Exploring the Brittany coast
PUBLISHED: 11:20 01 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:28 21 April 2016
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Walking along the Côte d’Émeraude from Cancale to Cap Fréhel gave Paul Lamarra the luxury of enjoying spectacular clifftop views and secluded coves
At the little blue seafood cabin of L’Albatros, which sits among the sand dunes close to the Breton village of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, the waiter was doing his best to keep me entertained while a salade de coquilles Saint-Jacques was prepared in the small kitchen below.“We have two luxuries here,” he said, as he motioned for me to look out the window to the empty crescent of golden sand and the green tidal island dotted with crouching pines. “The first is the view and the second is the lack of crowds.”
It was day two of my three-day walk along northern Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude, using footpaths built for customs officers who once patrolled the complex coastline on the look-out for smugglers. If I considered my trip in the waiter’s terms, I had been wallowing in luxury.
That morning, after a cursory walk around the ramparts of the port of Saint-Malo, I had taken the ten-minute ferry trip across the River Rance to Dinard. Arriving that way was like being admitted to a grand house by the tradesman’s entrance and it was only when I had climbed the steep slipway and continued through a high arch to the Plage de l’Écluse that I appreciated Dinard’s charm.
The relatively small bay was held between two headlands, and the route marked by the red-white stripes of a grande randonnée long-distance footpath followed a promenade that went to the back of the grand art deco casino and then past a row of now-disused changing cabins.
It was very different in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Dinard was the place to be. It was from one of these cabins, on what is now the Promenade Pablo Picasso, that future crime writer Agatha Christie skipped out to enjoy her first swim and it would have been here that King Alphonso XIII of Spain ambled while incognito on a family holiday. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to Kaiser Wilhelm II found a reason to visit what was possibly the most fashionable resort in Europe.
Leaving art deco Dinard behind, I followed the level concrete causeway that smooths out the rocky shoreline. When the sea is rough and the tide is high, the causeway that leads to Saint-Lunaire is impassable and in places it was strewn with seafood and sometimes slippery. Above were the towering and elaborately engineered supports that allowed sumptuous villas to be built right on the cliff top. Walking along the lowly footpath I certainly knew my place.
From time to time, a wave would hit the promenade and send a refreshing spray on to my cheeks. When the path left the shore and climbed towards the villas, a high wall ran alongside it to deter prying eyes. The best views, however, were always out to sea and to the caves below. Across the River Rance, the old part of Saint-Malo, with its high, tightly packed buildings and island location, looked like a medieval Manhattan, and I stopped frequently to look back.
So startlingly similar are the villas to the one in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho that many believe the British-born film director must have visited Dinard. No one knows for sure, but his legacy lives on. The town put up a statue in his honour and holds a British film festival every October, when a Golden Hitchcock is among the awards.
Auguste and Louis Lumière, the pioneering film-makers, did visit as teenagers and a plaque by the customs path indicates that it was in the Grotte de la Goule aux Fées where they experimented with colour film for the first time in 1877.
This part of the coast has many beaches. Where Plage de l’Écluse has an air of formality, the beach at Saint-Enogat is popular with families staying at the nearby campsite. Saint-Lunaire’s wide open sandy bay, which competed for a short while with Dinard as a magnet for Europe’s glitterati, is still dominated by the former Grand Hôtel.
As I walked through Saint-Lunaire it became clear that this was now resolutely a family resort. At one end of the beach a group of youngsters rigged their dinghies while, one street back, a gardener made ready the mini-golf course. Sensing that its image needs to change, the town has encouraged boutique-style chambres d’hôtes and thoroughly modern takes on the salon de thé.
Up and over the hill at Longchamp beach, a group in wetsuits paddled out on surfboards and, in the spirit of the new age, a relaxing massage was available from a cabin on the short promenade. Beyond the beach, I must have lost the path. The going was tough as I stuck with the coast and ploughed through deep, soft sand and then had to adopt a meandering route as I circumnavigated rock pools, jumping over them where I could.
I arrived in Saint-Briac in time for lunch, but in those few miles, I met no one and the many coves and beaches were empty. The town centre was further from the coast than I had anticipated and was reached from the shore by a confusing network of narrow streets lined with stout stone Breton homes. At its heart, it was a peaceful place of artists’ studios, an antiques dealer and a gift shop selling colourful buckets and inflatable animals. The art deco post office made the link with its neighbouring resorts, but it was the Maisons Arbona épicerie fine that hinted at the well dressed and well-to-do Parisian families that consider Saint-Briac their second home.
From the épicerie I bought a picnic dinner of crab and salmon pie, rösti, goat’s cheese and a bottle of muscadet before heading next door to get a triple chocolate gâteau from the boulangerie. Continuing to Lancieux, I took short cuts across the tide margins wherever I could and did my best to stick with the coast rather than following the signposts along residential streets. When I reached Lancieux I found a sheltered spot by a beach hut out of the strengthening wind, sat with my back against its door and ate my dinner while watching the sun go down.
Two world wars and Brittany’s changeable weather saw the Côte d’Émeraude’s high society drift south to the Côte d’Azur. Details such as the blue and white beach huts at Lancieux and the outsize hotels serve as a reminder of a bygone era when the performers at the Folies Bergère were shipped in specially from Paris and tennis stars played exhibition matches. While the Côte d’Azur conjures images of cloudless skies and a sparkling blue sea, the Côte d’Émeraude brand seems a little more ambiguous when it comes to the weather, with the emphasis on well-being, bracing fresh air, healthy seafood and spectacular coastal scenery; all of which was certainly true of my first and last days on the coast.
When I had arrived in Cancale – the eastern-most limit of the Côte d’Émeraude – on the first morning, the sky and sea were a deep blue, yet in a moment the sky turned black and the sea lapping on to the pebble beach by the quay took on a dull green. When the rain swept in, the oyster sellers on the quayside huddled under their barely adequate canopies.
Deciding it would be folly to set off in such conditions, I had an early lunch at La Mère Champlain, initially for no other reason than it had big windows providing a panoramic view of the unfolding meteorological drama. As it turned out,the €16.50 menu du marché was by far the best reason to delay my walk.
Cancale has been renowned since the 1600s for its banks of flat oysters that thrive in the plankton-rich waters of the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel and my first-course fruits de mer platter featured three of them as well as bulots (sea snails) and palourdes (clams). My main was cod, the catch of the day, in a beurre blanc, and the dessert a surprisingly exotic gateau of coconut and banana with a pineapple coulis.
As I set off after lunch in the direction of Pointe du Grouin, the gloriously green countryside was still wet from the short-lived downpour and the slippery footpath was a vivid red. The yellow broom and the white hawthorn had released a barrage of scent that hung in the air at head height. At first, the path was shrouded in trees and it oscillated in and out of small bays. Beyond the sandy beach at Port-Mer I climbed slowly to gain the clifftop and emerge into a rougher, rockier landscape.
At Pointe du Grouin, where the cliffs are 40 metres high, the temptation to continue out to the rocky tip was overwhelming. With crashing waves on three sides I carefully positioned myself to take in the view. To the west were the ghostly headlands of the Côte d’Émeraude and to the east, beyond the long, low Île des Landes bird reserve, was Le Mont-Saint-Michel, its silhouette resembling a battleship. Yet, France’s own Channel Islands, the Îles Chausey, were lost on the grey horizon.
The moment of exhilaration was soon followed by the relaxing calm of the extensive dune-backed beach that stretches round a cove called L’Anse du Guesclin. Here the sand was deep and luxuriously soft, although I was glad to catch the tide on its way out and be able to walk on the firm sand just out of reach of the waves.
At the end of the bay, on its rocky island, lies the medieval Fort du Guesclin. Fortified in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s military engineer Vauban, it was built to keep out the English. Ahead was Rothéneuf, originally a community of wealthy merchants known as malouins who were forced to build their homes elsewhere after it became too crowded inside Saint-Malo’s city walls. Most notable among them was Jacques Cartier, credited with being the first European to discover Canada.
On the shore at Rothéneuf at the end of the 19th century, a parish priest called the Abbé Adolphe Fouré turned to sculpture after suffering a stroke that left him deaf and dumb. His raw material was a short granite peninsula out of which he carved the moral tale of a family of corsaires who grew rich plundering ships but were ultimately devoured by sea monsters. Slowly but surely, the heads, figures, cows and monsters are being worn away by the sea.
For the final night and day I skipped forward to Cap Fréhel at the westerly end of the Côte d’Émeraude. The remoteness of this stretch of coastline meant it would be the only time that I would have to retrace my steps. Perhaps the most popular walk on the coast is the one from Cap Fréhel to Fort la Latte and there were many groups equipped with walking poles ready to set out.
I lingered at the stone lighthouse and moved as close as I dared to the edge of a vertiginous cliff. I needn’t have tried so hard, because the path to the fortress flirted regularly with the overhang. One careless step and it would have been 70 metres straight down with little time to contemplate the nesting cormorants on the Fauconnière rocks.
Threat of attack
On the whole, however, it was a relaxed walk across swathes of gorse and broom. All the while, the 14th-century fort was clearly visible on its remote headland and as I got closer, it became apparent that it was separated from the mainland by two gullies crossed by drawbridges. The castle had its back to the sea, so its inhabitants must have thought the main threat of attack came from the land. Either way, clinging to the margins must have given them some measure of safety.
Here the Brittany coast was in its original state – wild and untamed. Reflecting on the L’Albatros waiter’s words, I realised that anyone looking for traditional forms of luxury along the Côte d’Émeraude would be disappointed. What they would find was a combination of dangerous headlands, meditative beaches, changeable weather and pervasive tranquillity that heightened the senses and brought one closer to nature.
Paul travelled with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo. Keolis Saint-Malo operates an excellent coastal bus service, so you can do the walk in sections and not have to double-back. Day ticket €3.60.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel Château du Colombier, Saint-Malo. Doubles from €105, breakfast €12.
Hôtel le Manoir Saint-Michel, Fréhel. Doubles from €53, breakfast €9.
WHERE TO EAT
La Mère Champlain, Cancale. A renowned seafood restaurant. Menus from €16.50, fruits de mers platters from €24.50.
L’Albatros, Saint-Briac-sur-Mer. Seafood and snack shack.
Maisons Arbona épicerie fine, Saint Briac-sur-Mer.
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