On a family camping trip to France, Kim Bielenberg discovers fairytale villages frozen in time, quirky Celtic connections and, of course, the decadent local patisseries
I had my first taste of France on a turbulent family camping holiday in Brittany in the 1970s. As pristine French families, supervised by papa and maman, put up their neat tents in a jiffy, we grappled with tent poles and argued.
And then, after a day of campsite skirmishes, we adjourned to cheap roadside restaurants to eat over-sized prawns, pâté and crêpes.
Thirty years later I was back with my own family, rolling on to French soil in my own car on a slate-grey morning in Roscoff.
This time we had no tents or pegs, but were bound for a rented mobile home in the vast trailer park cum holiday camp at Domaine de Kerlann in south Brittany.
First, I had to cope with the stress of driving on the wrong side of the road on the 100km journey from Roscoff to the south of the region. Fortunately, there was scarcely a tractor on the road to spot my motoring gaffes as we sped past fields of maize and rolling hills, and, apart from driving into the holiday camp through the exit, almost bringing the barrier with me, all went smoothly.
Because it was only 10am when we arrived, our mobile home was not yet ready, so we went out to explore the camp, which is part of the Siblu chain.
With 800 caravans arranged along lanes of oak trees, Domaine de Kerlann is like a leafy mobile-home suburb with a mini holiday camp at its heart. When the sun shines, families quite happily spend days on end basking in the pool area, playing in the splash zone and using the slides.
The slogan on a postcard in the camp's shop seems to sum up the temperamental Atlantic Breton climate: "En Bretagne il fait beau... plusieurs fois par jour'' -- 'in Brittany the weather is beautiful... several times a day'. Clouds arrive, threatening downpours, but quickly slink away.
By the time we got back on the wrong side of the road and headed for the nearby village of Pont Aven, the sky was blue. The riverside town looks as if it was created to decorate the top of a chocolate box, so it was no surprise to learn that it inspired a whole school of painting led by Paul Gauguin, who came to live here in the 1880s.
Walk along the river and you find water wheels next to a river strewn with vast boulders, shady pools under willow trees, with flowers and shrubs sprouting on the banks.
On this river bank, Gauguin pioneered a new type of painting with a vibrancy of colours and declared: "Paint what you see, not what is!"
As well as being a painters' paradise, this is Breton biscuit country. We stopped off in Traou Mad (0033 298 060 103; traoumad.com), one of the numerous shops selling galettes -- thin buttery confections. Also popular in the area are Kouign-Amann -- small, round crusty cakes.
By the time we left the village to explore the nearby beach at Raguénès, the sun was high in a noon sky. The turquoise sea below dunes was inviting, but along these shores the water is still chilly.
The regulars are mostly picnicking French families who come back year after year; some look at foreign interlopers with a certain lofty disdain.
By the time we returned to Domaine de Kerlann, our mobile home was finally ready for occupation. Propped up by breeze blocks, the trailer was parked under oak trees on a patch of scrubland on a slope.
The living quarters consisted of two small bedrooms at either end of a kitchen/living area. An estate agent would call it 'compact' or 'intimate'. Caravan afficionados will not be put off by the somewhat cramped conditions, but others will find that the living quarters offer plenty of incentive to get out and about.
Some families see little reason to go beyond the camp. As well as the two pools and slides, there are tennis courts, a boules area, a running track and a five-a-side football pitch.
Domaine De Kerlann really takes on the atmosphere of a holiday camp at night with the 'entertainment'. A crowd gathers on a terrace to watch party games, talent shows, bands and magicians. The showman who drove a sword through a box, somehow missing his glamorous assistant, reminded me of the magic shows that used to appear on RTE early in the evening back in the 1970s.
Staff, both French and English, shouted instructions from a stage as teams of children scurried around and played a game where they had to fetch an object from the crowd.
On our second evening we ventured out to the nearby fishing port at Concarneau. The 14th-century old town, the Ville Close, is on a fortified island in the middle of the harbour. Surrounded on each side by vast granite ramparts, the walled town is entered across a drawbridge.
Once inside, the medieval streets, lined with crêperies, souvenir and clothes shops, give the island a fairytale atmosphere. Like many Breton streetscapes, it reminded me of the set of a Gaiety Theatre pantomime. We stopped off at the Porte Au Vin restaurant (0033 298 973 811) and sat out in the square eating crêpes and drinking cups of dry cider.
Cider is as important here as wine in the other French regions. At least three successive crêpes are needed for a substantial meal. They are ordered as courses; savoury first, then sweet.
With its peninsular location and historic British connections, Brittany seems semi-detached from France. The remnant of its language, closely related to Cornish, can be seen on street signs, but we never heard Breton being spoken during our trip.
As well as sharing strong cultural affinities with Cornwall, Bretons see themselves as part of a Celtic world that encompasses Ireland. Nowhere is the Irish influence more evident than in the hilltop village of Locronan, a place of pilgrimage named after an Irish saint, Ronan. We took a diversion to visit there on our way back to Roscoff.
St Ronan, a bishop supposedly consecrated by St Patrick himself, founded the town in the 5th century. Local accounts suggest that he lived there as a hermit studying spiders as they spun their webs. He copied their techniques to create a thriving local weaving industry.
But Ronan's luck appeared to run out when a local woman falsely accused him of being a werewolf and he was driven out of town. The road that he took remains a path of pilgrimage, and a church in the idyllic granite-hewn village stands in his name.
When weaving was superseded as an industry, Locronan almost died and the medieval streets were frozen in time. As a result, it has the eerie feel of a town that has been turned into a museum. There are plenty of visitors, but where are the townspeople?
Cars are banned in Locronan, so we parked at one end of the town and ambled through ancient streets to the church. The Roman Polanski film 'Tess', based on the novel 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' by Thomas Hardy, was filmed here -- the square was covered in mud to give the place a more English atmosphere.
After our detour, the sense of coming closer to home became stronger as we headed to Roscoff. On a Friday night in summer, the port turns into little Hibernia as sunburnt families in Irish-registered cars, laden with bicycles, surf boards and all the other accoutrements of a French camping holiday, congregate for the long ferry journey home.
NEED TO KNOW
Brittany Ferries (021 427 7801; brittanyferries.ie) sails from Cork (Ringaskiddy) to Roscoff every Saturday from today to October 29. A return fare for a family of four with car and cabin on the outside of the ship is ¤1,306. The sailing takes 14 hours. Our camp was a twohour drive from the port.
Five nights for two adults and two children in an Esprit mobile home at the Domaine de Kerlann holiday camp in July costs ¤480. This includes barbecue, outdoor chairs and table. Try to book a unit with a terrace. The quality of the sites is variable. For bookings call 0818 274 099; siblu.ie.
FIVE THINGS TO DO
Take an evening walk by the river in the town of Pont Aven after the tourists have gone and see the riverside glades and watermills that inspired Paul Gauguin.
Explore France’s version of Stonehenge at Carnac, where thousands of ancient stones are arranged in mysterious lines and patterns.
Stroll through the medieval walled island of Ville Close in the fishing port of Concarneau (above) before sampling the crêpes at the Porte Au Vin on the square.
Take a day trip to Brest to see the Océanopolis ocean discovery park, which has 50 aquariums in three zones — Polar, Temperate and Tropical. oceanopolis.com.
Visit one of the numerous music festivals that happen across Brittany during the summer months. Most of them are free and great fun. One of the liveliest is the Festival de Cornouaille in late July, where dancers and singers in traditional dress converge on the pretty town of Quimper. See aboutbrittany.com.