Life at the ‘end of the earth’ in western Brittany
07/26/2014 12:00 AM
07/24/2014 11:29 AM
Do you know where the world ends?
According to the French, it ends somewhere near Ruscumunoc, a little fishing village in Brittany. Just follow the road up the hill, the locals tell me, then straight, then to the left. As I drive up the narrow potholed road that deteriorates more and more with every passing minute, the radio that has been blasting Breton Celtic music goes completely quiet. After a mile or so, the road suddenly ends.
I park my small European rental car and walk up an overgrown path to the crest of a hill. There the ground suddenly drops in a dramatic cliff toward the Atlantic Ocean, and France is no more. A sign points to the west: New York 5,080 km, it says; 3,156 miles.
To my left, at the base of the cliff, is a small sandy beach. It’s so postcard-pretty that I scramble down for a short suntanning break at the “end of the world.” There’s no one in sight.
I’ve wanted to go to the westernmost French department of Finistère (from the Latin “finis terrae,” or the end of the earth) since the day I first heard about it a few years ago. I wanted to see this edge of Brittany, the land that time forgot, and take a break from the rush of modern life. I wanted to see the wild, empty beaches, the tiny roads and tiny villages.
But what lured me most to Finistère and to Brittany were the lighthouses, promising remote beauty, relaxing solitude — and sweeping views, of course.
There are 148 lighthouses in Brittany, one of them so old that it dates back to the time of Louis XIV. Some are perched on rocky islets lashed by waves; others sit safely on the coast, looking toward the ocean. Once, their lights guided sailors to safety. Today, 80 are still working, but many others are just majestic ghosts of the past.
To get a good view of Brittany’s stunning coast, I decide to climb to the top of the 19th century Eckmühl lighthouse, one of the tallest in the world. After walking up its 307 steps, my muscles are sore and my legs rubbery, but I emerge into the vast panorama of the Atlantic, the wind bringing up the smell of salt and algae and wet sand.
The village of Penmarc’h spreads out below, with its small white houses set against green pastures. If the name Penmarc’h doesn’t sound very French to you, that’s because it isn’t. The word means “head of a horse” in the local Breton, a Celtic language brought to this region in the Middle Ages by Britons migrating to the continent.
The lighthouse of Saint-Mathieu, a classic white-and-red tower, is easier on my knees: It’s only 163 steps up. The semi-modern lighthouse, built in 1835, is part of a crumbling 16th century abbey, picturesquely set at the edge of the ocean and built on the site of an even older, sixth century monastery. This happens everywhere in France: Wherever you go, there seem to be layers and layers of history stacked one on top of the other.
In Saint-Mathieu, as far back as the 1250s, local monks would light fires to guide mariners through the dangerous waters of the channel that separates nearby islands from Brittany. Today, Saint-Mathieu is a calm, quiet place, yet its history is far from peaceful. Taking a short walk along the coast, I stumble upon an unexpected reminder of Brittany’s turbulent past. Hidden in a lush carpet of wild grasses are German bunkers: stern concrete installations built during World War II to guard the coast against the Allies during the German occupation of France.
This area, now so serene, was once the site of raging battles, including the Battle of Brest, which lasted from August through September 1944 and was one of the most violent of the war. It may not have the famed D-Day sites of Normandy, but I find exploring the war mementos of Brittany even more compelling. Here, I can sit in a bunker on the edge of the ocean all by myself and reflect on the past with no crowds of tourists to interrupt my thoughts.
For me, though, there’s nothing better in Brittany than walking. Countless trails run along the cliffs, starting at lighthouses or leading to them, and though I have a few favorites, it’s hard to decide which is the most spectacular. Would it be the path in Cote Sauvage (the Wild Coast) with its tall grasses rolling in the wind, as if mimicking the ocean, and with its numerous sandy beaches tucked between the peach- colored cliffs?
Or would it be the one around Cap du Raz, where sharp rocks run far into the sea and vast fields of gorse flowers smell of vanilla? Or maybe the one along the pink cliffs of Cap Fréhel that surround its sturdy modern lighthouse, where I have a picnic lunch (farm-fresh strawberries, a crunchy baguette and a piece of a delicate local goat cheese called Le Ménez Hom) and watch as seagulls circle above the waves?
If I could, I’d hike all these trails in every season, every year. Next time I come, though, I’ll add another lighthouse experience to my travels at the end of the world — and for that I’ll head to Riantec. There stands a slim white lighthouse, about 82 feet high, with a modern kitchen and a bathroom. It’s available for rent. That’s where I’ll stay, pretending that I’m a lighthouse keeper of the past.
MATTERS OF TASTE
The beauty of Brittany’s coast kept my index finger glued to the shutter button of my camera, but this far corner of France was pleasing to more than my sense of sight. The region also has a lot to offer a traveling gourmand: buttery cookies and eggy puddings, mussels in white wine — and classic buckwheat flour pancakes.
The local galettes (savory pancakes created in Brittany in the 16th century) are so delicious that I had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner day after day: pancakes with Camembert cheese in applesauce, pancakes with smoked salmon and sour cream, pancakes with scallops baked in whiskey.
After several days of a pancake-based diet, though, I was ready for another Breton delicacy: oysters. For that, I headed toward Saint-Philibert, one of the villages on Brittany’s picturesque oyster route.
Renan Henry’s oyster farm is one of many dotting the shore of the peaceful bay of Quiberon, but it’s also one of the best. Instead of a sign to assure me that I’ve arrived at “Huitres Henry,” there’s a several-foot-high pile of shells in the front yard.
Several employees clad in yellow overalls rush around the muddy shore, washing the oysters and dragging cases full of ready product. The farm has been in Monsieur Henry’s family for five generations, and now it’s in his and his brother’s hands.
He shows me around. He points at crates submerged in the ocean where the mollusks are “self-cleaning,” then teaches me how to judge the quality of an oyster by checking the cleanliness of its interior, the regularity of its shape and the evenness of its color.
Then it’s time to try the oysters. I slurp one, then another. They taste of salt, of citrus fruits, of sea.
THE WORK OF GOBLINS?
As I drive from Monsieur Henry’s farm to the town of Carnac, where I’ve booked a bed-and-breakfast for the night, I suddenly notice something that makes me bring the car screeching to a halt: menhirs, standing silent in the middle of a forest. In the dim light of the moon, the huge ancient stones resemble small extinguished lighthouses scattered among the trees, sentinels from Brittany’s mysterious Celtic past.
Or even pre-Celtic, as some of the local stones are believed to be 6,500 years old — much older than those in Stonehenge. Local Breton legend claims that the menhirs were brought here by goblins or fairies, or even by the devil himself. On Christmas night, the stones are supposed to come alive and run toward nearby streams to drink, crushing anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in their path.
Since I don’t believe in goblins or fairies, I visit Carnac’s museums to look for a less supernatural explanation for the prehistoric stones’ placement. But to my disappointment, a straightforward answer doesn’t seem to exist.
Some researchers say that the stones were part of a cult of the dead; others that they were used for astronomical purposes or for fertility rites. What seems certain, though, is that the area around Carnac has one of the highest concentrations of megaliths in the world: more than 3,000 of them.
What’s most magical about Carnac’s erected stones isn’t their sheer multitude, though — it’s the way I stumble upon them everywhere, unexpectedly. As I take a path through one of the local forests, I suddenly come across circles of prehistoric stones, tall, lonely menhirs and moss-covered dolmens. The way they take me by surprise, with my 21st century phone in one hand and my digital camera in the other, makes me feel connected to the very distant past of this place, to its people and its legends.
The next day, I buy a box of oysters at a local farmers market (less than $10 for 18) and in the evening come to watch the moon rise above the ancient alignments. I sit on one of the fallen menhirs (no archaeologists here to slap my wrists), savor the oysters and wonder who put so much effort into dragging these enormous stones here and pushing them upright. And why.
The bells of a medieval church in a nearby village chime the passage of time. It’s quiet and peaceful.
Brittany may not be the end of the world, but sometimes it feels as if it were. In a good way.
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