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On an almost-island: impressions of Brittany

July 31, 2011

 

Camaret-sur-Mer

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.

Could this yacht (below) be a pirate ship? Our younger son was convinced that it was.

A picturesque cluster of ruinous boats at Camaret were a magnet for photographers.

 

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:

Obelix, a menhir and Dogmatix, drawn by Albert 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.

feel the love, dammit

lichen on one of the stones

sea holly growing amongst the standing stones

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.

There are so many sandy beaches that none ever seems to get crowded.

The artists’ quarter at Camaret is very picturesque. The Breton for Camaret is Kameled, which I thought interesting: if ‘d’ is pronounced ‘t’, then this is Camelot!

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.

The Pointe de Pen-hir and the Tas de Pois

there was even heather on the cliffs, to make us feel at home

 

Finistère - literally.

 

(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.)

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. toniannealyn permalink
    July 31, 2011 6:00 pm

    Lovely, lovely post. I adore Brittany, must go back there. Are you rested or back into the fray?

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 31, 2011 7:58 pm

      Thank you. It’s a part of the world I would like to explore further. As for your question, the answer is both!

  2. maryz permalink
    July 31, 2011 6:39 pm

    Brittany is wonderful – I’d love to see this part of it, too. We have lots of photos of me hugging the stones, so what can I say………

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 31, 2011 8:00 pm

      Yes – I’d only visited the north coast before, which is quite different I think. Despite my chuckles, I do understand the urge to hug the stones. Luckily I’m the one holding the camera, so there is no evidence of how I behaved with the menhirs… 😉

  3. July 31, 2011 8:05 pm

    A lovley collection of holiday photos. My favourite on is the one of Camaret in the distance with the dilapidated boats in the foreground.
    We stayed in a gite in Brittany one year (before children). At the end of the holiday the gite owner apologised for the weather we’d had over the fortnight, “What do you mean?” we said, “it’s been lovely!” Of course a Scot’s idea of fine weather differs to that of a Frenchman’s, even those of the northwestern tip of France.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 1, 2011 11:48 am

      The boats were very picturesque – I took far too many shots of them!
      Being almost in the Atlantic we were hoping for, rather than expecting, good weather. And indeed, there were a few days of distinctly Scottish weather – but a couple of days of hot sun at the beach were enough for us all feel as if we’d had a perfect summer holiday. We are easily pleased, us Scots. 😉

  4. hmunro permalink
    August 1, 2011 2:26 am

    You have *absolutely* outdone yourself with this post, DB! Your photos are extraordinary … among my favorites yet. And your description of the landscape is brilliant. I feel as if I’ve been there with you! Merci mille fois …

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 1, 2011 11:53 am

      Well, you are far too nice to me, as always – but thank you! I really struggled with the editing for this post, as you can probably tell. Can’t remember if you know Brittany at all?

  5. August 1, 2011 8:44 pm

    Another post from the margins. I love all the edge of the world associations of Finistere. It’s the time for holiday returns in blogland – glad you had a good time.

    So interesting to see the boats in the church. When I visited Chalmers Church of Scotland in Port Seton for a concert, the minister told me that the boat on one of the roof beams had no religious significance, beyond the focus of a congregation whose lives depended on and were entrusted to the sea but above all to God. My mother’s family were trawler fishers on the Moray Firth coast, but I don’t remember any boats in their church in Buckie. Perhaps that was a decorative step too far. You can compare Chalmers church with your Breton one at http://occasionalscotland.blogspot.com/2009/12/chalmers-church-of-scotland.html

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 1, 2011 10:13 pm

      Hmm, the liminal seems to be a recurring theme in D.Beastie. Something to ponder.

      A big thank you for the link and information about Chalmers Church in Port Seton. I have never seen any kirk anything like it – fascinating. Somehow I can’t imagine the good fisherfolk of Buckie going in for extraneous decoration in their kirk, but then I do have a lot to learn! I’m thinking of doing a post about Denmark some time, and then you could see the boatie kirk in Funen.

  6. August 4, 2011 10:29 am

    They are ex voto! The boats in the churches, I mean. I love them too. It was probably before you started reading my blog, but before we moved to Scotland we lived in France, and my husband’s father is from Brittany, so we spent a fair bit of time out there. Some of the places in these photos are very familiar! Two posts about it, if you like: http://yewtreenights.blogspot.com/2010/05/i-went-to-sea-to-see-sea-and-what-did-i.html http://yewtreenights.blogspot.com/2010/04/easter-in-brittany.html

    Anyway, sailors used to build the ex voto, which were often small models of their own boats, as an offering to God to give thanks for saving them from shipwreck. The little chapels near the sea in Brittany are a thousand times more lovely for this custom, I think.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 5, 2011 7:49 pm

      Thank you sooo much, Jodi! This has been on my mind ever since I first saw them in Denmark two years ago. I had guessed that they might be some kind of prayer for a good voyage/ thanksgiving after returning home, and that they were probably models of actual ships, but to have it confirmed is brilliant.

      Thanks for the two links, as well: I loved your posts about Brittany. The coincidence of your grandfather visiting the island of your husband’s family is pretty extraordinary – either that or the workings of fate, if you prefer.

  7. October 23, 2011 6:19 pm

    Oh, I’m so behind with your blog, DB. So sorry. Gorgeous holiday photos of an area we keep meaning to visit, but somehow we can never tear ourselves away from our beloved Normandy. Perhaps next year?

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