Set in a magnificent natural harbour, known as the Rade de Brest, the city of Brest is sheltered from ocean storms by the Crozon peninsula to the south. Now home to France’s Atlantic Fleet, Brest has been a naval town since the Middle Ages. During World War II, it was continually bombed to prevent the Germans from using it as a submarine base and when liberated in September 1944, after a six-week siege, it was devastated beyond recognition. The architecture of the postwar town is raw and bleak and though there have been attempts to green the city, it has proved too windswept to respond. While it’s reasonably lively, most visitors tend simply to pass through.
The one major site in Brest’s city centre is its fifteenth-century château, perched on a headland where the Penfeld river meets the bay, and offering a tremendous panorama of both the busy port and the roadstead. Not quite as much of the castle survives as its impressive facade might suggest, though new buildings in the grounds still house the French naval headquarters. Three still-standing medieval towers, however, hold Brest’s portion of the Musée National de la Marine. Collections include ornate carved figureheads and models, as well as a German “pocket submarine” based here during World War II, and visitors can also stroll the parapets to enjoy the views.