Sunday 19 November 2017

Celebrate a rich tradition of surf and turf in Brittany

Morlaix, France

Stone bridge in Morlaix town,Brittany
Stone bridge in Morlaix town,Brittany
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

It was the Irish holiday staple for years, the ferry trip to Brittany and southwards to locate the gite, the most economic means to transport kids and in-laws for a holiday in the sun.

Soon, Irish Francophiles were buying their own manoirs. And the only way to transport the entourage and return with cases of wine is by car. Even better, there is no belt and shoe removal, no micro-toiletries and you can take as many changes of clothes as the weather demands.

And the only way to transport the entourage and return with cases of wine is by car. Even better, there is no belt and shoe removal, no micro-toiletries and you can take as many changes of clothes as the weather demands.

Brittany Ferries sail direct from Cork to Roscoff and if you disembark between June 27 to 30, you'll be in for a treat. A new festival centred at nearby Morlaix celebrates the delicious produce of farmers and fishermen.

The festival, Entre Terre et Mer, began in 2012 and coincided with the finish of the super yacht race, La Route des Princes, in 2013 in the bay of Roscoff. The month-long race between MOD70s and Multi50s commences in Valencia and takes in Lisbon, Dun Laoghaire and Plymouth before finishing at Port de Bloscon to cheering crowds and festival entertainment. Omanair, with the Irish ocean sailor Damian Foxall aboard, came second to Groupe Edmond de Rothschild in 2013.

The food festival is the brainchild of the fresh produce co-operative Prince de Bretagne, which, along with Brittany Ferries, also sponsors the yacht race. One of its biggest exports from the region is the humble cauliflower, and Ireland is the co-op's ninth largest market out of 34 countries. I don't know anyone who cooks cauliflower more than twice a year, but since visting the festival I've been roasting it – delicious.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Roscoff is just an industrial port, like Le Havre. Wrong, much of the historic town is preserved, its buildings and streets maintain the medieval pattern and robust houses, in warm ochre stone. Pretty restaurants offering fresh fruits de mer and chic interior decoration, and jewellery shops line the pedestrianised streets – a very relaxed place to begin your holiday.

Half-an-hour down the road is the larger town of Morlaix. Along the roadside, fields of gravity-defying artichoke hold their heavy heads high. The similarities with our own green fields, bright yellow gorse and clumps of broccoli-like trees, can be confusing, it's almost not different enough to be away from home. But then there are the distinctive steeply pitched roofs of the classic French vernacular farm dwelling, and no bungalows.

Getting into the centre of Morlaix, even on a busy festival weekend, is relatively simple, as is the parking. So far, so good. The sun is shining, there is music in the air and it's time to get out and explore. The town is dominated by a magnificent 19th-Century viaduct, which is the rail link between Paris and Brest. Its mighty bulk and elegant arches cast a dramatic shadow on the charming streetscape below. The well-preserved townhouses are tall and narrow, with 'Dutch Billy' gables, a style not seen elsewhere in Brittany, many dating back to the 17th Century and adapted into chic shops and restaurants.

The distinctive Tudor-timber houses belonged to the 16th Century linen traders and had a small ground floor which increased in size on upper levels, creating an overhang to keep the timber and merchandise dry and avoid excessive taxes. There are two restored examples open to the public: The Duchess Anne House is open Monday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm, May to September; and Maison à Pondalez, which is part of the museum and runs exhibitions, as does The Jacobins, both open every day July to September.

Walk along the river and enter the charming courtyard of the classical building Manufacture des Tabacs, where many of the farmers display their wares and the finest breeds of cattle lounge in the sun. It's a bit like the RDS Spring Show on Xanax.

I came across some quintessentially French street entertainment; an eccentric brass band of men and women reminded me of a scene from Joanne Harris's Chocolat. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Johnny Depp in gypsy gear jamming with them. But then you would expect nothing less in France, where regional style doesn't change with fashion seasons. Style is individual and that's how they keep it.

Trace your steps back to the Venelle Auguste Ropars and Rue de Creach Joly where you will find 300 Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc vines, which produced a fine vintage in 2007; you only need to sit at the next pavement café to enjoy a glass.

If you fancy exploring the backstreets at more speed, you'll find Le Pavillon de la Randonnee at the foot of the viaduct, where you can hire a push bike or electric bike all year round at €12 to €15 per day.

Further along the coast, the finest beaches are at Carantec which was awarded the Famille Plus label, guaranteeing high-quality amenities. There are miles of coastal paths fringed with mimosa, ideal for taking refuge in the shade. For sailors, the islands and marina offer plenty of variety and hospitality, and by offering free mooring to sailors during the Entre Terre et Mer festival, the organisers guarantee a wider participation. While farmers invite sailors ashore to sample their terroirs, the bond between land and sea is forged over delicious food and a glass of crisp local rose.

There are plenty of gites throughout Brittany for rent, and ample hotels, from two- to five-star, in Roscoff and Morlaix at reasonable rates to provide a relaxing stop over en-route to or from the ferry. Both towns are well worth exploring and well suited to walking around with children.

All these princes, boats and farmers bearing cornucopia are rooted in historic tradition and while there may no longer be actual princes in Brittany, the food is still fit for kings.

Deirdre Conroy visited Roscoff and Morlaix courtesy of the Route des Princes yacht race

Entre Terre et Mer festival runs biennially and the next festival is in June 2015.

Brittany Ferries offers a ferry service between Cork and Roscoff with on foot fares starting from just €59 per person or €169 for a car and two passengers. Prices valid for travel in June 2014.

Irish Independent

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