The islands of the Golfe du Morbihan in southern Brittany seem to be in a world of their own, as Paul Lamarra discovered on a cycling tour
Some are tiny and unlikely to support permanent life, but others such as the �le-d’Arz and the �le-aux-Moines are more than a few miles long and nurture vibrant communities that, despite being within touching distance of the mainland, have developed their own pace of life and priorities. Others are coveted by the super-rich as the ultimate havens of privacy.
It is surprisingly difficult to establish exactly how many islands there are in the gulf, but the figure is reckoned to be about 40 and not the 365 of popular imagination that is inclined to make a link with the days of the year. What is certain is that there are only three that can be visited easily and my plan was to explore the �le-d’Arz and the �le Gavrinis, with its Neolithic pyramid, and to cycle the many kilometres of quiet roads and pistes cyclables that follow the gulf’s internal coastline.
From the lively Place Gambetta in the centre of Vannes, where the city’s smart set prepare for a busy day with a coffee and watch the world go by from behind dark glasses, I headed south beside the marina to Conleau, an island suburb of Vannes. The coffee drinkers barely twitched in the midst of the cacophony of whining scooters, honking horns and the occasional siren but I was glad to swap them for the softer sounds of water slapping on the hulls of impressive yachts and the rhythmic clinking of the rigging against the masts.
Technically Conleau is an island, but it is so close to the shore that it is linked by a short causeway. Here beneath the towering maritime pines there is a more sedate air that motorised vehicles are unable to penetrate. This is where the Vannetais come for picnics, swims in the tidal pools and a restful aperitif while watching the bobbing boats go nowhere.
Outside the summer months the ferry serving the �le-d’Arz leaves from here and on this particular Monday morning 60 noisy schoolchildren, weighed down by too much luggage, were moving in a crush down the narrow slipway towards the tentatively moored ferry. Overflowing with children, luggage, mailbags and supplies for the island, the boat backed into the small sandy bay and gingerly navigated its way between the moored yachts and through the narrow channel out into the open gulf.
From the now-speeding ferry it was clear that the sea was an alien and unsettled presence in what was a series of hills and river valleys until the water flooded in around 3500BC. Pushed through a narrow opening by the mighty Atlantic Ocean, the tides induce violent currents that simmer on the surface of the gulf. Feared by all but experienced sailors they can reach speeds of almost ten knots (about 11mph), giving an accelerating thrill to any seaman who ventures across them.
Within 15 minutes the ferry was by the slipway at the northern end of the �le-d’Arz. It is a long, slender island with two outlying islets and the bourg lies toward the south. Once the schoolchildren had dispersed in the direction of the sailing school, I cycled up the slipway among a loose group of cycling residents who had their shopping in tow.
On my clockwise tour of the island it became clear that the swirling currents that added an ominous texture to the surrounding waters were a feature of life on the island. Rusting hulls lay stranded on the beach and salt marshes pointed to regular inundations. Indeed so apparent was the power of the tides that the 16th-century islanders built a tidal mill, the Moulin de Berno, on the western side of the island.
Despite its limited size and its proximity to Vannes, the �le-d’Arz had the feeling of a Bretagne Profonde – if there is such a thing – as few other influences appeared to have made it on to the island. The bourg is a hugger-mugger collection of stone cottages with pale blue doors and gardens filled with Brittany’s emblematic hortensia shrub. Inside the prominent church, where draughts were amplified into a howling wind, there were several distinctively Breton touches: a model ship swung above the altar and the roof, probably built by local boatbuilders, was barrelled and dark blue like the night sky.
Returning to Vannes was to be back in our world – but which one? Today Vannes is the modern capital of the Morbihan d�partement where boutiques, galleries, restaurants and speciality food shops flourish. Yet it is a city still flanked on three sides by its medieval walls, gates and towers that grew in height in relation to Vannes’ importance and prosperity as a port, market town, bishopric and seat of the dukes of Brittany.
Behind the walls, in what has been the heart of Vannes since Roman times, an older world survives. On Rue des Halles, 16th-century half-timbered townhouses lean across to each other and for the town’s annual costume pageants held each July the cathedral and Place Henri IV provide the perfect backdrop. Vannes was once at the centre of historical events as it was a strategic port and to secure it was to control much of Brittany. So it was here on 4 August, 1532 that the treaty to unite the Duchy of Brittany with the kingdom of France was signed.
Leaving the walled city by the imposing Porte Prison, I circled round on to the outside of the ramparts. Here flowerbeds and lawns occupy the ground where the armies of King Edward III would have laid siege to Vannes during the Hundred Years War in the 14th century.
To explore the western edge of the gulf I returned to Conleau but continued on the path that follows the coast. Here huge villas and private chapels set in vast gardens ringed by high stone walls set the tone and the less fortunate public are afforded no more than a narrow path, which is not always suited to cycling. Inlets had to be negotiated by long detours inland and reedy marshland often meant that no path was possible. However, it is to these sheltered inlets and marshy fringes of the gulf that 150,000 barnacle geese, goldeneye ducks, avocets, plover and other water birds migrate every autumn to escape the harsh Siberian winter.
My primary western destination was the �le Gavrinis and on the short boat trip to the tiny island from Larmor-Baden the guide developed a reverential manner. Once on the island the unlocking of gates, as well as the many fences and signs, and solemn guide, suggested we were entering a prison, but I was to discover something altogether more sensitive.
From beneath the rock, the bracken and the heather, 19th-century archaeologists had unearthed a chambered burial cairn as old as the earliest Egyptian pyramids. Inside the mound of boulders in the narrow corridor and small chamber we crouched and followed the torchlight as the guide explained the possible significance of the markings carved into the granite by Neolithic people around 5,500 years ago.
Almost every surface was covered in a series of mysterious whorls that appeared to resemble giant thumbprints. The guide suggested that other fl�che-like markings could be axe heads and crooks – the most important tools in that period. Rather than a burial place I left with the impression that this was perhaps the very cradle of Brittany.
Nowadays Brittany invests much of its identity in the fresh fruits of the sea and from the �le Gavrinis I cycled down a remote peninsula to an oyster farm that offered guided tours and d�gustations.
Leading me through the crates and piles of oysters owner Ivan Selo pointed to the lines strung between poles in the shallow bay where the oysters were being nurtured. The gulf was ideal for rearing oysters, he explained, because the water was constantly being refreshed by the ferocious currents. When he flicked open one of his Creuse oysters and offered it to me it tasted exactly how he had predicted; plump and meaty with a slight taste of cleansing iodine.
Oysters are not his only harvest and he showed me around crates of whelks and clams, and tanks of writhing sea bass, most of which was bound for top restaurants in Paris.
For my final day on the gulf I had first to return to Vannes and then continue east by way of Saint-Armel and Saint-Colombier and the many other villages that ring the gulf. Although the roads were busier on this side, a dedicated piste cyclable separate from the traffic was nearly always available. It was a blustery day and I had to turn into the wind and across the narrow peninsula, Presqu’�le de Rhuys, that curls around the south of the gulf to separate it from the Atlantic Ocean.
Fast-moving clouds scudded off the Atlantic and across the swelling dunes and low-lying marshes. In the volatile light the mood of the Ch�teau de Suscinio looming ahead was equally uncertain. When the sky was clear the stout sandstone walls reflected the sun and projected the almost light-hearted demeanour of the ducal beach house and hunting lodge it was intended to be; however, when the clouds gathered its mood darkened to that of a frowning warrior.
It was built in the 13th century by Duc Jean I of Brittany to allow him to take the sea air and hunt in the bountiful forests and marshlands that lay to the north. The castle fell into French hands but in the 14th century became an active English garrison during the Hundred Years War.
My war, however, was with the wind and I knew I would struggle to return from the end of the peninsula at Port-Navalo where the Morbihan (little sea) meets the Mor Braz (the great sea), but I wanted to see for myself the drama of two seas colliding. I was not disappointed and it was here in 56BC that Julius Caesar defeated the Veneti tribe in a naval battle, after which they were wiped out by the Roman invaders.
Before the Romans there would have been few reasons to venture out into the Mor Braz and the wider world, for the Morbihan offered everything they could ever need and even today there are enough individual little worlds to entertain even the most regular visitor.