It’s hard to resist the appeal of the Finistère coast, with its ocean-fronting cliffs and headlands. Summer crowds may detract from the best parts of the Crozon peninsula and the Pointe de Raz, but elsewhere you can enjoy near-solitude. Explore the semi-wilderness of the northern stretches west of the appealing little Channel port of Roscoff, where each successive estuary or aber shelters its own tiny harbour, or take a ferry to the misty islands of Ouessant and Sein. From the top of Ménez-Hom visitors can admire the anarchic limits of western France, while the cities of Brest and Quimper display modern Breton life as well as ancient splendours.
For a small town, Roscoff is well equipped with hotels, which are accustomed to late-night arrivals from the ferries. However, many close for some or all of the winter. There’s also a hostel on the Île de Batz.
South of Quimper, no longer restrained into a narrow canalized channel, the Odet first broadens and then twists through successive tight corners to reach the sea. The southern coast here, and especially the string of wonderful beaches between the family-friendly resort of Bénodet and La Forêt-Fouesnant, is the most popular tourist destination in Finistère.
Bénodet, in particular, is a much-developed resort that comes alive in summer, when its many hotels and campsites are filled with holidaying families. The long, sheltered beach on its ocean side, perfect for children, is packed day after day.
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 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 despite attempts to green the city, it has proved too windswept to respond. While it’s reasonably lively, most visitors tend simply to pass through.
Brest’s fifteenth-century château, perched on a headland where the Penfeld river meets the bay, offers 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 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.
Used more by business travellers than tourists, the vast majority of Brest’s hotels remain open throughout the year, and many offer discounted weekend rates. Only a few, however, maintain their own restaurants.
As well as several low-priced places near the stations, Brest offers a wide assortment of restaurants. Rue Jean-Jaurès, climbing east from the place de la Liberté, has plenty of bistros and bars, while place Guérin to the north is the centre of the student-dominated quartier St-Martin.
A craggy outcrop of land shaped like a long-robed giant, arms outstretched, the Crozon peninsula is the central feature of Finistère’s jagged coastline. Much the easiest way for cyclists and travellers relying on public transport to reach the peninsula from Brest is via the ferries to Le Fret.
The main town on the peninsula, Crozon, has a nice little stone-built core that serves as the commercial hub for the surrounding communities, and plays host to a large-scale market on alternate Wednesdays. As it’s also, unfortunately, a traffic hub, its one-way traffic system distributing tourists among the various resorts – and in any case it’s set back from the sea – it’s more of a place to pass through than to linger in.
Morgat, 1km downhill from Crozon, makes a more enticing base. It has a long crescent beach that ends in a pine slope, and a sheltered harbour full of pleasure boats on the short haul from England and Ireland. The main attractions are boat trips around the various headlands.
One of the loveliest seaside towns in all Brittany, the sheltered port of Camaret nestles at the western tip of the peninsula. Its most prominent building is the pink-orange château de Vauban, standing at the end of the long jetty that runs parallel to the main town waterfront. Walled, moated, and accessible via a little gatehouse reached by means of a drawbridge, it was built in 1689 to guard the approaches to Brest; these days it guards no more than a motley assortment of decaying half-submerged fishing boats, abandoned to rot beside the jetty. A short walk away, around the port towards the protective jetty, the quai du Styvel holds a row of excellent hotels.
The obvious places to eat in Roscoff are the dining rooms of the hotels themselves, but the town does hold a few specialist restaurants, plus appealing crêperies around the old harbour. Note that if you’re arriving on an evening ferry out of season, it can be difficult to find a restaurant still serving any later than 9.15pm.
The long, narrow, and very lovely Île de Batz (pronounced “Ba”) mirrors Roscoff across the water, separated from it by a sea channel that’s barely 200m wide at low tide but perhaps five times that when the tide is high. Appearances from the mainland are deceptive: the island’s old town fills much of its southern shoreline, but those areas not visible from Roscoff are much wilder and more windswept. With no cars permitted, and some great expanses of sandy beach, it makes a wonderfully quiet retreat for families in particular.
Of all the Breton islands, the tiny Île de Sein, just 8km out to sea from the tip of the Pointe du Raz, has to be the most extraordinary. It’s hard to believe anyone could survive here; nowhere does the island rise more than 6m above the surrounding ocean, and for much of its 2.5km length it’s barely broader than the breakwater wall of bricks that serves as its central spine. In fact, Sein has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and was reputed to have been the very last refuge of the druids in Brittany. It also became famous during World War II, when its entire male population answered General de Gaulle’s call to join him in exile in England. Today, more than three hundred islanders make their living from the sea, gathering rainwater and seaweed, and fishing for scallops, lobster and crayfish.
Never mind cars, not even bicycles are permitted on Sein. Depending on the tide, boats pull in at one or other of the two adjoining harbours that constitute Sein’s one tight-knit village, in front of which a little beach appears at low tide. There is a museum of local history here, packed with black-and-white photos and press clippings, and displaying a long list of shipwrecks from 1476 onwards. The most popular activity for visitors, however, is to take a bracing walk, preferably to the far end of the island, from where you can see the Phare Ar-men lighthouse, peeking out of the waves 12km further west into the Atlantic.
In 1828, Henri Ollivier took onions to England from Roscoff, thereby founding a trade that flourished until the 1930s. The story of the “Johnnies” – that classic French image of men in black berets with strings of onions hanging over the handlebars of their bicycles – is told at La Maison des Johnnies et de l’Oignon Rosé de Roscoff, 48 rue Brizeux, near the gare SNCF.
Morlaix, one of the great old Breton ports, thrived on trade with England during the “Golden Period” of the late Middle Ages. Built up the slopes of a steep valley with sober stone houses, the town was originally protected by an eleventh-century castle and a circuit of walls. Little is left of either, but the centre remains in part medieval with its cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. The present grandeur comes from the pink-granite viaduct, carrying trains from Paris to Brest, that towers above the town centre.
Capital of the ancient diocese, kingdom and later duchy of Cornouaille, Quimper is the oldest city in Brittany. Its first bishop, St Corentin, is said to have come with the first Bretons across the English Channel at some point between the fourth and seventh centuries.
Still “the charming little place” known to Flaubert, Quimper takes at most half an hour to cross on foot. Though relaxed, it’s active enough to have the bars and atmosphere to make it worth going out café-crawling. The word “kemper” denotes the junction of the two rivers, the Steir and the Odet, around which lie the cobbled streets (now mainly pedestrianized) of the medieval quarter. To the east of the Gothic cathedral, towering over place St-Corentin, ancient half-timbered buildings hold lively shops and cafés.
With no great pressure to rush around monuments or museums, the most enjoyable option may be to take a boat and drift down the Odet, “the prettiest river in France”, to the open sea at Bénodet. Overlooking all is tree-covered Mont Frugy; climb to its 87m peak for good views over the city.
Having begun in 1923, Quimper’s Festival de Cornouaille is still going from strength to strength. This great jamboree of Breton music, costumes, theatre and dance is held in the week before the last Sunday in July, attracting guest performers from the other Celtic countries and a scattering of other, sometimes highly unusual, ethnic-cultural ensembles. The whole thing culminates in an incredible Sunday parade through town. The official programme appears in July; pick up provisional details in advance from the tourist office or at festival-cornouaille.com.
Not so widely known are the Semaines Musicales, which follow in the first three weeks of August. Some events take place in the cathedral, others in the rather stuffy nineteenth-century theatre on boulevard Dupleix. The music is predominantly classical, favouring French composers.