Brittany/Bretagne/Breizh (in English/French/Breton)
Thursday-Sunday, May 30-June 9, 2019
After five years cruising in countries where locals speak two, if not three, four, or five languages with English typically the second or third one, we’re now in France. Although many aren’t fluent in English, they sometimes know enough to help us get by, and speak English a lot better than we do our halting French.
Bereft of foreign tongues other than un peu francaise and un poco español, our forays into expressing ourselves now involves a lot of limb + digit contortions. Fortunately, fingers serve as numerical communicators while hands and arms provide directions, both literally and, if we’re lucky, figuratively.
So, yes, we landed back in France :) And, I say ‘back’ as we had stopped in Dunkirk and Boulogne Sur Mer on our way down the English Channel last month, touching on the south coast of England before ending in Alderney and Guernsey a few days later.
After visiting the Channel Islands we managed to perform the higher mathematics required to compute favorable tides and currents to safely reach the northern coast of Brittany.
As you can see from the captain’s relaxed demeanor all went well as we proceeded to slowly glide up the Trieux River.
Lézardrieux, a small village 6 miles from the river’s mouth offered pontoons available for docking at all tides, as well as an inner harbor protected by one of those sills, i.e., boat bathtubs.
During a 12-hour period you witness a range of low and high tides, which means you’re either getting some good calf-muscle work-outs…
of simply walking to and from one’s boat.
We set out to explore Friday morning beginning with the weekly market. Located up the hill in the town square we joined the shoppers and queued along with them.
Perusing the enticing arrays, we purchased two humongous artichokes. Max having read that these were in season we thought it would be really cool to see them in the field. Which we did when walking on part of a 133 km coastal path (“GR 34”). Once you see one artichokefield, you’ll notice them all the more with their distinctive, inquiring heads poking up on stalwart stalks amidst long, feathery leaves.
Never having seen artichokes ‘in the wild’ we couldn’t get enough of peering at them whenever we came across yet another crowded patch.
After a few days of exploring locally we checked out transportation options for going further afield. Surprised to learn of very limited buses and trains between villages, we rented a car for day trippping and one overnight.
And, before I take you on our journey, just a quick (I promise!) and extremely simple overview of the most western part of France. Not that France was the France as we know it today, but rather a hodgepodge of various fiefdoms in earlier times.
As the name suggests Brittany reflects the connection to Great Britain, specifically those living in Wales, Cornwall and Devon. Between the 3rd and the 9th centuries their ancestors crossed the Channel and landed in the Roman land called Armorique (now Brittany) to escape the Viking raids and the push of settlers from the east looking for more land.
With such a strong connection to Celtic England, Brittany pushed back on any domination by the French during the 7th and 8th centuries. In the 9th century, the King of Franks, Louis-le-Pieux (interesting name) had had enough and appointed Nominoë, the first Duke of Brittany.
Well, the Duke decided that was his cue to create his own kingdom. He proceeded to fight Louie’s successor. Not only did this Duke of Brittany succeed in establishing independence from the King of France but also created Brittany’s own archdiocese. With both church and state separated from the Franks, the Dukes of Brittany became an autonomous region of France.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Brittany didn’t experience its own internal power struggles. In the mid 1300s a civil war broke out when Duke Jean the 3rd died. This led to his niece (Jeanne de Penthièrve) and his step-bro (Jean de Monfort) to duke it out (couldn’t resist). The war became known as “Deux Jeanne” or Two Jeannes. And, no, that extra ‘e’ on Jeanne isn’t a typo. It includes Jean de Montfort’s wife who just happened to be named, you guessed it: Jeanne de Flandre.
With the help of England, Jean de Monfort won, and yet another Jean (the 4th, son of the 3rd) gained the top spot. I must say all of these Jeans just beg for a ‘Peter picked a peck of peppers’ tongue twister…
In the 1400s Brittany blossomed as a kingdom establishing diplomatic ties, its own currency, its first university (in Nantes), and -drum roll- possibly formalized its first symbol, the ermine.
Why the ermine? Royalty and Aristocrats used the luxurious white fur with black-tipped tail for cloaks depicting their high status. Legend has it, as well, that the little critter would prefer death to getting its pristine coat dirty. This translated into Brittany’s motto of ‘Plutôt la mort que la Souillure’ or ‘Rather death than defilement’.
Brittany’s modern flag continues the tie to this heraldic animal using the ermine’s colors and tail as part of its flag.
Yet all good things must come to pass, at least as far as Brittany’s independence. In the late 1400s the French gained back Brittany when King Charles the 8th defeated Duke François the 1st in 1488. When the Duke died in 1491 Charles cemented his rule over Bretagne by marrying, more likely ‘grabbing the hand of’, Duchess Anne, François’ daughter and inheritor of the dukedom.
It doesn’t stop there. When Charles died eight years later she had to marry his successor, Louis the 12th, and seven years after that her daugher Claude became another pawn in the chess match of royal “I dos” when she got stuck with the nephew of Louis the 12th, François d’Angoulême, although he did become the French King Françoise the 1st.
Interesting factoid: This king was the patron of Leonardo da Vinci who moved to Amboise in 1515 where the two of them developed a close relationship. Leonardo died in Amboise four years later, in 1519, and may have been buried there, although this year DNA research is supposed to establish conclusively if that’s true.
Lady with an ermine (1483-90) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
When Anne, a beloved figure of the Bretons, died in 1514, her heart was buried in Nantes, fulfilling her wish. Sounds like another MDT (Max Disaster Tour in the making…).
Although Françoise the 1st enacted the Treaty of of Everlasting Union in 1532 in recognition of Brittany’s identity, the struggle between Bretons and the French continued even into the 20th century. Separatist groups, such as the FLB (Breton Liberation Front), the ARB (Breton Revolutionary Army), and the UDB (Breton Democratic Union), continue to advocate for autonomy from France. This includes a revival of their language, which explains the two spellings on road signs. Neither of which I can pronounce well, if at all. (FYI: The ‘Brit’ in Great Briton and Brittany comes from the Roman’s Latin ‘Britainnia’ meaning ‘Briton’s land’.)
Today, this region is divided into four ‘departments’: Côtes d’Armour (where Lézardrieux sits); Finistère (west); Morbihan (south); and Illie et Vilanie (east), bordering Normandy.
The coasts provide harbors for commercial (fishing and shipping) and pleasure (lots of boaters) while inland offers fertile fields for grazing and crops. And, of course, there are the coastal views
and river views.
Our first day-trip began with Perros-Guirec and the Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast).
A continuation of the 133km GR 34 walk takes you through the park showcasing pink granite rocks of all shapes and sizes:
Evidently when the sun is low on the horizon the land glows a shimmering pink, which must mean the whole little town does because everywhere you looked granite is THE material for construction.
With so many sites inviting exploration during the three days we had the car, our touring required a selection of sites within easy driving range.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go far for one of Brittany’s medieval cities, and during our stay we chose some we had read or heard as being good examples of that historical period. One of these was Morlaix, a medieval city, where I saw a type of home I’d never heard of before: the lantern house.
When we entered we learned why the label: the open space from the floor to the ceiling allowed a lantern to be hung to provide light.
This uninterrupted view also showcased the hard-to-miss staircase (as seen in the video) and immense fireplace.
Called the Duchess Anne’s House, this home would have been considered a mansion with its prestigious location in one of the most sought-after neighborhoods of its time. Additionally, elaborate wooden figurines attest to the hiring of skilled artisans for its decor.
Staring up to the three floors where rooms exit off of the staircase
your vision soars 52 feet to the top thanks to the architectural widening of the staircase on each floor while decreasing the handrails heights.
Upon exiting we learned we were fortunate to be here in 2019 and not 2017 when a flood required major renovations. I’m so glad history doesn’t get swept away leaving only empty spaces for modern life to take hold.
This city features another notable construction: a viaduct.
Built in the mid 1800s, it spans the Riviere de Morlaixand serves as a railroad, pedestrian crossing,
and viewing platform.
Unsure exacty why such an elaborate infrastrucure was required I asked a local. His response was a shrug and a laugh saying, ‘who knows?!’
What I do know is this area offers a fascinating destination for anyone interested in medieval history, exploring a unique coastline, and eating artichokes as big as one’s head… or, at least, hand :)
Next, another culinary delight: crepes at Crêperies…!