Brittany, like Janus, has two faces, one looking inland, and the other facing the sea. Daughter of Neptune, it has a myriad of islands scattered in the Channel or the Atlantic Ocean. Only 15 of them are permanently inhabited. Your journey to Brittany should include a visit to one of them; but which one to chose?
Belle-Ile (Beautiful Isle) is the largest one, and a spectacular one. Mooring 15km off the Quiberon peninsula, it is 18km long and up to 9km wide, and is by itself a short version of Brittany, both wild and friendly. Coming from the continent –a 15 minutes trip-, the traveller will reach the harbour of Palais, “capital” of the island, protected by a monumental citadel built by the great Vauban in the 1680’s, and located on the east coast. Facing the continent, the eastern facet is a long series of coves, glens, beaches and small villages shadowed by clusters of trees. It is quiet and refreshing. The west coast, however, faces the ocean: high cliffs, howling winds and wilderness are the two main characteristics. It hosts one village, Bangor, a site which inspired Monet so deeply that he painted it 38 times. The only place where the two facets of the island merge is the little village of Locmaria, where 78 Acadian families took refuge after there were deported by the English. You can travel through Belle-Ile-en-mer – its real name- by horse, bicycle or car –provided you rent it on the island, it is cheaper than the ferry-boat- , but don’t expect to find here the mundane atmosphere you can feel in resorts or other places in Brittany: this is also a travel through time.
Completely different from Belle-Ile, the cute little isle of Bréhat is only one nautical mile off the coast. Located in the Cotes d’Armor department at the opposite side of the region, it is a paradise for nature lovers. No car is allowed, and it is a good thing, for its small dimensions -3.5km long and 1.5km wide- make it easy to walk around it. Gulf Steam is really close, so you have a micro-climate similar to the Mediterranean: Brehat is called “L’Ile aux Fleurs”, Flower Isle. The many species brought by sailors from all over the world have adapted here: eucalyptus, fuschia, mimosa, fig trees, kiwi trees, all the colours and scents blend to create unique scenery and an olfactory enchantment. The 120 different bird species live very happily in this environment. No wonder the island inspired artists like Gauguin, Matisse, Fujita… and many others.
Now let’s go to another part of Brittany, the Finistere department, at the far west of France…and Europe. And at the far west of Finistère, emerges an isolated rock: Ouessant Isle. It is a magical but dangerous place: waters coming from the north and from the south fight constantly, giving rise to streams sometimes impassable. This explains the saying: “qui voit Ouessant voit son sang” (Who sees Ouessant sees his own blood)…and the numerous lighthouses, among which one can admire the famous Creac’h lighthouse, so powerful that it can be seen from a distance of 60km. But the island is also a magical place to explore by foot, with the countless birds fighting the winds and the flowers spreading on the moor.
And when you are tired, you can rest in a charming hotel recently opened, and enjoy one of the local specialties, a buckwheat crêpe, or some fish and seafood, and indulge yourself with Britton dessert like “far” or “kouign amann” (don’t worry, even the French can’t pronounce it).
Before you go back to the continent, don’t forget to breathe deeply: sharp salt air comes directly from angry Atlantic, and it feels so delicious you will never forget it.