Meet two neighbours linked by history, a dramatic coastline and some of France’s gastronomic champions.
Finistère: Best for
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
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).
Carnac: Best for ancient history
“Welcome to one of the ancient world’s greatest construction projects!”
announces local guide Véronique Martin, as she tramps out across the grass.
It’s a foggy day, and a grey veil still hangs over the land. Pines rustle
gently in the breeze and droplets of dew sparkle on the fields, reflecting
watery sunlight filtering through the clouds.
It’s then that the first
of the Carnac stones materialises from the mist: a waypost in the steely gloom
that seems to point into our own long-forgotten past. France has plenty of
prehistoric sites, but Carnac is in a league of its own. Sprawling out across
the duneland of southern Brittany, the site is on a stupefying scale. It’s been
compared with Stonehenge, the Parthenon and the Pyramids in architectural
ambition, but despite the efforts of archaeologists and academics, its purpose
remains a mystery.
The main alignments
consist of more than 3,000 granite menhirs, arranged in rows between 3300 BC
and 1500 BC. Each of the blocks was carved at a local quarry and transported
for miles, even though the lightest weighs in excess of three tonnes. The
menhirs cover 40 hectares and stretch for four miles, making Carnac the largest
prehistoric monument anywhere on Earth.
“There are many things
we do know about Carnac,” explains Véronique, running her hand across one of
the massive blocks, its surface fuzzed in yellow lichen, its contours rutted by
centuries of rainfall. “We know where the builders quarried their stones. We
have ideas about how they transported them, and some of the techniques they
might have used to erect them. But the one thing we can’t answer is the most
important question of all – and that, of course, is why.”
Theories about the
monument’s function are as numerous as the stones themselves. Some believe the
alignments commemorate important warriors or tribal chieftains. Others think
they mark out an astronomical clock or celestial calendar. One outlandish
theory even maintains that they may have been a kind of seismic detector, used
to predict earthquakes. The current consensus is that the stones served a
religious purpose, probably related to the summer and winter solstices, and
possibly involving ritual sacrifice – but the truth is, no-one knows.
“Carnac is one of the
great riddles of the ancient world,” continues Véronique. “In many ways, we are
so close to the people who built it, but in other ways they seem very distant
to us. We know almost nothing for certain about their language, customs or
spiritual beliefs – and we probably never will. It’s that mystery that makes
this place so fascinating.” She turns and disappears into the ranks of stones,
a ghostly figure swallowed up in a wall of silver fog.
Where to eat
The Bistrot du Marin, at
the port in La Trinité-sur- Mer, three miles east of Carnac, serves Breton
cuisine such as cotriade (fish stew) and mussels in cider (00 33 29755 7323; menus
Where to stay
There’s a distinct scent
of the seaside at this Lodge Kerisper
in La Trinité-sur-Mer. Bedrooms feel like ships’ cabins, with blonde wood,
porthole windows and blue-andwhite colour schemes. Downstairs, there’s a lounge
bar with deep leather sofas and coffee-table books to browse (from £85).
Mont St-Michel: Best for walks
Haze rises off the sands
as Patrick Desgué treks out into the great bay of Mont St-Michel. As always, he
walks barefoot. He has worked as a guide here for years, but takes no chances.
“The conditions in the
bay can change in hours,” he explains. “What can be a safe place to walk one
day can be treacherous the next. But if you respect it, it’s safe to explore –
as long as you travel with a guide!”
Patrick spots a new
patch of quicksand. He stamps on it, conjuring up a pool of viscous sand that
bubbles around his feet, drawing them inexorably downwards.
This vast plain of
sandbanks and shifting channels is notorious for its fast-rising tides. The
difference between high and low tides can be 15m, and the waters are said to be
swifter than a galloping horse.
Centuries of landscaping
have upset the bay’s geography, causing tidal silting and seasonal flooding. An
enormous project is under way to restore the bay’s tidal rhythms and protect
this precious marine habitat. As we cross to the rocky Île de Tombelaine,
Patrick points out the coiled casts of lugworms, a grey mullet darting through
a channel and a cormorant fishing off a craggy outcrop. Light glints off hidden
pools, and in every direction, the flat sands glimmer like polished brass.
This is the secret side
of Mont St-Michel, an island topped by an 11th-century abbey built by
Benedictine monks, and linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Yet it is
only when it is seen from the sands that you experience it as its builders
intended. Here the island rediscovers the spiritual aspect that drew pilgrims.
It appears as an otherworldly refuge cut off, geographically and
metaphorically, from the concerns of the everyday world. “The builders of Mont
St-Michel believed this was a holy site,” muses Patrick. “I’m not a spiritual
man, but there is something magical about this place.”
Where to eat
It is worth the 35-mile
trip to Cancale to sample local specialities: oysters and mussels. By the port,
Le Surcouf serves enormous seafood platters (00 33 29989 6175; closed Dec &
Jan; menus from £15).
Where to stay
Run by celebrity chef
Olivier Roellinger, this lavish château-hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant
could have fallen straight from the pages of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. Château Richeux exudes 1920s
elegance, with plush rooms, glittering chandeliers and fire-lit lounges, all
overlooking gardens and the bay of Mont St-Michel (closed Jan & Feb; from
Camembert: Best for cheese
It’s barely 11am, but
for Nadia and François Durand, the day’s work is already half-done. Cows have
been milked, curds separated, moulds turned and cheeses salted. Now all that
remains is to package up 600 freshlymade camemberts in their traditional garb
of wax paper and wood, ready to be sent out to the nation’s top restaurants,
delis and fromageries. Such is life for the last cheese-maker left in Camembert
– but Nadia Durand wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People have been making
cheese here for the last 300 years,” she explains as she sets to work on the
mountain of cheeses stacked around her. “We’re just pleased to carry on that
tradition. Most camembert is made in big cooperative factories these days.
We’re the only producer left that still makes ours by hand in the old-fashioned
way. That’s something to be proud about!” she giggles. Outside, the throaty
call of a rooster rings out across the farmyard, and a venerable tractor
grumbles noisily by.
If there were a royal court of cheese,
camembert would unquestionably be queen. It dates back to the French
Revolution, when a local farm-girl, Marie Harel, was supposedly given the
recipe by an abbot from Brie on the run from a Revolutionary mob. It’s now by
far France’s most popular cheese, with an annual output of around 15,000
tonnes, a third of which qualifies for the most prestigious label: AOC
Camembert de Normandie.
“Of course, there are
many rules we have to follow – the grass our cattle eat, how the milk is
produced, the number of times each cheese needs to be turned,” Nadia smiles, a
little ruefully. “It’s very complicated, but it’s important to protect
traditions – we are in France, after all!”
Dressed in protective
boots and a fabric snood, she demonstrates some of the key stages of
production: the shaping room, where the freshly separated curds are set in
plastic rounds and turned by hand; the drying rooms, where a natural mould
(Penicillium camemberti) forms a white rind on the cheese; and finally the
boxing room, where the finished cheeses are packaged in wooden cartons produced
to the same design for the last 122 years.
Later, we drive through
the dairy meadows. Green fields and gentle hills unfurl, broken up by thickets,
oak copses and timbered farmhouses. In the distance, the spire of Camembert’s
village church pokes above the hedgerows, and a herd of black-and-white Norman
cows munch steadily through the daisies and dandelions.
Where to eat
The choice is limited
around Camembert, so it’s worth taking a trip into Falaise, 17 miles to the
west, to dine at La Fine Fourchette.
It’s a thoroughly Gallic affair, right down to the razor-sharp tablecloths and
rich French dishes (closed 15 Feb-2 Mar; menus from £15).
Where to stay
Lost in wooded
countryside to the southeast of Falaise, the Pavillon de Gouffern was
originally a hunting lodge, but it’s since been converted into a smart country
hotel. The best rooms are in the main manor and overlook the rolling grounds.
Others are in a converted stable block nearby (closed Nov & Dec; from
Route du Cidre: Best for cider and calvados
Apples are everywhere in
Normandy. Orchards carpet the roadsides and fields. Pollarded trees fill every
back garden. Rosy fruits gleam on market stalls. Yet most of the crop isn’t
destined for the fruit bowl: it’ll be smashed, sliced, mashed, pulped and
squeezed to make Normandy’s most celebrated alcoholic exports – cider and
calvados, the region’s fiery apple brandy.
temperatures and clay soils are tailor-made for apple trees. The region has
been known for its orchards since Roman times, but Benedictine monks were the
first to experiment with fermenting the fruit to produce an alcoholic brew,
kickstarting an industry that now employs thousands of people and has earned
the region numerous AOCs (appellations d’origine contrôlée).
Few names command more
respect than that of Pierre Huet, one of the most prestigious producers on the
Route du Cidre, a signposted trail that meanders for 25 miles through the rural
Pays d’Auge, passing between swaying cornfields, sleepy meadows and poppy
At their half-timbered
manor house in Cambremer, the Huets have been producing cider and calvados for
five generations. “For me, it’s not a passion, it’s an obsession,” says Cyril
Marchand- Huet, ducking into one of the manor’s dimly lit cellars. “Every year
is different: the climate, the crop, the soil and the sunshine all affect the
apples’ taste. That’s where the art of the cider maker comes in.”
He strides off into the
depths of the cellar, past rows of oak casks that disappear into the murky
darkness. Pipettes on the outsides of the barrels show how the colour of
calvados changes over time, from honey-yellow to a rich, chocolatey brown.
Vintages are mixed together once a year to create the perfect blend, before
being boiled down to a crystal-clear liquid in one of the manor’s antique
copper stills. Some of the calvados is mixed with apple juice to create
pommeau, a popular aperitif, while the rest of the apple crop is used for
Cyril stops and pulls a
cork out of one of the casks. The musty air suddenly fills with fruity scents:
sweet apples, aged wood and citrus tangs, blended with a heady undertone of 80
proof alcohol. “Ahhhh!” sighs Cyril, breathing in the aromas. “Now that’s the
real smell of Normandy.” He heads out into the estate’s orchards, where the
putter of a lawnmower mingles with the drone of bees at work amongst the
wildflowers. “I love this time of year,” he says, casting an experienced eye
over the rows of neatly trimmed trees. Above Cyril, bathed in buttery spring
sunshine, the first of the year’s apples are beginning to bud. “Every year is a
different adventure, and we never know what the new season will bring. But like
all the best things in life, half the fun is in the anticipation.”
Where to eat
Expect hearty country
cooking at Le Saint Melaine in Pont l’Evêque (00 33 23164 0164; closed Nov and
some weekday evenings; menus from £12).
Where to stay
Parisian Patrick Kuchly
left the capital and a career in banking to open Closerie des Millets near the
village of Blangy-le-Château, in the heart of the Pays d’Auge, to guests. It
has been renovated with impeccable taste: the rooms make a feature of the
house’s rustic beams, wonky walls and brickwork, but the décor is all
monochrome tones and minimal clutter while retaining that elegant château
style. Evening meals are available on request (from £105).
The article 'The perfect trip: Brittany and Normandy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.