The perfect trip: Brittany and Normandy
Waves crash around the Pointe du Millier in Brittany, France. (Justin Foulkes)
Meet two neighbours linked by history, a dramatic coastline and some of France’s gastronomic champions.
Finistère: Best for wild coastline
A soft wind is stirring through the heather on the Pointe du Van, carrying with it a chorus of ocean sounds – cackling seabirds, rolling waves and booming surf. Overhead, gulls and gannets ride the thermals or roost in noisy colonies on the cliff faces. Along the coast path, walkers stroll through thickets of gorse, stopping occasionally to raise their binoculars skywards or peer gingerly over the cliff edge into the foaming waves 90m below.
Reaching out into the open Atlantic, this rocky finger of Finistère (literally, “the end of the land”) is as far west as you can go in mainland France. Battered by swells and gales, its coastline traces a zig-zag contour along France’s western edge. The coast is stark and wild, a place of fissured cliffs, lonely headlands and hidden reefs. It’s also infamous as a ships’ graveyard: hundreds of vessels have foundered here, from tiny fishing boats to oil tankers, and the area now has more lighthouses per mile of coastline than anywhere in Europe.
For Thomas Joncour, a surfing instructor born in the fishing village of Penmarc’h, it’s the frisson of wildness that sets Finistère’s coast apart. “Bretons are an ocean people,’” he explains, “and our coastline is precious to us. Even though we know the sea can be dangerous, unpredictable, even cruel, we respect it and understand it. It has claimed many lives, but it’s part of who we are.” As he talks, he watches white-capped waves wash in past the Pointe de la Torche, breaking onto an arc of amber sand and marram-spiked dunes that disappears north towards the shimmering horizon.
Unsurprisingly given its treacherous history, Finistère’s coast is alive with myths and legends. On All Souls’ Day, the spirits of drowned sailors and suicidal lovers are said to gather on the sandy cove known as the Baie des Trépassés, while the mythical drowned city of Ys is believed to lie beneath the waves off the nearby Pointe du Raz. On still evenings, some say that you can hear the tolling of its church bells carried in on the ocean breeze.
These days, Finistère is better known for its fauna than its folklore. The cliffs are home to some of France’s biggest seabird colonies and to endangered species such as the chough and the guillemot, both of which can often be seen gliding around the bird reserve of Cap Sizun. In summer, the headlands light up with pink thrift and plum-coloured heather, attracting rare moths and butterflies. Sometimes, dolphins and seals can be spotted around the more isolated headlands, such as the Pointe du Millier and the Pointe de Brézellec. Thomas never tires of Finistère’s coastline. “I’ve followed waves all over the world, but there’s nowhere like this,” he smiles. “No matter how far I travel, I’m always drawn back home. The coast has a spirit of its own.”
Where to eat
The Bistrot de la Cale in Douarnenez, 20 miles east along the coast, serves no-nonsense seafood such as fresh langoustines and grilled sardines in a rustic setting near the harbour (00 33 2989 23705; closed Mon and Jan–Feb; mains from £11).
Where to stay
Housed in a former presbytery just behind the old port of Tréboul, Hotel Ty Mad blends old and new: rough beams and rustic wood meet modern art and contemporary sculptures. There’s a peaceful bamboo garden and hammam pool, and dinner is served in the light, elegant conservatory (closed mid-Nov–mid-Mar; from £70).