Visiting Belle-Île-en-Mer in Brittany, Paul Lamarra follows the final adventure of Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling heroes
From my harbourside café table in the town of Le Palais on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, I watched as passengers for the ferry to Quiberon on the Brittany mainland assembled on the quay. Meanwhile those of means waited in courtesy coaches emblazoned with the logo of their upmarket hotel. A group of smartly dressed conference delegates arrived clutching bags from the Bien Nommée shop that sells Belle-Île’s renowned butter shortbread, salted butter caramel sauce and the quatre-quarts cakes, made by definition with one-quarter butter. Together we all looked out over the sailing and fishing boats to the end of the breakwater and the narrow harbour mouth for the first signs of the expected ferry. It was, I supposed, a daily island routine that in essence had probably changed little in centuries.
Nowadays visitors come and go and no one shows much interest in them, but in past times, more than a whiff of treachery and sedition surrounded those disembarking at Le Palais. People arriving in chains included 19th-century revolutionaries Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès, and earlier, in 1681, a group of 12 sentenced by Louis XIV himself to perpetual imprisonment for their part in the La Voisin black magic and poisoning affair.
In the febrile atmosphere of revolutionary France, spies sent by Georges Cadoudal, an ardent Breton Catholic and royalist who conspired to seize the island, mixed with the troops stationed at the Citadel garrison and Le Palais’s republican bourgeoisie.
More than 150 years earlier Cardinal de Retz, a member of the Gondi family which owned the island, came ashore after escaping from prison at Nantes. His involvement in the Fronde, a plot that challenged Louis XIV’s attempts to take powers from the aristocracy, would fuel the king’s suspicions of the island’s next owner, his finance minister Nicolas Fouquet.
Added to all this intrigue, who could tell when the Dutch or British navies, which both coveted the island for its abundant supplies of food and fresh water, would appear over the horizon?
Perhaps the most ambitious and treacherous character of them all was the chevalier René d’Herblay, bishop of Vannes, or as he is more commonly known, Aramis, one of Alexandre Dumas père’s three musketeers alongside Porthos and Athos. Aramis is, of course, a fictional character, but for the musketeers’ final adventure Dumas drew on many of the historical figures already mentioned for his 1847 story L’Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask), with its dramatic climax on Belle-Île.
In Le Palais, Dumas’s tale comes to life. As the ferry finally steamed into the harbour, the waiting passengers watched intently, but I suspected that few of them realised it was on this breakwater that Dumas imagined the final meeting of Aramis, Porthos and the fourth musketeer, d’Artagnan, the only one to have existed in real life. It was also there, in the shadow of the Citadel, that Aramis would explain Porthos’s unwitting role in a plot to replace Louis XIV with the man in the iron mask; known only to Aramis as Philippe, the king’s identical twin. It was Aramis’s hope that once Philippe was king he would be elevated to cardinal and also become prime minister and one day pope.
Once the ferry had departed I turned inland to explore the narrow streets and quays lined with colourful merchants’ townhouses; despite now being inhabited by crêperies, traiteurs and pâtisseries, it still retains the bustling atmosphere of an old sea port.Always making its presence felt was the brooding mass of the Citadel with its concentric, pentagonal ramparts and massive stone bastions bearing down on the town; it must have been disconcerting for the generations of townsfolk who looked up and saw the cannon pointing at them as well as out to sea.
Once inside the Citadel, in the deep moat that cuts into the bedrock, it was easy to imagine the sense of despair of those sent to serve their sentences here. As they shuffled up the gravel path and over the bridge to enter by the Porte Donjon on the way to a dark and dripping cell, there could have been few thoughts of escape. These fortifications, enhanced by the famous military engineer Vauban, would be Fouquet’s undoing as Louis XIV was readily persuaded that he was building a power base from which to attack the mainland. In The Man in the Iron Mask, Porthos is Fouquet’s engineer and when the true nature of the fortifications is discovered by d’Artagnan on a mission for the king, Aramis urges Porthos to get back to Paris first and tell Fouquet that he must give the island to Louis to allay any suspicions.
Nonetheless, it was Fouquet who, both in history and in fiction, fell foul of the king – this despite rescuing Louis from the Bastille and exposing Aramis’s plot to replace him with his brother in the Dumas version of events. In both scenarios Fouquet never reached Belle-Île and was instead arrested at Nantes for embezzlement by his lifelong friend, d’Artagnan. In the book it was Aramis who fled to the relative safety of Belle-Île, meeting Porthos once again in Le Palais. The action here closes with a cannon assault on the town and the Citadel by the king’s warships, but not before d’Artagnan goes ashore to warn his friends.
The two musketeers escape the bombardment and set off across the island to Locmaria where a boat and crew are waiting for them in a cave. I chose to follow them not by the direct route across country but along Belle-Île’s northern coast and the extensive sands of the Grande Plage. This is the island’s soft underbelly, but its inadequate defences, now overgrown with grass and almost hidden by ferns, did not compromise the air of tranquillity or the beauty of the spot.
In earlier times the population was roused to action when a beacon was lit at the centre of the island. When the British threatened to land at the Grande Plage in 1761 every islander donned a uniform while lanterns were hung from the horns of cattle to give the impression of a massive force.
The British were deterred by these tactics, but they tried again and this time pretended to attack Sauzon in the north-west while actually landing troops and cannon near Pointe Locmaria in the south-east. It was this diversionary tactic that Dumas borrowed for his description of the attack on the island by the king’s troops. The British held Belle-Île for two years and on my cycle around the coast in search of Dumas’s musketeers it was easy to understand its particular appeal to the British Navy, the Gondi family and Fouquet.
Blessed by a gentle micro-climate, the island is an ideal mix of fertile fields and rough heath where cows and lambs munch on iodine-infused grasses. Add to that a natural underground cistern of limitless fresh water and warm seas teeming with crustaceans, shellfish and sea bass, and you have an island that would sustain inhabitants through the longest siege.
Each meal that I enjoyed on Belle-Île brought together these elements. At the Hôtel Castel Clara the chef produced a menu that combined locally caught mackerel, sardines, oysters, lobster and sea bass with the deep flavours of tender lamb pre-seasoned (pré-salé) on the island’s salty margins. At La Table at the Hôtel La Désirade near Bangor the fresh seafood was supplemented in a simpler yet stylish meal with cèpes, foie gras and goats’ cheese.
Porthos and Aramis made a rather more urgent journey across the island pursued by a pack of hounds and troops on horseback. Yet when I arrived at Locmaria I was both excited and impatient. I dismounted next to the striking blue and white church, and pushed my bicycle down the steep slope to the tiny bay overlooked by a flat-roofed Napoleonic fort.
There was no view of the ocean, so I scrambled over rocks and joined the coastal path once patrolled day and night by customs officers on the lookout for smugglers. Stumbling occasionally and panting hard, I emerged from the shoulder-height bracken and gorse on to the low-lying headland for a clear view of the island’s Côte Sauvage and the Atlantic Ocean.
I scanned east and west for a cave that Dumas might have had in mind when he described the dramatic death of Porthos. To my right in the dog-legged narrow inlet, the sea was green and rippling gently. Ahead of me the ocean was grey and heaving with latent menace. Below me, the polished granite shores shelved at such a slight angle that the waves pooled briefly on the surface.
Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any caves, certainly not of the proportions described by Dumas in which a boat could be hidden and a battle take place involving more than 80 royalist troops. Porthos tried to blow up the cave to make good the escape but he held on to the barrel of gunpowder too long and was buried in the explosion. Indeed, it could be said that the grave imagined for him was below my feet. Meanwhile, Aramis and his Breton accomplices fled.
Heavy on intrigue, Dumas is light on details and it was apparent that the writer had not visited Belle-Île. It was perhaps a foolish notion but I had wanted to be convinced that he had a real cavern in mind and that the events described were possible.
Yet as I resumed my journey west towards Bangor in the centre of the island the disappointment of not finding the cave in no way diminished the thrill of the island’s Côte Sauvage. Had Dumas properly appreciated the drama of the coastline he could have enhanced the power of his tragic climax. Instead he was blissfully unaware of a coastline broken into sea stacks, rocky islands and vertiginous cliffs in a relentless war of attrition with the mighty Atlantic.
In Dumas’s favour, it would be at least another 40 years after the publication of The Man in the Iron Mask before Paris would be bowled over by Claude Monet’s paintings of the sea stacks at Port-Coton and a further ten before newspapers would report on the celebrity comings and goings at actress Sarah Bernhardt’s home in a Napoleonic fort among the islands and rocky needles at the Pointes des Poulains.
When I eventually returned to Le Palais and joined the growing queue on the quay I looked out to the end of the breakwater in the vain hope that the ferry would not turn up, so that my short exile on Belle-Ìle could last one more day.
FRANCOFILE Explore the rugged beauty of Belle-Île-en-Mer
By road/ferry: Paul travelled with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo (tel: 0871 244 0744, www.brittanyferries.com) from where it is a two to three-hour drive to Quiberon.
The Compagnie Océane ferry from Quiberon to Le Palais takes 45 minutes. Return foot passenger fare €31.65 (tel: (Fr) 8 20 05 61 56, www.compagnie-oceane.fr).
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel Castel Clara
Tel: (UK) 00 800 2000 0002
Clifftop hotel and spa. Doubles from €215, breakfast €25, menus from €59.
Hôtel La Désirade
Le Petit Cosquet
Tel: (Fr) 2 97 31 70 70
Boutique hotel, with rooms in individual cottages. Doubles from €99. Menus €32-€82.
WHERE TO VISIT
La Citadelle Vauban
56360 Le Palais
Tel: (Fr) 2 97 31 85 54
Entry to museum and fort €6.50; guided tours (June to September) €8.
Maison Sarah Bernhardt
Pointe des Poulains 56360 Belle-Île-en-Mer
Open April to September, entry €4.
Tel: (Fr) 2 97 31 61 29