31 January, 2020

Abbey at Saint-Mathieu...

From Camaret-sur-Mer, we had an hour's drive to get to our next destination, going around the Rade de Brest, a huge inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, and through the port city of Brest which, we could see from the Pointe des Espagnoles, hosts a substantial navy base. We didn't stop in Brest, but to approach it we had to cross two major bridges, come in from the east on a motorway, then leave to the west via crowded old town streets and around an old fort or castle. We saw that Brest has a brand new looking lightrail system running. Brest is the second biggest city in Brittany.

Spectacular bridge over an upper reach of the Bay of Brest at Terenez.

Our destination was at the extreme west of Brittany, the Pointe de St-Mathieu on the edge of the town of Plougonvelin. We came here to see the derelict abbey, but more importantly, maybe, to stay in the luxurious accommodation at the Hostellerie de St-Mathieu which is literally on the opposite side of the road to the abbey. In fact, we left our Corolla in the abbey car park.

The glory of the lighthouse at Saint Mathieu.

The Hostellerie was exquisite, selected to give us a really comfortable place to relax for a few days. Our room was at the top end of their range, so it was uber-spacious and modern, with a fabulous bathroom, and included a huge lighthouse mural on the wall. The Hostellerie claimed to be an "eco" establishment: we found that what this means is that room heating (hot water radiators) turn off during the day, and during the night, a minor irritation really, but we couldn't get past thinking it was really no more than a cost saving measure. The bar and restaurant at the Hostellerie were both stylish and great, and we partook in the pleasures of both (there being virtually no competition nearby).

The Hostellerie at Pointe de Saint Mathieu.

Interior of our amazing room at the Hostellerie.

This was not the view we had from our window, but we could see the beam sweeping by all night.

Directly opposite the hotel was the Pointe which was cluttered not only with the abbey, but also a military semaphore station (photography prohibited) and a grand lighthouse, all ridiculously close to each other. We read a comment that it was a "bizarre juxtaposition"! And within 25m or so, a war memorial. A tower in the abbey, derelict anyway, had to be part demolished to give the lighthouse full rotation, so we too are a bit bemused as to why it (the lighthouse) was built so close.

Pointe de St-Mathieu and the tight juxtaposition of the semaphore station, the lighthouse, the abbey and a chapel.

Same view at night with the beam showing.

The abbey, Saint-Mathieu-de-Fine-Terre is named after Saint Matthew the Evangelist. The first abbey here was built before 555AD by Saint Tanguy on land he had inherited (so goes the story), the site deliberately chosen for its isolation. That abbey is gone. The current ruins are of a Benedictine monastery from the 11thC and modified later, but it was abandoned after the French Revolution. Monks sold off what had not already been looted, it seems. The ruins are amazing abd overwhelming - the abbey is large and some of the roof is still in place.

Ornate archway near a chapel near the abbey at Saint-Mathieu.

Solitary stone cross near the abbey.

Cove and another point near Pointe du Saint Mathieu.

The lighhouse peeks into the old abbey.

Fine detail in an abbey column.

The part of the abbey roof still in position.

The lighthouse was built in 1835 among the ruins when it could have been located 50m away on a site now occupied by the war memorial. It's distinctive decoration is to have the words "Saint Mathieu" painted on it in huge letters. This is a big lighthouse in the Brittany portfolio, and can be seen 55km away. From our bedroom, we could see the beam flashing by every few seconds. Within the lighthouse structure is a separate navigational beacon which at first we thought would be a historical artifact, but at night flashes red or green to specific adjacent directions as part of the very complicated navigational aid system in part of Brittany.

Both a lighthouse and a duplex navigation beacon on the same site.

Another very impressive war memorial on the Brittany coast, this dedicated to sailors.

We didn't relax as much as planned. We did laundry at Plouzaine, and had a look around Plougonvelin finding a great protected beach (looks like it is blighted by jet skis in summer) and yet another old fort (this one rebirthed as an exercise park operating in summer). And we drove to Le Conquet which we read is the westernmost town on mainland France, and a beautiful one at that, with an unnavigable maze of tiny twisty streets around the port area. One claimed touch with fame - Henry VII apparently unintentially landed at Le Conquet in a storm when he was escaping exile from Wales!

The Fort de Bertheaume has been fitted with zip lines and converted to an adventure park. At Plougonvelin.

Small and protected Plage du Perzel is backed up by a large camping ground and must be a haven in summer.

Our navigator liked to take us along remote local roads, this one through a farm of, we think, artichokes.

View of Le Conquet from across its port.

Harbour and light at Le Conquet.

Fisherman's cottage at Le Conquet.

This is as close as we could get to the Le Conquet light.

On the coastal walk near Le Conquet, some brave boys after a swim.

At the end of three days based at St-Mathieu we set out to the city of Morlaix near the north-west coast of Brittany.

Wind farms are all over Brittany. Joe Hockey would convert them to coal power stations.

29 January, 2020

What's the Pointe...

It was only a short drive for us to make from Locronan into the next promontory in western Finistère where we would spend four days exploring the Presqu'ile de Crozon. This promontory is itself three fingered, and is entirely within a "natural park" called Armorique. A natural park must have some particular conservation significance, but really the whole area appeared to us just like everywhere else in Brittany, lots of small and smaller towns spaced by farmland with not very much natural bush at all. Amorica is the ancient name of that part of iron-age Gaul (~500BC) which includes the present Brittany, and is unrelated to "America".

Ferries like this ply the north coast of Brittany and over to Ireland and England.

The largest town here was Crozon, but we stayed in the port town of Camaret-sur-Mer at the Hotel de France, a harbourfront establishment with a fantastic view (from our bed) of the World Heritage listed Tour Vauban. All these Brittany towns are pretty, but Camaret was exceptional. At the port, a two-lane street ran along the harbour's edge, and behind that there was a tangled maze of tiny twisty cobbled lanes that were extremely tight to drive around. Those tiny French cars are really at home here, and our longish Corolla had to strain to get round the corners.

Panorama of Camaret-sur-Mer as seen from the Pointe du Grand Gouin.

Afternoon panorama of Camaret-sur-Mer across the harbour.

In getting around, we discovered that Camaret (like everywhere in Europe, really) has a long and complicated history. Neolithic alignments, said to be as significant as those at Carnac, testify to significant human presence in pre-historical times. Natural protections surrounding Camaret made it a perfect refuge for the Amoricans in the years BC, but these people were subjugated by the Roman Empire until it fell. Christianity arrived with monks 100-400AD. During the 100 years Anglo-French war (1400AD+-), the British came to appreciate the strategic location of Camaret-Sur-Mer and in 1404, the English attempted to take Camaret from the sea but failed, saving all of Brittany. Later Vauban designed a 18m-high polygonal defensive tower now named after him, and in 1694 he commanded the tower himself to turn back an Anglo-Dutch attack.

Dawn light on the street front at Camaret port.

The Vauban Tower (nominally open, but no sign of it) is an attractive building, quite unlike what we have seen in other Vauban fortifications. It is modest in scale and almost delicate in design, quite a beauty. It's on a breakwater for the port, along which is a grungy ships graveyard which is apparently a tourist attraction. The dilapidated wrecks certainly look interesting.

The ship graveyard at Camaret Harbour.

The graveyard occupies valuable real estate but provides interesting photo opportunities.

The iconic Vauban Tower at the end of Camaret breakwater.

We drove around the three fingers of the Presqu'ile de Crozon, north and south of Camaret, and came across numerous Pointes, all of which show evidence of old fortifications. The first we went to was Pointe de Espagnoles which directly looks to the big Brittany city of Brest and has a typical Napoleonic era fort, open in summer but not for us. From Espagnoles, we can see a substantial naval base, and signage to the effect that, since 9/11, defences here have been reactivated.

A standardised type of military fort as set up under Napoleon, this one at Pointe des Espagnoles, vital to the protection of Brest.

In WW2, occupying Germans built many blockhouses along the Camaret coast, as part of their "Atlantic Wall" including one between the Pointe de Pen-Hir and the Pointe du Toulinguet, now rebirthed into a Memorial Museum of the Battle of the Atlantic (sea and air battle occupying almost all of WW2). In between these two points is the large beach Anse de Pen Hat and (what's left of) the neolithic menhirs at Lagatjar. South of Pen-Hir are more off-shore rock formations that we now think are pretty common on the Brittany coast, here called Les Tas de Pois, the piles of peas.

Another Vauban creation, in a long wall at the Pointe du Toulinguet.

Magnificent beach of Pen Hat, with, on the horizon, the ruins of St Pol Roux's mansion.

Huge and foamy seas at the Plage de Pen Hat.

Board-rider at Plage de Pen Hat.

Ruins of the mansion of poet Saint Pol Roux. He died from injuries sustained during WW2 and is buried nearby.

The neolithic alignments of Lagatjar near Camaret. There are a hundred menhirs, mostly aligned into three lines, for no known purpose.

And on the southern finger of the Presqu'ile, there's the Cap de la Chevre, a barren and windy spot looking back to Point du Raz, a delightful little protected port town of Morgat, really a suburb of Crozon, and a big surprise we almost passed by, Pointe de Dinan, very pretty, spectacular rock formations and nice coastal walks.

Memorial to the Battle of the Atlantic, each anchor from or representing a lost ship.

Stunning memorial to Bretons lost in both world wars at the Pointe de Pen Hir.

Rocky cliffs near the World War mermorial to French dead.

The natural arch at Pointe de Dinan, seen in morning backlight.

Spectacular rock formations at the Pointe de Dinan, with a huge natural arch.

In our coastal explorations, we have encountered repeatedly little red and white markers on walking tracks, so we finally looked up what they mean. Brittany has an impressive coastal path system loop, called the Sentiere Côtier (coastal trail) or GR34 where GR is short for grande randonnée (great hike). It's a marked trail 2000km long that supposedly never loses sight of the sea, and somewhere near Camaret we saw the 1000km marker. The trail goes out to all the points and along all the beaches, and it really quite a superb fitness resource, and a well used one at that. The French clearly like trekking around these rocky headlands and sandy beaches, and we see them out in all manner of weather (wind mainly), just like us!

The Sentier Cotier GR34 is a 2000km walking trial which follows the coast around all of Brittany.

Huge tidal range and hardly sloping beaches create great walks on the sand.

Morning expanse of the beach at Anse de Dinan.

We did a lot of walking during our stay at Camaret, encouraged by fine cool weather, quite sunny, and parking lots often a distance from the attractions (a good thing in summer, we think). In the evenings, we found a very pleasant "local", a bar at the Hotel Vauban with a friendly barmaid who remembered our preferences. The bar and restaurant at our Hotel de France were inexplicably closed, so they did without our business, but other than that, we were very pleased there with its friendly and helpful staff who even helped us top up our rental car's windscreen washers. WiFi was patchy, worse even than Latitude Ouest, and the storm window didn't seal against the gale outside, auto-ventilating the room, but the excellent electric heaters and great view made up for that. Several cafes opened at various times along the Camaret waterfreont stretch, so it was easy to get a feed.

Our digs in Camaret-sur-Mer, the Hotel de France, our room on the 2nd floor left.

Sunset view of Tour Vauban from our Hotel de France room window.

Park too far forward, and your car's in the harbour!

In the absence of any other eating place in Camaret, we had takeaway pizza from this Irish pub.

Seafood restaurant open, for an hour or two.