Brittany: at the End of the Earth

Brittany: at the End of the Earth
  “What’s the most commonly spoken foreign language in Brittany?” was an opening shot in a conversation with a new neighbour out here in Finistère (the end of the earth), the most north-westerly (and westerly) Department of France. For the last eight months we have lived much of our time here in the small Breton community of Ploudalmézeau, on the very north-western tip. When asked where we are, I say “Head towards Canada, and when you get your feet wet, take one step back.” We came to live in Brittany by mistake, as it seems so often happens. My wife, Jane ( we were married here in the summer of 2002), has been visiting Ploudalmézeau on and off since a school exchange when she was 14 – several years ago now. We’d been thinking about where to live together when we came on a visit here one wet stormy February. After looking at many houses ‘for interest’ we came to Coat Meur (Breton for The Great Wood, pronounced Kwat Murr, to rhyme with ‘purr’). Here we stayed, in a ‘traditional’ Breton house, an acre of wooded valley, sheltered from the winds off the sea, a kilometre from the town, two from the sea. As you can see, we’re truly at the end of the rainbow. If France is L’Hexagon, Brittany is the bit that doesn’t fit. Legally it’s only been a part of France for a few hundred years, since 1532, a mere spit in the ocean of time. And then it’s been split in two with the whole of the Loire Atlantique’s having been excised. There is a movement to reunite the parts – about as likely to succeed as that to separate Portsall, the port in our community, from the town of Ploudalmézeau. The people here are proudly Breton: the black and white (or ‘Gwenn ha Du’’ in Breton) stripes and ermine flag is to be seen everywhere, as are the curvy Celtic triangles, or triskell. They came, so the story goes, from the Celts expelled from Britain as the invaders moved ever westwards. The similarity of names is no coincidence. Here, by the great seaway of ‘Ouessant’ (‘Ushant’) where the Channel meets the Atlantic, life depends on the sea; one way or another it dominates all lives. The Breton tradition is of work at sea, in the Navy, fishing, gathering seaweed, the salt pervades. The land is fertile and provides vast amounts of produce for France and abroad, but the weather is led by the sea. A generation or two ago most of the people here lived close to their work, then came the move to the towns. Today, most of the people we meet seem to have lived away from Brittany for most of their working life, but they have returned again to the land of their heritage. Who comes to Brittany? Well, tourists in their droves to the well-known places. To St-Malo in the north, just before Normandy. Perhaps to venture to Mont St-Michel or to the Côte de Granit Rose; to the south, where the weather is warmer; from La Roche Bernard at the beginning of the long Vendéen coast to the rocky Pointe du Raz. Here in our quiet corner, the tourists are mostly German, Dutch or Belgian – leaving aside those dreadful Parisians of course – and the summer season is short. Yet today, early February, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the garden is already full of flowers (even on Christmas Day I was able to pick a little bouquet of a half a dozen or more), and just a kilometre away there are miles of clear sandy beach with maybe three other people in sight? So, please, please don’t read any more of these articles while I relate the delights of Brittany. Don’t tell anyone about it. Above all, don’t come here, stay away and keep it quiet and secret. Getting to Finistère By Rail: from Paris or almost anywhere else to Brest. From Paris it’s a bit more than four hours and a first class return ticket, staying over the weekend, is around 150euros. By Plane: from anywhere to Brest by Air France or BritAir, or probably, more cheaply, by Ryanair via Stansted. By Road: Take the ferry to Roscoff (1 hour), St-Malo (2 hours), or perhaps Caen or Cherbourg; or the autoroute to Rennes or Nantes and then drive toll-free through Brittany’s quiet roads to complete your journey. Last summer we had dinner in the delightful Au Plain Château in La Roche-sur-Foron near Geneva, and drove home the following day arriving in time for crêpes at the Crêperie de L’Aber Benoît beside the sea near here. More of those another time. P.S. I nearly forgot: the foreign language most spoken in Brittany? French, of course. Bob Janes and his wife Jane Revell divide their time between rural Brittany and urban London – a tough choice. Bob is an occasional organisational consultant and coach and an avowed internet tekkie. He enjoys having choices about his life after 25 years in international business, working in finance, strategy and change management. Jane is a writer, teacher and trainer in personal development and English as a Foreign Language. More at and
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