independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Brittany oozes French charm and elegance

ALLURING: The quaint little town of Quimper, with its narrow streets and medieval squares, is like stepping back in time and is not to be missed when visiting this beautiful area

GIVEN the destination, I suppose there's something appropriate about a recent trip to Brittany prompting a degree of deja vu on arrival. I had been told to expect a degree of similarity between the landscape that greeted us and the one we left behind in north county Dublin less than 90 minutes earlier, but as our Air France CityJet broke cloud cover and banked in over Brest airport, the scenes of green-tinted pastoral splendour below could have doubled as some sort of surreal attempt at cloning the Irish countryside.

The good news to report is that I hadn't dozed off and missed a mid-flight emergency that resulted in us having to return to Dublin. The even better news to report is that reliable Gallic je ne sais quoi that makes France such a captivating travel destination, kicked in as soon as we landed. Despite hearing many great things about both the backdrop and the Breton people, I hadn't travelled to this part of north-western France previously, so I was looking forward to getting the opportunity to hit the by-roads.

It's fair to say they didn't disappoint. Think the west coast of Ireland though sometimes with better weather and you're well on the way to imagining the visual mood music to this slightly wind-swept wonderland.

Our first port of call was the town of Quimper, an idyllic bolthole of about 50,000 people nestled at the meeting of two rivers, the Steir and the Odet. No less an authority than Flaubert referred to Quimper as "this charming little place". Take a stroll through the quaint warren of narrow streets and picture perfect medieval squares – and it's easy to see why.

We stayed at the centrally located Hotel Kregenn on rue des Reguaires, and found it to be the perfect base for absorbing that uniquely French ambience. The acoustics ensure that the atmospheric street music echoes up to your window shutters in a way that is not intrusive, and if the sounds of scooters and French accents doesn't have you humming the Marseillaise on the inside, dinner at the appropriately titled Le Cosy restaurant certainly will.

For many visitors to France, "it's the gastronomy, stupid", and at €30 for a veritable feast that included Breton mainstays such as fresh-caught fish and shellfish, it set a tone of gastronomic excellence that was maintained for the duration of our three-day stay.

Fiercely nationalistic and quick to champion their Celtic ethnicity, Bretons are proud of their heritage and preserving it is a priority that pervades their attitude to attracting visitors. Authenticity is always the aspiration, and a visit to the tiny coastal island of Ile de Sein, encapsulates this sense of a magical land that has all the mod cons yet remains almost frozen by time. Accessible from the mainland by a short ferry trip, this tiny island comes highly recommended for those who yearn to get even further away from the madding crowd.

I'm not the first to observe the sense of this island's end-of-the-world vibe. None of the island's structures rise more than six metres and, end to end, it barely stretches for 2.5 kilometres.

Modernity isn't totally ignored, however, as the main port, with its wind-resistant architecture, has a plethora of chic restaurants and coffee shops from where you can contemplate the surrounding seascape, an azure expanse that French Admiral Tourville described as "the most dangerous reef in the world".

The last word on this enchanted isle should be left to French filmmaker Alain Kaminker, the brother of famed French actress Simone Signoret, who died tragically on the island while making a movie. During his time there he declared he'd "found his paradise on earth".

Something similar can be said about our visit to the fishing port of Le Guilvinec the following day. It boasts an industrial-sized fish factory on its quays that is part of a government-backed attempt to turn fishing into a tourist attraction.

A tall order, I would have thought, but it's fair to say a visit to this pictureseque port removed the er... scales from my eyes. It's called Haliotika, a massive quayside structure that houses both a fish market and a museum that delivers an absorbing blow-by-blow account of the deep-sea trawling experience. If you ever wondered what it's like to spend two weeks on a deep-sea trawler or you're a fan of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch – then this is the museum for you.

Its seaside location affords panoramic views of the trawlers returning with their catch and the tours also offer access to the hive of activity that is the football pitch-sized market area below, where the trawlers unload their catch to have them sorted, salted, sold and subsequently transported all over Europe in the massive 16-wheeler trucks waiting outside.

It's easy to imagine kids of all ages being enthused.

Mention should also be made of our visit to Creperie Men Lann Du in Menez Landu. It's a little bit off the beaten track, but this family-run business is an institution in Brittany and is well worth a visit.

Brittany's claim to culinary fame is the crepe, or pancake, and this institution is devoted to a crepe-consuming experience that is to die for.

The conventional buckwheat crepe can be filled with ice cream, chocolate or pear, but it's worth keeping room for its savoury equivalent, the galette, which can be filled with ham, cheese, eggs, or fish. I sampled one filled with scallops. Talk about the creme de la crepe...

The final night in our too- short stay brought us back to Brest, where we stayed in the sumptuous surrounds of the Hotel Oceania.

Time constraints meant we only got a chance to take in a short walking tour, but we saw enough sights to make a return visit a priority.

Set in a magnificent natural harbour, Brest took an unmerciful bombing campaign during the Second World War, aimed at preventing the Germans gaining a strategic naval advantage. The evocatively titled Freedom Square in the centre of town bears testimony today to the sacrifice made by the denizens of Brest during that time.

I remain much more a Boston than Berlin type of guy, and while it's never been more appropriate to be down on the European experiment, an amble through these historic streets acts as a potent reminder of how far we've come as a continent – lest we forget, as it were.

Our early flight the next morning took us home via the futuristic Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, but it's a detour that won't be necessary at the moment as CityJet are operating a Dublin to Brest direct option.

As our plane careered down the runway, the words of that ill-fated film-maker came to mind. I wasn't sure whether I, too, had found "my paradise on earth", but it did feel as if I'd stood on a stepping stone along the way.

GETTING THERE

CityJet is flying for the summer only from Dublin to Aeroport Brest Bretagne, until July 31. Flights are weekly every Saturday. Fares are now bookable at www.cityjet.com, starting from €96 one way and €189 return. Fares include all taxes and charges. For things to see and do in Brittany, visit www.brittanytourism.com. On social media search for @fansofbrittany and/or #BrittanyFR

 

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