal production together with fodder crops (mainly corn), reserved as cattle feed.
There are still many apple orchards in Ille-et-Vilaine and in the south of the Finistère, but a certain decline is noticeable in Morbihan. The apples are used to make cider and apple juice.
The Argoat has a reputation for its dairy cattle, which produce about 20 per cent of French dairy products. Pig rearing has been industrialised and represents half of France’s production. It supplies national markets and the many firms which produce fresh, canned or salted pork products.
Brittany has over 600km/373mi of rivers and canals. Running north–south are the Rance, the Île-et-Rance canal and the Vilaine, flowing through Dinan, Rennes and Redon. The Nantes–Brest canal runs east–west for 360km/223.7mi. You can hire a boat from several sites (no licence required) and many operators offer organised trips.