Finisterre part 1

Saturday 6th August 2011, Exeter
This section is being written back home in Exeter where we have been now for the best part of three weeks. I hope my memory will do justice to the far west of Brittany and our friends in Guissény

We moved on from St. Malo following the rocky granite north coast with its many bays and vast expanses of clean golden sand. At Cap Fréhel we walked out to the solid lighthouse on the cliff-tops standing amidst the ferns, gorse and heather and offering stunning views along the coast. Nearby we found a sunny spot for a picnic lunch overlooking the sea.

Lighthouse of Cap Fréhel on the north coast of Brittany

Cliffs near the lighthouse of Cap Fréhel on the north coast of Brittany

Cliffs near the lighthouse of Cap Fréhel on the north coast of Brittany

Late afternoon we drove into Guissény, the granite clocher (belltower) of the village church visible across the fields, guiding us in along the rural byways.

Church of St. Seny at Guissény

Joël's home in Guissény

Joël greeted us cheerily as if it were a couple of days since we were last there rather than a couple of years. His eldest son Stephane was staying, on holiday from Mayenne, with Catherine and the two children Gladwys and Donatien. We were immediately part of the family and everyone continued with what they'd been doing before we arrived, entirely connected with preparing a supper of melons and crudités from the garden followed by crabs caught that morning by Joël and Stephane in the nearby bay of Le Curnic where Joël moors his fishing boat. Out in the garden Stephane allowed us to watch as he cracked, shelled and prepared the crabs they'd cooked in the garage for supper. Danielle would never permit them to be cooked indoors because of the smell and her orders are still observed. The family dog watched eagerly, yelping with delight at the odd piece of crabmeat deemed unfit for the rest of us that was tossed to him.

Stephane cleans and prepares the crabs in the garden, Guissény

Soon we were all gathered around the dining table where we tried to remember the etiquette for removing the meat from inside the spindly legs of spider crabs with something that resembled a long-handled crochet hook. Being amateurs we were spoilt and offered broken chunks of body in its sharp, hard shell. At least with that we got out enough for a reasonable mouthful, which we squashed together with lemon juice and mayonnaise. Crab eating is definitely a very sociable activity but messy and laborious. It took all evening and lots of wine as we chatted and cracked open crab pincers with special pliers.

Joël contemplates a job well done, Guissény

Next morning Joël was out with his boat checking his lobster pots before we were awake, returning with a mixed catch of several crabs and a lobster. After breakfast the children and their dog took us for a nostalgic walk around the village where we called in at the churchyard to remember their Mamique (grandmother) - my friend Danielle. It is several years now since she died but her memory is still very much alive throughout the home where her artistic skills are expressed in everything from decorated porcelain vases to hand painted silk cushions, ceramic tiles and watercolours of the local scenery.

Danielle, Guissény

Story of Guissény

The children lead us down to the sandy estuary of the Quillimadec with the low white cottages of Kerlouan on the far side visible across the vast expanse of deserted sand populated only by a few outcrops of dark granite rock.

Walking the dog, Guissény

Ian with Gladwys and Donatien at the beach, Guissény

Sandy estuary of the Quillimadec, Guissény

The tide was out and the sea no more than a sparkling blue band on the horizon. Here we explored the eminently climbable rocks known as the Barachou and gathered the irresistible tiny yellow, orange and green seashells that abound on the sands just here. Donatien and Ian though preferred throwing strands of seaweed for the dog to chase.

Beach at Guissény

Looking towards the sea, Guissény

Barachou, Guissény

Back home Joël's second son Emmanuel had arrived from his home along the coast in St. Pol-de-Léon to join us all for family lunch. Life revolves very much around the dining table. The rest of the time everyone is busy doing their own thing – in our case keeping the children amused so everyone else could get on with preparing the various fish dishes for the troops who seemed to be permanently marching through the house! We were only eight for lunch but the lengthy preparation process included everything from taking the boat out to catch the fish to presenting it at the table complete with its sauce and accompaniments. Lunch today was baked mackerel, caught with rods by Stephane and Joël, served with home grown salad and potatoes.

After lunch the children went off with Papique (granddad) for a test drive of his replacement car, large enough to carry both children and lobsterpots as he will be looking after them over the school holidays while Stephane and Catherine move from Mayenne to Agen in southern France. Stephane has been transferred there as part of the French army reorganisation, reflecting the downsizing of the military.

Left to our own devices we returned for a nostalgic stroll around the hidden corners of the village and for a walk out to the long abandoned old granite coastguard's cottage on the cliffs. This is a beautiful, unspoilt corner of Finisterre where often the only sounds are of the wind blowing through the marram grass covering the sandy dunes and the sea breaking around the rocks and boulders along the shoreline. Today though, we could hear the distant whine of bagpipes carried on the breeze from the communal village hall. There we discovered the town band rehearsing outside in the sunshine with their binouets, bombards and drums. Breton music has very much its own unmistakable sound.

Ancient manor house in the village, Guissény

Coastguard's cottage and seaweed, Guissény

Jill gathers nature's treasures from the beach, Guissény

Band rehearsing with their Breton instruments, Guissény

During our absence Catherine's mother, brother, sister-in-law and niece had arrived from Laval for a few days! With a dozen of us now squashed around the long meal table elbows were restricted but conversation flowed as freely as the wine. With so much lively hubbub around us we gradually began to lose the thread but felt ourselves very privileged to be part of such a happy family scene where everyone accepted it as quite natural that we should be there amongst them all. It was full-house at the inn that night though, and Ian and I slept outside in Modestine.

Waiting for supper, Guissény

Around the supper table, Guissény

When we returned back into the house next morning Catherine had just removed several lobsters from the freezer to prepare for lunch. These were earlier catches in the lobster pots that Joël had cooked and frozen for just such a lunchtime occasion. We felt rather regretful that we'd decided to move on for a couple of days so would miss this treat. I don't think I've ever eaten lobster.

Cooked lobsters caught by Joël, Guissény

It was Sunday and Joël had already disappeared for a busy morning going to Mass in the village followed by the usual weekly activity of meeting up with friends he's known since they were all schoolboys together for a drink and a chat. We'd already moved on before he returned.

During the day we explored the coast right along to the far tip of Finisterre at Pointe de St. Mathieu. Along the way we called at several little villages and headlands and discovered the coastguard cottage at Koréjou. This building, like many similar constructions, dates from the end of the 17th century. Built under the orders of Colbert it was intended for national defence from the sea and to enable observation of the coast.

Coastguard cottage, Koréjou

Harbour, Koréjou

At le Conquet we parked outside of the town with its important fishing port and walked back into the centre, crowded with holiday makers on this hot Sunday afternoon. Le Conquet is a charming granite town from where regular ferries depart for the islands of Molène and Ouissant lying off the westernmost tip of Finisterre. It was too late in the day to consider a trip but one day....

The fishing port is of major importance and it was a delight to stroll around the quays where the boats were safely moored up and the smell of the catch was all pervading. Sales were being conducted on the quayside, direct from the boats as the catches were unloaded. In corners of the port scrap fish and crabs with insufficient meat for selling had been unceremoniously dumped back into the water. All around were stacks of pallets, plastic crates filled with fish and miles and miles of carefully untangled fishing nets. Crews were busy repairing damaged netting and preparing already for the next trip out to the frequently dangerous waters beyond the safety of the harbour.

Le Conquet, Finisterre

Le Conquet, Finisterre

Le Conquet, Finisterre

Le Conquet, Finisterre

Le Conquet, Finisterre

After an hour or so around the town we made our way back to where we thought we'd left Modestine. Two hours later we were still wandering around the little town searching for her! As we'd forgotten the Breton sounding name of the road in which we'd left her we couldn't ask for help and we had no map of the town. By the time we eventually found her, looking vaguely surprised at us abandoning her for so long, it was already evening. Determined to reach the farthest west in Finisterre we drove on to Pointe de St. Mathieu from where we could just make out the islands of Molène and Ouissant far out to sea, their lighthouses showing black against the brightness of the evening sun as it gradually sank towards the sea.

Apart from the lighthouse, St. Mathieu also has a monument to sailors who died in action during the Second World War with the names of the sea battles in which they were engaged. Nearby are the remains of a monastery, its church and the granite well that supplied them.

Pointe de St. Mathieu with seamen's monument, Finisterre

Lighthouse and monastery ruins, Pointe de St. Mathieu, Finisterre

Church at Pointe de St. Mathieu, Finisterre

Granite well at Pointe de St. Mathieu, Finisterre

We needed to find a campsite for the night. Earlier we'd seen them scattered amongst the sand dunes but as soon as we wanted one they all disappeared. We made our way around the coast and turned onto the ring road, anxious to avoid the city of Brest. Like Plymouth it was devastated during the war because of its naval dockyard, and like Plymouth too, it has been very badly rebuilt. It is an ugly scar on the otherwise beautiful face of Brittany.

We ended up deep in the countryside, threading through a network of little lanes until we came out onto a fishing beach on the Gouel de Brest, a huge natural bay protected from the sea that provides a safe anchorage for the ships using the dockyard of Brest. The beach was deserted and further round were a couple of camping cars parked for the night. So we found a spot and settled ourselves. We ate supper on the beach as we watched the sun set deep red over the cranes and dockyard buildings of Brest and after washing our plates and mugs in the sea we took a twilight stroll along the beach before turning in.

Sunset over the dockyard of Brest, Brittany

The rest of this account was written up at the time so I'm returning you from Exeter back to Brittany for the last blog of this journey.