Travel Extra: Brittany still oozes beguiling old world charm
Kim Bielenberg returns with his own children to the Britanny beach he camped near as a child and the sea was as warm as he remembered it
The excitement started at dawn as the Pont-Aven ferry from Cork approached the harbour at Roscoff in Brittany, hundreds of miles from Paris. Lights could be seen twinkling on the horizon, and a little boy was excited: "Look, dad. It's the Eiffel Tower!"
I had felt the same sense of excitement when I arrived in France for the first time almost four decades ago. In that era when foreign travel was a novelty, everything seemed deliciously exotic from the Citroen 2CV cars to the billboards advertising Breton cider.
Now, I was returning as a parent to the very beach at La Trinite-sur-Mer on the Brittany coast where we had camped as children. Then we had tents and spent what seemed like hours of bickering getting them to stand. Now we were bound for the relative comfort of a mobile home on the same site at Camping De La Baie.
We arrived in a somewhat frazzled state, having taken several wrong turns and irksome though scenic seaside diversions, with me cursing what I felt was poor signposting, and my family accusing me of "an appaling sense of direction". As rolling hills, apple orchards and fields of ripening maize flew by, our destination did not seem to get closer. Somehow, we found La Trinite, the picture-postcard harbour close to our campsite.
No more than a couple of streets of shops facing out on a harbour, the village has certain notoriety as the birthplace of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France's ultra-right wing National Front. He was orphaned as a 14-year-old when his father's fishing boat was blown up by a mine during World War II.
Modern Trinite breathes affluence, and hundreds of substantial yachts line the marina, making a tinkling sound in a gentle breeze. On the way to our campsite, we passed large stone houses with blue shutters – and gardens full of blooming hydrangeas. These are the elegant summer retreats – passed through generations – of well-to-do Parisians, who look at the arrival of pale foreign interlopers with a certain disdain.
Camping De La Baie is a friendly family-run operation set on a small peninsula. It is sandwiched between two sandy beaches, busy Kerbihan on one side and Kervillen on the other. One of benefits of this sheltered strip of coastline is that the sea is warmer than in much of the rest of Brittany. We have holidayed just an hour west of here, and the water is icy by comparison. The nearest big town is Carnac, just 3 km around the bay.
On the edge of the town, there are fields with hundreds of Menhirs, ancient standing stones arranged in a grid. Carnac is worth a visit. It has two distinct parts: one half is a cheerful beachside resort of ritzy shops, restaurants and ice cream stands, that fringes a long strand; the other part, inland, has the atmosphere of an old-fashioned Breton country town with a cobbled square.
As kids caught the last rays on the beach at 8pm, we stopped at Le Bistro for almond, chocolate and banana crepes, and cider that came in cups known as a bolee.
The old area has that familiar chameleon-like quality of French towns. On a Monday evening when we visited it was more or less dead, with the few cafes open empty, and not a sinner on the street.
And then on market day on Wednesday, the usually sleepy old town comes alive. A market selling cheap clothes, food and drink extends from one end of the town to the other – hundreds of varieties of cheese, rotisserie chickens and cider. Two young buskers play Irish reels on the corner, adding a familiar Celtic twang that is commonly found in this region.
After a relaxing week of swimming, beach lounging and pottering around markets, it was time to return to Roscoff, and the ferry back to Cork. We may not have seen the Eiffel Tower, but we were satisfied.
NEED TO KNOW
Brittany Ferries (021 427 7801; brittanyferries.ie) sails from Cork to Roscoff every Saturday in summer. A return fare for a family of four with car and cabin on the outside of the ship in early July is €1,188.
Five nights for two adults and two children in a mobile home at Camping De La Baie (0033 02 97 55 73 42; en.camping-de-la-baie.net) in July costs €540.