With its mystic past, rich traditions and stunning landscapes, it’s easy to be captivated by Finistère, as Patricia Stoughton discovers
France’s last defiant gesture towards the Atlantic, the department of Finistère, with its mysterious, gnarled dragon’s head coastline, has so much to offer that no two travellers go home with the same story. And many of them, enchanted by their discoveries, return year after year to explore in more depth. Some turn to its long history from Neolithic menhirs through every age to the bombardments of the Second World War; others to museums, châteaux and its religious heritage; and almost all are captivated by its extraordinary and contrasting scenery.
Towering cliffs and treacherous rocks alternate with white sandy beaches and river estuaries; and from the iconic Pointe du Raz, the raw power of the Atlantic is visible even on the calmest days. Further to the north are the impressive Pointes de Dinan and Penhir, beautiful in the ever-changing light and, at certain times of year, covered in wild flowers. Beyond Brest is the legendary Pays des Abers and out to sea the Île d’Ouessant. To the south, at the end of the wild, unspoilt Baie d’Audierne with its nine kilometre stretch of bright sand, lies the Pointe de la Torche, now famous for surfing, and Les Rochers de St-Guénolé. Further round the coast among the sheltered beaches facing the Bay of Biscay are Loctudy, Île Tudy, Bénodet, La Mer Blanche, Cap Coz, and Les Îles des Glénans, all of them popular with sailing enthusiasts.
Inland, the scenery is equally contrasting as stark hills alternate with tree-filled valleys. The Monts d’Arrée, though mostly wooded towards the east, are bare and desolate in the west with rocky outcrops and vast panoramic views. The Montagne St-Michel stands out above the others on the skyline with its distinctive chapel. Among the highest of the Monts d’Arrée, it attracted pre-Christian worshippers and even today Druidic ceremonies occasionally take place there.
To the south-east, the Montagnes Noires are slightly lower, overshadowing secretive wooded valleys. Detached from them at the western end is Menez Hom, one of the finest viewpoints in Brittany. In clear weather, large areas of central Finistère and its coastline are visible. In the past, it was the site for one of a chain of warning beacons passing messages over great distances. Sometimes misty and mysterious, Finistère’s peaks are the source of countless legends and it is no wonder that early settlers felt so strongly drawn here, leaving their mark in the form of menhirs, standing stones, alignments and chamber tombs.
Yet, it’s not just the different landscapes that make Finistère so interesting, the contrast between some of its towns and villages is striking too: the Frenchness of Quimper, the modernity of Brest, and the Breton character of Pont-l’Abbé are cases in point.
The city of Brest, has a population more than twice the size of Quimper but it is the latter that was designated the administrative capital of Finistère in 1799 after the French Revolution. All capitals had in theory to be within one day’s ride from anywhere in their department.
More so than elsewhere, Quimper has a distinctly French feel to it with its elegant buildings and cafés along the River Odet. The river is further enhanced by a charming series of footbridges, hung with flowers throughout spring and summer. These once led to the grand houses across the river, now mostly divided into offices. Sightseers are also intrigued by shoals of fish splashing upstream with the tide. The medieval part of town – les Vieux Quartiers – the Musée Départemental and the excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts, are worth visiting, as is St Corentin cathedral, though many of its artworks, including carvings of saints, were burnt in 1793. In some of the upper windows, out of reach of the revolutionaries, is some fine 15th-century stained glass. One of the statues to have survived the destruction is Santig Du (little black saint) representing a monk who, after tending plague victims in 1349, succumbed himself. Tradition has it that when requesting his help to cure illnesses, particularly headaches, petitioners left bread for anyone in need and loaves are still left today.
Brest, immortalised by Jacques Prévert in his poem ‘Barbara’, was hastily and unimaginatively rebuilt after the devastating bombardments of the Second World War. But it has a buzz about it and the Tall Ships Festival every four years brings in thousands of visitors. The naval museum, le Musée de la Marine, is housed in an imposing castle partly dating from the 12th century. The well-designed Océanopolis marine park attracts tourists who might otherwise give the town a miss. From across the water at the Pointe des Espagnols, there is a vertiginous view of both the town and the vast, strategic natural harbour of the Rade de Brest, with its islands and nuclear submarine base.
Pont-l’Abbé in south Finistère is distinctly Breton. With its rugged château and stone buildings, it is on a smaller scale than Brest or Quimper. The town has several boutiques and art galleries, also an excellent market every Thursday. Until recently travellers could see bigoudènes, elderly women from the Pays Bigouden area, who wore tall, white lace headdresses, known as coiffes, around town every day. Those few who are still able, help out at demonstrations and the annual Fête des Brodeuses. Now coiffes are mostly worn by folk dancers or families taking part in village fêtes. Images of the headdress are frequently and not always successfully, used for publicity.
Many Finistère towns have distinctive features that appeal to visitors: St-Pol-de-Léon has its cathedral; Roscoff, from where the Onion Johnnies left for England, has its harbour and view to the Île-de-Batz; Morlaix its impressive viaduct; Huelgoat, the gargantuan rocks beneath its shady forest; Camaret its Vauban fort; Locronan, location for Polanski’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, its Grande Troménie pilgrimage; Concarneau its fortified town, la Ville Close; and Pont-Aven its pretty water mills not to mention links with Gauguin and his followers.
Yet there is a group of Finistère villages that have a distinctive feature in common: a parish close church, or enclos paroissial. Each has a surrounding wall marking the sacred space; stepped entrance to keep farm animals out; triumphal arch; calvary; ossuary; cemetery; and a south porch. Inside, the fantastical and rich baroque design of the beams, baptistries and retables is particular to the enclos churches. There are more than 70 of them in Brittany, most in Finistère, in and around the Élorn valley to the east of Brest. Those at St-Thégonnec, Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau and Pleyben are particularly fine.
Finistère also has a rich heritage of chapels, standing as sentinels on hills and clifftops, or hiding among fields and valleys. In the districts of Trégor, Cap Sizun and Pays Bigouden there is said to be at least one chapel for every 5km². And even if they are not regularly used for worship, they are loved and cared for.
Some, such as Chapelle Ste-Barbe at Roscoff are well-known landmarks; others, including Chapelle St-Évy at St-Jean Trolimon or the tiny St-Marc near Penmarc’h have to be discovered with the help of a good map. In addition, there are countless wayside crosses, many superimposed on sacred pagan rocks or fertility stones.
Another distinguishing feature of Finistérien architecture can be seen in the pink-washed abris du marins, sailors’ refuges created by Jacques de Thézac in the early 20th century. They provided accommodation, educational and sporting activities; their underlying aim being to combat alcoholism. They are all sold now, most put to commercial use. However, the abris at Le Guilvinec and Ste-Marine, still painted pink, are open to the public for exhibitions.
Despite reductions in quotas, fishing remains one of Finistère’s major industries and the ports welcome visitors, some organising guided tours. At Le Guilvinec, one of the most important ports in France, the coastal boats come in at 5pm, when the catches, with a large proportion of langoustines, are unloaded and auctioned at the criée.
And good fish is Finistère’s best food. When it is fresh, simply and expertly cooked, it’s unbeatable. Look out for highlights such as langoustines, oysters or fish (filleted or on the bone) served with a traditional sauce. Plateaux de fruits de mer, a mixture of fresh crab, langoustines, lobster, mussels and other shellfish, showcase one of the area’s specialities.
Crêpes are also a favourite in Finistère; even supermarket crêpes with jam, or reheated with fillings are good as they’re often home-made.
British visitors often have a coup de foudre for Finistère on their first visit, returning to the same place year after year, before eventually buying a holiday home or moving there permanently. Most have been drawn to the countryside of central Finistère as has writer Wendy Mewes, who was captivated by “its atmospheric landscape and volatile weather”. She enjoys living there and with a Celtic background herself, she appreciates its distinct Breton identity. “People stay close to their roots and loyal to their traditions, while being open-minded and responsive to the wider world,” she says.
Her empathy with the culture and landscape, together with her knowledge of history, has given her books a genuine insight; perfect for exploring the department. In Finistère: Things to see and to do at The End of the World, she adds personal comments to the text, giving the book a very companionable feel.
Dance teacher Sandie Trévien, whose English grandparents settled in south Finistère in the early fifties, is thoroughly integrated into the area where she has been running her successful École de Danse since 1996. Though very young when she began, she believes that despite French bureaucracy’s bad press, it was easier to set up a business starting from nothing than it might have been in the UK.
Having begun her education in Brittany, then taken GCSEs at the Elmhurst School for Dance (then in Camberley, Surrey), she returned to the French state system to take her BAC. There was no question of moving away when she married her Breton husband. “We wanted our children to be brought up in a quiet, safe area. The schools are excellent and there are loads of activities,” she says. Her work involves travelling to Paris, London and elsewhere. “Sometimes I feel lost when I’m away. But returning to the calm of Finistère I appreciate what is essential to our lives.”
Finistériens value their lifestyle, are rightly proud of their Breton cultural heritage and happy to share it with those who take a real interest. And a friendship, once established, will last a lifetime. LF