Catch of the day
With the salt air in her lungs and the sun on her back, Victoria Trott explores the maritime department of Morbihan
The small boat rocks back and forth as we keep a steady course for the �le-de-Groix, Brittany’s second largest island. I glance down at the map: there’s a buoy ahead. With both hands firmly on the wheel, I move it to the left just in time and breathe a sigh of relief. This novice mariner has narrowly managed to avoid disaster.Thankfully, I haven’t been let loose on the high seas – I’m trying out one of the many interactive exhibits (in French and English) in La Cit� de la Voile �ric Tabarly in Lorient. Named after France’s most famous sailor who died at sea in 1998, this museum of sailing opened to much acclaim in 2008 and has proved a big hit with those who have sea legs and those (like me) who don’t.Wherever you are in Brittany, you can’t escape the influence of the ocean. After all, this north-west corner of France has the country’s longest regional coastline. Morbihan, the department where Lorient is situated, means little sea’. Intrigued, I’ve headed off to find out how la mer has shaped daily life.The Cit� de la Voile’s industrial look is in keeping with the rest of the buildings around it in the heart of Lorient’s dockland, which is in the process of being regenerated. Nearby is the entrance to France’s second largest fishing port (after Boulogne), which handles 24,000 tonnes of fish per year and employs more than 3,000 people including 700 fishermen; it’s currently undergoing a €20 million (�17 million) modernisation programme. Visitors can buy fish straight off the boat in the on-site shop and in high season the tourist office organises guided tours including a visit to a fish auction.After three hours of nautical fun including designing my own hull, sailing remote-controlled boats on the indoor pool and finding out what life is like for transatlantic sailors, I head next door to La Base. Lorient’s coolest bar-restaurant is named after the adjacent Base Keroman, an austere submarine base built by the Germans during World War II.Taking my place on the waterside terrace, I order a scallop kebab and notice an influx of tanned men with mirrored shades who settle down at the next table. It’s record-breaking, round-the-world sailor Frank Cammas and his crew. Their distinctive green and orange trimaran Groupama is moored at Lorient’s new marina, which has been specially built for France’s top competitive sailors. It occurs to me that the sea is the reason that Lorient exists at all. The city was founded in 1666 when La Compagnie des Indes moved to Port-Louis on the other side of the bay. Lorient was the area that housed the warehouses that stored goods brought back from the Far East.
Salvaged wrecksLater, along with locals and tourists, I board the Batobus ferry at Quai des Indes – flanked by smart 17th-century merchants’ houses – and we set off across the harbour past pleasure boats and La Thalassa, an oceanography vessel that is now a museum. My destination is the citadel at Port-Louis, a 16th-century star-shaped fort that is home to La Mus�e de la Compagnie des Indes and La Mus�e Nationale de la Marine, the collections of which include model ships, salvaged wrecks and a fascinating exhibition on sea rescues. The following day I head east across Morbihan along the Coast of Megaliths to Carnac, the small village that is renowned throughout the world for its rows of Neolithic standing stones. Built around 4000BC, about 2,700 of the menhirs remain from an original 6,000. I’m curious to know why they were erected in this coastal location. After watching an informative film at La Maison des M�galithes visitor centre, I meet up with a group for a guided tour; the stones are fenced off and not accessible to the public unless accompanied by a guide.Our guide Virginie tells me: “The people who settled here were farmers and were no doubt attracted by the temperate climate. We cannot be sure why they erected the stones but it could have been to mark their territory. Many were put up where they were found and it’s thought that algae was used to slide some of the larger stones into place. But it’s important to remember that the sea was much further away from Carnac than it is now. In fact, many stones in this area are now under water.”After a delicious ham and cheese galette at Cr�perie Chez Marie in Carnac Ville, I head around the corner to my accommodation for the night. Plume au Vent, named after a cartoon strip, is a stylish one-bedroom B&B run by Parisian escapee Elisabeth Rabot. Desiring to flee the rat race to be nearer the coast, like many before her, Elisabeth renovated this old village house herself with a strong blue-and-white nautical theme and tasteful decoration: wooden seabirds, pebbles, antique chests, model boats and reclaimed wooden objects painted with life-like fish by local artist Diane Loranchet. The next morning, after a good night’s sleep in the television-free room followed by a mouth-watering breakfast of fresh fruit-bread topped with locally made jam, I’m picked up by Alain Bertel from Armor-Argoat Environnement et Patrimoine, a local organisation that offers guided tours (in French only) of Brittany’s heritage and environment. He takes me to explore the Quiberon Peninsula, which extends into the sea for nine miles and is just 72 feet wide at its narrowest part.We drive along the rugged and windswept C�te Sauvage, a popular spot for walking and surfing and I ask Alain to tell me about the threats to this wonderful location. He says: “The peninsula is such a popular holiday destination – although many visitors just pass through to get the ferry over to Belle-�le – that it causes many threats to the environment: traffic jams in summer, camper vans leaving their rubbish, ugly holiday homes being built, old farm tracks being tarred over to give better’ access. The elements are also a problem as they cause erode the rock, although measures are taken to keep this at bay.”We stop for lunch at Le Vivier, a fish restaurant perched on a promontory not far from the entrance to the village of Quiberon, where we enjoy wonderful views over the coast with our seafood platter.Alain continues: “There is an incredible historic richness here. There is the site of a Bronze Age fort, Beg En Aod, which we consider to be the real village of Ast�rix. The Romans salted fish at Pointe du Conguel to send back to Rome. There are about 40 major shipwrecks off the coast. One of the British navy’s greatest victories over the French occurred here in 1759. Then in the 19th century, Quiberon was France’s principal sardine fishing port.”On that note we head to La Belle-Iloise, one of only two fish processing factories left on the peninsula, to take a free 45-minute tour (English spoken), where I learn about the history of fishing and canning and watch some current employees processing the fish by hand. The visit ends with a tasting that seduces me into buying some tinned sardines from the on-site shop.
Maritime history The next morning I intend to catch the boat from Locmariaquer across the Gulf of Morbihan to Vannes. The gulf, dotted with 42 islands, hosts La Semaine du Golfe – a spectacular sailing festival – every two years (next one in 2011). However, the weather is misty and visibility is low so Elisabeth offers to drive me. We pass the smart 19th-century villas in Carnac Plage and head through La Trinit�-sur-Mer, a popular destination with the sailing fraternity, past the oyster beds, before stopping at the lovely waterside chapel of St-Philibert. Inside, from a ceiling that mimics a starry night sky, hang small models of boats. I am reminded about the dangers of the sea as Elisabeth tells me how religion plays a large part in sailors’ lives. For example, in Chapelle St-Michel in Carnac, the wives of fishermen away at sea used to sweep the ground in front of the chapel in the direction they wanted the wind to blow before praying at the fountain and drinking its water.With time to spare before my arranged pick-up, I explore Vannes, one of the prettiest medieval walled towns in Brittany. Outside a speciality food shop called La Tapenalgue, I spy some beer by a company called Mor Braz, which the shop owner tells me is made with seawater. The castle gardens are dotted with photos of a maritime theme and I discover that this is the annual La Mer en Images festival, which showcases work by some of the region’s best nautical photographers including Philip Plisson, who has galleries in La Trinit�-sur-Mer and Crac’h.A couple of hours later, I am happily ensconced in H�tel Miramar Crouesty, Brittany’s most impressive thalassotherapy spa hotel; its cruise-liner form jutting out into the sea off the Rhuys Peninsula. The centre’s medic, Dr Tong, tells me that seawater is very good for many health conditions as its salt content is similar to our own and that algae helps its absorption. As my body is slathered with green goo then wrapped in foil, I close my eyes and drift away. You can keep your sailing. GETTING THEREA standard return fare by train from London St Pancras to Lorient starts at �99 from www.raileurope.co.uk or call 08448 484064
WHERE TO STAY/EATLa BaseTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 88 01 93www.labaselorient.fr
Plume au VentTel: 00 33 (0)6 16 98 34 79www.plume-au-vent.comCr�perie Chez Marie3 Place de l’Eglise, CarnacTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 52 07 93
Le VivierRoute du C�te Sauvage, QuiberonTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 50 12 60
Hotel Miramar CrouestyTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 53 49 13www.miramarcrouesty.com
WHAT TO DOLa Cit� de la Voile �ric TabarlyTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 65 56 56www.citevoile-tabarly.comLa Mus�e de la Compagnie des IndesLa Mus�e Nationale de la MarineTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 82 56 72
La Maison des M�galithes (Carnac Visitor Centre)Tel: 00 33 (0)2 97 52 29 81www.monuments-nationaux.fr
La Belle-IloiseTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 50 08 77www.labelleiloise.fr
La Tapenalgue23 Rue des Halles, VannesTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 42 69 65
Philip PlissonTel: 00 33 (0)2 97 30 12 12www.plisson.comPicture � V Trott