Pride of place

Pont-l’Abb� is inspiring artists and craftsmen alike, while keeping ancient traditions alive. Patricia Stoughton reports on the Breton town with attitude

Pont-l’Abb� is inspiring artists and craftsmen alike, while keeping ancient traditions alive. Patricia Stoughton reports on the Breton town with attitudeAt first sight, Pont-l’Abb� in south Finist�re seems to be a quiet, ordinary town, only buzzing on market day and during summer months. Yet its picture-postcard image hides the depth of its extraordinary energy and enterprise, a quality described by one local author as startijenn’. Pont-l’Abbistes are aware of it themselves – it is part of their identity – but you won’t necessarily notice it on market day, which is when most visitors discover Pont-l’Abb� for the first time. However, if you walk down the side streets leading away from Place de la R�publique, you will start to see signs of this enterprise as you come across high quality, independent boutiques and shops, along with several art galleries. Thes galleries attract artists of international standing so that Pont-l’Abb� has gradually become an artistic centre in its own right, with painters such as Patrick Camus, Jacques Godin and Pierre Lorthioir living in the town or nearby. Patricia Oranin, who was Press Attach� at the Mus�e d’Orsay for 20 years, exhibits up and coming artists, photographers and sculptors including: Jean-Daniel Bouvard, Jacques Brenner, Olivier Garros, Jacques Godin, Pierre Lorthioir, Gilles Sacksick, and Mathieu Weemaels. She has also encouraged them to come to Pont-l’Abb� to seek inspiration in the area. “It’s good for the town too because buyers are coming from all over Europe. It’s also giving people here new horizons: work in the style of nouvelle figuration, industrial landscapes, and how this part of Brittany is seen by artists from outside.”One of her successful innovations has been a short, pre-Christmas exhibition of small contemporary works from her regular artists, and there are some real bargains to be had. The Galerie en R� opens during high season and owner Anita Kerv�vant-Balabaud puts on first-rate exhibitions. She has attracted many Peintres Officiels de la Marine, known as POMs, official artists of the French navy. Among these is highly regarded Christophe Debussch�re, also a Peintre Officiel des Arm�es and de L’Air et de L’Espace. In 2004, a group of 22 POMs was invited to Pont-l’Abb� by the Conseil Municipal. Their mission: to paint some of the iconic sites in the area – ch�teaux, churches, lighthouses, beaches, rocks, fishing ports, boatyards and boat cemeteries. The result was a prestigious exhibition in the town’s ch�teau and a book that shows off better than any guide, the beauty and spirit of Pont-l’Abb� and the Pays Bigouden – the informal name for this area taken from the name of the traditional headdress worn by the Bigoud�ne women.When you visit the two main bookshops in the town you will notice an extraordinary number of books on some aspect or other of Pont-l’Abb�. It was local man Pierre-Jakez H�lias, who described the town’s spirit was “startijenn”. He wrote the largely autobiographical book entitled Le Cheval d’Orgueil, in Breton, describing a poor family’s struggle in the Pays Bigouden. Historian Serge Duigou’s thoroughly researched and eminently readable books are a delight. Check times in Ouest-France or Le T�l�gramme, and join him on one of his guided walks. Pont-l’Abb�’s authors have recently turned their attention to one of the town’s great assets: La rivi�re de Pont-l’Abb�. With its chemin de halage – towpath – secretive tracks, menhirs and flourishing bird life, it’s a lovely place to walk. Artist Jacques Godin, together with photographer Olivier Garros, musician Mich�le Buirette, and Serge Duigou have published La rivi�re sans nom, a book and CD.

Family friendly festivalPont-l’Abbistes take great pride in their annual F�te des Brodeuses. An important date in the Breton festival calendar, usually in mid-July, this is one of the most welcoming and family friendly of Brittany’s summer festivals. On a smaller scale than some, it allows you to get in among the crowd in the shady Bois Saint-Laurent, to try out cider, cr�pes, g�teaux and other local specialities; to see Breton games and dancing; and crochet and lace-making by some of the few remaining Bigoud�nes who still wear their strikingly tall coiffe bigoud�ne every day. Beside them, you’ll find Michel Bolzer demonstrating how to starch and iron this extraordinary head-dress. Visitors are often surprised to find a man ironing but Michel learned in order to preserve his mother’s collection of over forty coiffes. Added to which, he is a fluent Breton speaker who enjoys sharing his culture. “What I really admire about these women is their natural elegance and the fact that they chose to keep to their their culture and traditions, while others left it behind,” he says.Breton music is also enjoying a revival; all through the F�tes des Brodeuses, you’ll see and hear pairs of musicians around the Bois Saint-Laurent, playing the biniou, small Breton bagpipe, and the bombarde, an ancestor of the oboe, practising for competitions and shows. Pipe bands developed after wartime contacts with Scotland, their numbers growing rapidly since the early 1970s along with the Celtic revival. Cap Caval, a Pays Bigouden pipe band playing the biniou bras, Scottish bagpipes, won the world championship for bands in its category at Glasgow in 2008. Sonerien an Aod, based in Pont-l’Abb�, has also won international fame. The band’s distinctive red costume marks them out as they parade through the town.Although costumes for musicians and Breton dance groups have been made recently, many old family costumes are carefully unpacked for the F�te des Brodeuses and worn by the children or grandchildren of those who first wore them. Look out for the embroidered bigouden motifs: most famous being the corne de belier, ram’s horn, for strength, and plume de paon, peacock feather, for pride. For the high point of the festival, make your way to the Th��tre de Verdure, the outside theatre with its Pont-l’Abb� river backcloth, for the crowning of the Queen’ – La Reine des Brodeuses.Yet the celebration of the Pays Bigouden’s embroidery is not simply anchored in the past. The family firm of Le Minor, now run by Gildas Le Minor, has adapted to changing needs and fashions. Gildas’s grandmother, Marie-Anne Le Minor, began the business in 1936 making dolls in exquisitely embroidered regional costumes. They became internationally famous but during World War II, celluloid to make the dolls ran out and the firm turned to traditional embroidery, making table linen and bags. It could have remained there had it not been for a fruitful association with artists Mathurin M�hut and Pierre Toulhoat, from which came new designs for household linen and tableware, also large silk scarves, much loved by the Bigoud�nes. And the partnership with artists has continued, producing clothing, robes, church ornaments and striking banners.

Wells of traditionIf you visit Le Minor on the Quai Saint-Laurent, go upstairs and see the collection of headdresses, waistcoats, and children’s caps, and visit embroiderer Jean-Michel P�rennec, who can often be found sitting in the far right corner, working on a costume or banner. Owner Gildas believes that popular culture will only survive if it renews itself and his “essential concern is to find inspiration in the deep wells of tradition”. But it is not only Breton, tradition-based enterprise for which Pont-l’Abb� is well-known. That quintessentially French m�tier of traiteur was taken to new heights by Jean-Paul Stephan and his wife, Marie-France, who began with a delicatessen shop called Au Fin Gastronome, in Place Gambetta. During his career, Jean-Paul organised receptions from small family parties to vast banquets for the President. Now the company has passed to the next generation and the business continues. The town’s influence extends far beyond its borders in the field of dance. Under the patronage of ballet star Violette Verdy, who was born in Pont-l’Abb� and went on to the New York City Ballet, the Stage International de Danse de Pont-l’Abb�, a dance course set up by Royal Ballet School-trained Annik Coatelen at the Triskell cultural centre, has attracted teachers and students from around the world. Like many other French towns, Pont-l’Abb� has its weekly market; its ch�teau, and interesting buildings, such as the �glise des Carmes with its 15th-century rose window, and the ruined church of Lambour. But what sets it apart is its openness to the outside world and the extraordinary vitality of some of its citizens. This startijenn spirit has grown over generations as Bigoudens struggled with poverty, challenged authority, and bore their terrible wartime losses with great fortitude. They are rightly proud of who they are but at the same time they remain unaffected and ever hospitable. FRANCOFILEHOW TO GET THEREBy sea: Brittany Ferries to Roscoff or St-Malo Tel: 0871 244 0744www.brittanyferries.co.ukor alternative companies further up the coast.By road: From the Rennes-Nantes-Brest express route follow the signs to Pont-l’Abb�.By air: Brest-Bretagne (Guipavas) served by airports from the UK. Tel: (Fr) 2 98 32 01 03 www.airport.cci-brest.frQuimper-Cornouaille (Pluguffan) is well served from Paris.Tel: (Fr) 2 98 94 30 30For more information see the Holiday Planner on page 89.

WHERE TO STAYH�tel de Bretagne24 Place de la R�publique29120 Pont-L’Abb�Tel: (Fr) 2 98 87 17 22www.hoteldebretagne29.comA friendly, family-run hotel with a good, traditional restaurant.

Yelloh! Village le Manoir de KerlutPlobannalec-LesconilTel: (Fr) 2 98 82 23 89www.domainemanoirdekerlut.comA great place for camping, with swimming pool and lovely views from grounds.

WHERE TO EATLa Malva43 Rue Jean Jaur�s29120 Pont-l’Abb�Tel: (Fr) 2 98 87 21 61High quality pizzas and great atmosphere.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION Market day is on Thursdays.

For more information on where to go and what to do contact:Office de Tourisme de Pont-l’Abb�11 Place Gambetta29120 Pont-l’Abb�Tel: (Fr) 2 98 82 37 99www.pontlabbe-lesconil.com

 

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