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Report 1980: Megaliths, Parish Closes and Cider - Part 1 Southern Finistère

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2011

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Page 2 of 26: Impressions of Brittany

photo by MAW

Wild flower verge

Brittany is very pretty. Around Roscoff area is flat with sandy soils. This is one of the main vegetable growing areas. As well as onions and cabbages, artichokes are big news here. We saw field after field of artichokes and the heads were for sale in all the supermarkets. Elsewhere potatoes are grown and a tremendous amount of maize for animal feed. It seems to be preferred to grass silage.

Away from the coast the land is gently rolling with a lot of deciduous woodland and pastures. We saw cows but no sheep. There are few hedges. Field boundaries are usually a bank of earth which gets overgrown by bracken. In other places the boundaries are marked by trees.

Monts d'Arrée is the central hilly area of open heathland with heather, gorse and rocky tors.

The roads are very good. A lot of money has been spent on the infra structure and many roads have been recently resurfaced with new roundabouts. The same couldn’t be said about the signing. Map reading was a nightmare. Michael’s patience often began to wear thin and there were muttered comments about sat nav, especially when I mixed up right and left yet again. Signing was inconsistent. Often there were no signs or different place names were used on successive signs (see page 3).

We deliberately avoided the larger towns, apart from a visit to Concarneau for Ville Close, concentrating instead on the smaller towns and villages. Parking was never a problem. In small towns there was always plenty of parking in the main square or by the church. On street parking is allowed although some places operate a disc parking system in the centre. In large towns there may be a charge for parking in the centre or disc parking. Further out there are no restrictions and parking is free.

Everywhere was clean, neat and tidy. Vegetation was lush and there were many wild flowers around in September. Palm trees which had been killed here last winter were flourishing. Many road verges had been planted with a wild flower mix with cornflowers, pink cosmo, yellow corn marigolds etc. There were flowers in all the towns and villages - window boxes, plant pots, flower beds. In some places the flower pots were carefully placed to stop parking.

There was no litter (no fast food culture) and very little graffiti. Most of the towns have preserved their medieval town centre with timber frame houses. Away from the coast there doesn’t seem to be the dormitory development that spoils so many of our villages. There are no high rise flats. New buildings are traditional with large granite window surrounds, and very often it is difficult to tell the age of a building. Older houses have and still use wooden shutters. In newer houses these are replaced by metal roller blinds which are pulled down at night or when the owners are out.

Most of the larger towns have a supermarket, usually advertised for miles around on billboards telling you where it is. Most of the smaller settlements have kept their bakery and many still have a butcher and charcuterie. All seem to have a chemist, advertised by a large flashing green neon sign. The bakers open about 7am and there is a steady stream of customers collecting bread and baguettes for breakfast. Shops (including many of the supermarkets) shut between 12-2, shutting again at 7pm. There are few post offices and these just sell stamps and are open very restricted hours 10-12, 2.30-3.30.

The bread was excellent but didn’t keep very well. Supermarkets do sell sliced bread. We did try some for toast but it was pretty gruesome. There weren’t as many fancy cakes as I’d expected. We did like the Breton cake which is a bit like a cross between shortbread and a sponge. It is made with a lot of butter and you could smell the butter as you walked past the bakers in the morning. They also make something called Kougan Amann which is a bit like lardy cake but made with butter. That was decidedly more-ish!

There are small biscuit factories scattered around the countryside. Most are open to the public and you can go and watch the biscuits being made and sample them. Many have a gift shop attached selling a wide range of biscuits, cakes, local produce, china, linen and gifts. We had bought all our presents and Christmas presents by day three of the holiday which must be a record.

Brittany is cider country and there are a lot of orchards and apple trees growing wild in hedgerows. Cider is made small scale locally and it is possible to visit and buy direct from the producer. There is a wide range of different ciders on sale in the supermarkets.

Most of the coastline is unspoilt with glorious beaches or superb rocky coastline with headlands and jagged rocks. It is a pity we didn’t discover the area ten years ago as there is an excellent coastal footpath all round the coast. We did some shorter stretches of it and hardly saw a soul - as long as we avoided the honey pots and guide book 'must sees'.

Pointe de Penhir is an example of how tourism can destroy an area. We could see all the parked cars and people swarming everywhere. In places the footpath is fenced off to stop damage to the vegetation. Just a few miles away is Pointe de Dinan which scenically is even better and there was hardly a soul there.

Some areas of coastline are heavily developed with massive marinas and so much new housing that the villages run into each other. The Côte du Granit Rose is one of the 'must sees' in the guide books. It has a beautiful coastline with sandy beaches, small off-shore islands and massive rocks running out to sea. Everyone raves so much about it that I felt we really ought to explore the area. It was a mistake - it really is tourist central and we hated it. Even on a wet day in mid September, everywhere was busy and it was almost impossible to find space to park.

Brittany is stuffed with megalithic remains. The best well known are concentrated in Morbihan. The main 'must see' area is Carnac where there are thousands of stones varying in size from 2-10 feet arranged in rows that run for miles across the landscape. Visitor pressure means the stones are now fenced off and during the summer entry is by guided tour only to protect the vegetation. There are other smaller stone alignments which receive few visitors and it is possible to wander freely among the stones. Good examples of these are at Erdeven and at Les Pierres Droites near Monteneuf. The Michelin map marks many megalithic sites but there are also a lot of small sites not marked on the map which just have a small signpost from the road.

The wealth of medieval Brittany was based on linen. Flax thrived in the temperate moist climate and was used for making paper, twine, ropes, towels, damask and fine linen as well as sail cloth. The remains of the small stone kanndis where the flax was washed and bleached can still be seen scattered around the countryside.

The money from the flax trade was used to fund large and lavish churches (a bit like the wool churches in East Anglia and Devon) and neighbouring parishes would try and outdo each other in grandeur. The Parish Closes are the result of this rivalry (see page 5).

Most of the Parish Closes are found in Finistère, especially in the north, with St-Thégonnec, Lampaul-Guimiliau and Guimiliau being the ‘must sees’. Further south there is Pleyben. Everywhere we went we found delightful churches like those in Commana and St-Herbot that don’t merit a line in the guide books and are equally as good as the ‘must sees’.

Some of the churches still have remains of wall paintings. Kernascleden has the remains of a marvelous 15thC Danse Macabre painted on the the walls.

Many of the older churches have a Holy well (or fountain) attached to them. The water drains into a large slate lined tank (lavoir) which was the communal washing station. Holy water must be better for washing clothes...

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