France’s Best-kept Secrets: Part One

Some of our most knowledgeable writers reveal their most treasured finds across France

North West France

1 FISHING TRIP

Not far from Quimper in the Finistère département lies the busy port of Guilvinec, where the family-friendly Haliotika discovery centre (www.haliotika.com) gives a fascinating insight into fishermen’s lives. The timing is important: plan to be there in mid-afternoon and go up to la terrasse panoramique – a free viewpoint overlooking the sea, the lighthouse and the quay, where 250 fishing boats unload their daily catch. Le Guilvinec is the main French harbour for landing langoustines and after viewing the ballet of colourful boats, you can buy an array of fish and seafood. RG

2 SECRET GARDEN

Set into a hillside above the Jaudy estuary in Brittany’s Côtes-d’Armor département are the Jardins de Kerdalo (22220 Trédarzec, tel: (Fr) 2 96 92 35 94). Created by painter-gardener Prince Peter Wolkonsky in the 1960s, the ten-hectare landscape is home to around 9,000 plants, rare trees and shrubs which flourish in the mild micro-climate. The garden, classed as a jardin remarquable, is now tended by Wolkonsky’s daughter Isabelle, an RHS Wisley-trained horticulturalist, who has brought a new dynamic to this canvas of colour. Discover the hidden grotto surrounded by giant-leaved gunnera plants, or visit in spring to appreciate the rhododendron and azalea blooms. RS

3 BRETON FEAST

Lodged in a preserved medieval village in the Morbihan countryside, Le Pélican restaurant (Place des Halles, 56220 Rochefort-en-Terre, www.hotel-pelican-rochefort.com/en) offers carefully prepared and imaginative meals that would stand up to scrutiny in any big city. Fresh oysters and langoustines are combined with the rustic pâtés and beef dishes to bring together two Breton gastronomic traditions. The drawing room’s heavy decor and the waiting staff in smart black and white uniforms create a sense of occasion and formality, but the friendly service will put you at your ease. Menus from €23. PL

4 DUNE ROAMING IN BRITTANY

The moated medieval Château Suscinio and the eponymous village of thatched cottages, set among the reeds and rushes of the marshy coast between the Atlantic and the Golfe du Morbihan in Brittany, is reason enough to come by this way. However, it is the beautiful sandy beach that keeps drawing me back. The beach and dunes, often covered by wispy white bog cotton, are close to their natural state and the perfect place for a swim or to eat a late picnic-supper while watching the sun go down (56370 Sarzeau, www.suscinio.info). PL

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5 CREST OF A WAVE

During a holiday in Trébeurden (www.tourisme-trebeurden.com) on the coast of northern Brittany, I was frustrated at not being able to experience the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Heading north towards the Côte de Granit Rose, I encountered the Île Grande. This low-lying and sandy island is reached via a bridge and a seven-kilometre footpath follows its coast. Beyond the marram grass and low dunes, huge waves break on to the rocks at Pointe Tour-ar-Sour in the north of the island. The effect is mesmerising. PL

6 WAR MEMORIES

The story of the liberation of a small French community in 1944 following its occupation in World War II is movingly told in the village of Berjou in the Orne département of Basse-Normandie. The Musée de la Libération (tel: (Fr) 6 71 82 24 96) has bullet marks in the walls and displays about wartime France, but it’s the artefacts strewn among farms and sheds, often donated by local residents who experienced the war, that paint a compelling picture of a community under siege. RS

7 KITCHEN STAR

Chef Freddy Pommier, of Restaurant Le Palais in Mortagne-au-Perche, is still in his mid-twenties, but is already a serious contender for a Michelin star. The Normandy town is the capital of boudin noir and Pommier uses this basic ingredient to great effect, combining it with the area’s apples and soft fruit. His Le Référé lunchtime menu at the Hôtel du Tribunal (4 Place du Palais, 61400 Mortagne-au-Perche, www.hotel-tribunal.fr) is one of the biggest gastronomic bargains in France. For €15.50 you receive three courses, all served at once, with a glass of wine and coffee. PL

8 GO UNDERGROUND

For a stay in the Loire Valley that is truly unusual, you might like to look underground: La Troglo à Plumes (49730 Parnay, www.latrogloaplumes.fr) near Saumur in the Maine-et-Loire département, is a limestone cave-turned-gîte that was once the dwelling of medieval monks. Spread over several different caves, the gîte, which sleeps up to eight, is beautifully decorated with medieval-style furniture and artefacts from around the world. Its enormous bathroom fills the space where a grape press once stood. Outside on the sunny terrace, you can enjoy sensational views of the River Loire. CB

9 ARTIST’S IMPRESSION

Enter the fantastical world of artist Robert Tatin with a visit to the département of Mayenne. After an eventful life, Tatin settled in the hamlet of La Frénouse near Cossé-le-Vivien in his sixties, and it was here that he created some of his most impressive work, filling the gardens with distinctive stone sculptures. Wander through the grounds of what is now the Musée Robert Tatin (www.musee-robert-tatin.fr) and you’ll come face to face with the 19 monuments in the Avenue of Giants, which show the influence of his extensive travels in South America during the early 1950s. Follow this route and you’ll arrive at the garden of meditation at the heart of a museum like no other. RS

10 TROPICAL DREAM

A beach paradise awaits in a quiet corner of Brittany, close to the little town of Fouesnant (www.tourisme-fouesnant.fr). Pale golden sand and calm turquoise waters make the sandy spit of land fronted by Plage Cap-Coz in Finistère the sort of haven more associated with the Caribbean. Spend the morning searching for tiny iridescent shells on the palm-tree-fringed shoreline or walk along the captivating coastal paths to Beg Meil and Pointe de Mousterlin. An hour’s boat ride from here will transport you to the nature reserve of the Îles de Glénan, where more tropical beauty awaits. RS

11 HARBOUR HAVEN

The historic harbour at Saint-Goustan in the Morbihan département is easy to overlook. It is reached from the small town of Auray via a steep, snaking street lined with artists’ ateliers, and a cobbled humpbacked bridge over the river. The lopsided, half-timbered townhouses would have been familiar to Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, who landed here in 1776. Nowadays, Saint-Goustan is a great place to spend a summer’s evening dining in a harbourside restaurant. Skip dessert and buy the Breton butter pastry kouign amman from Maison Larnicol – reckoned to be among the best in the region (www.auray-tourisme.com). PL

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