On an almost-island: impressions of Brittany
Having been back in Scotland for a fortnight now, I still haven’t managed to post anything about Brittany. For one thing, we have plunged straight back into a busy summer here, which means limited time for reflection and writing. For another, I suppose that France is already so familiar to us in essentials that I can’t summon the clarity of a first impression. The particular corner which we visited this time, though, was new to all of us, and worth remembering.
We were staying in the Crozon peninsula, or, as it is so appealingly named in French, la presqu’île de Crozon: the ‘almost-island’ of Crozon. (A friend has pointed out to me that in fact the English word ‘peninsula’ derives from Latin words with exactly the same meaning.) A finger of Europe pointing out into the Atlantic towards America, nibbled and gnawed by the sea, the Crozon peninsula is edged with crumbling granite cliffs and sandy bays. The entire peninsula is a national park, from its heathery headlands to the dark forests of its eastern bounds. This is both the Roman Armorica of Asterix and Obelix and the forest of Brocéliande of Arthurian legend. The mythical drowned city of Ys lies just beyond its bounds. As you might imagine, I could happily have spent days exploring the myths and legends of the area.
A family holiday, however, is not the time for literary enquiry or misty Celtic day dreams. We were too busy with simpler forms of fun. (Although talking of Celtic, I did take note of the road signs in both French and Breton, a Celtic language closely related to Cornish and Welsh with the occasional word recognisable from Scots Gaelic too. And I did listen with fascination to Breton-language radio and to the buzzing, high-pitched music of the Breton bagpipes, which sounds to me, I’m afraid, like something for leprachauns to dance to.) Here is a very haphazard collection of images which, I hope, give a brief impression of what there is to savour in ‘Less Britain‘. (Be warned: there are rather a lot of them!)
Treasures from the sea
As well as wonderful seafood for the adults, Brittany’s shores provide all sorts of treasures for small boys.
A maritime tradition
The street names remind you of the fishing heritage of the area.
In Camaret-sur-Mer, on the headland of the Crozon peninsula, there is an old chapel built on the pier. Not surprisingly, it is full of maritime symbols. If anyone knows of the particular significance of the model ships suspended from the chapel ceiling, I’d be interested to learn: we saw the same tradition in a 17th Century kirk in Denmark, likewise in a seafaring community.
Wildflowers and standing stones
Brittany is famous for its prehistoric standing stones. These days, they are perhaps best known as the menhirs of Obelix, as imagined by Goscinny and Uderzo:
And indeed, some of the stones we saw were so perfectly menhir-shaped that we thought the Neolithic peoples who erected them had probably been reading Asterix.
Of course, the stones have a deeper significance to some people than comic-book references. In this alignment of stones at the very tip of the Crozon peninsula, there were a dozen or more souls busy communing with the stones. Some hugged their chosen stone, some stood with their backs against them, some leaned against a stone with only their forehead touching. Our boys were rather inspired by all this. They found a child-sized menhir and proceeded to commune with it for all they were worth.
A stalk of wild arum was glowing at the foot of one of the stones. I’m sure Shakespeare would have said it was there to light the way for faery revels.
At the end of the world: beaches, streets and cliffs
While in Brittany, we kept noticing posters advertising an upcoming local music festival. It was called ‘le Festival du Bout du Monde‘, or the Festival of the End of the World. ‘Le bout du monde‘ is how the headland at Camaret is known. So we really can say that we have been to the ends of the Earth: this is le Bout du Monde (the end of the world) in Finistère (the end of the earth). We’ve seen the end of the world, folks, and there’s nothing to worry about: it’s really a very nice place to be.
Beyond the pretty town of Camaret and just beyond the alignments of standing stones, the Crozon peninsula comes to a dramatic end at the Pointe de Pen-hir. The granite cliffs here are seventy metres high (around 230 feet) and the view down is quite stomach-lurching. My heart was in my mouth watching my boys scrambling around on them – but we all made it back to tell the tale.
(Looking over these photos, I see strong echoes of pictures I took in Orkney last summer. It seems I have a weakness for pebbly beaches, standing stones and crooked old streets. See In Orkney, there are seals at the bottom of the garden.)