Finistère: A wild kind of wonderful
by Nancy Snipper
In Brittany France, le Finistère on the Armorican peninsula presents a haunting beauty where winds whistle in your ear, sea tides recede to reveal the softest, whitest sand, and grass grows in shades of muted greens.
Light travels along the horizon, illuminating a land dotted with forests thickened by thistles, gentle pines and wild flowers.
Here, along France’s northwest sea edge Finistère’s golden coast‚ and inland among four major villages “le pays,” du Leon, unique traditions have survived. Indeed, the historic blend of Gallo, Saxon and Celtic peoples with native Armoricans‚ have produced a unique Breton culture. You can literally taste it in the delicious shortbread cake, Kouign Amann, see it in the freckled, blue-eyed faces, with some women sporting unusually tall hair buns tightly wrapped in lace; and hear it in the clang of 41 Celtic bells ringing in churches dating back to the sixth century. Most of all, it is the language, and a confounding one at that, which proves Brittany is different, as is the audible Celtic influence of the plaintive music.
Though fiercely proud of their past, Bretons speak French — but never complain to them about the formidable wind or rain — or anything Breton; you risk being catapulted on top of one of their arrow shaped church steeples.
I was forewarned about Breton pride by my host Christine Raymond, a Breton herself. Her husband Alain, who is not from Brittany is crazy about anything Breton, especially Finistère’s natural landscape. Invited to stay with them at their lovely house in Theven (pop. 12), I was thrilled to accompany them on a four-kilometre walk. Cutting through a ferocious wind with The English Channel’s sea waters in the distance, we strode across the wide expanse of wavy wet sand towards boulders that seemed to tumble out of time onto the shoreline, at the base of the Island of Sieck.
With their son, 11-year-old Yann and pals, we chased sand crabs and filled a bucket-full of snails that Christine later boiled for lunch. Like the Bretons, the stubborn little lifeless creatures rested in their shells upon their demise - despite several attempts by the family to pull them out at lunchtime. I abstained from the failed feast, much preferring the white winged birds flying above wild roses sidling along walled remnants that resonate with a past not forgotten. These are the natural treasures we all enjoyed walking along Sieck’s perimeter.
Finistère’s region is agricultural. Huge carrots from Santec, onions from Roscoff and artichokes from Saint-Pol-du-Léon grow in fields sprawling across the landscape. Take a hike along one of the 33 trails, and Finistère’s richness becomes apparent. A varied beauty assaults the eye sometimes melancholic, sometimes pastoral. The gentle Guillec and Horn Rivers sandwiched in valleys wind below villages atop gentle slopes or near the sea. The natural basin for agriculture provides an embarrassment edible riches. Personally, I loved the thin sarasin crepes full of caramel. It’s a yummy specialty, along with buttery sweets including galettes, tea biscuits made by Lu, one of the oldest biscuit manufacturers in South Brittany (1886).
As for Finistère’s urban identity it is a cluster of enchanting villages, each announced by an imposing 500-year-old (or more) turret-topped church beacon, sometimes bewitching the visitor with its unusual charm. Alain drove me to one of his favourites, Saint-Pol-de-Léon. Typical to the area, I was impressed by the stone houses of granite topped in black slate roofs which are impervious to the harsh weather. Surrounded by a greenbelt, this wealthy, religious village is the capital of the largest vegetable-producing area in Europe.
I then strolled through the seaside resort of Roscoff with its picturesque harbour - a marine landmark famous for its Onion Johnnies - men who crossed the channel to sell their rosy pink onions in Ireland. I peeked into century-old cellars that that opened out onto Roscoff’s narrow streets. Roscoff is a magnet for artists. The writer Alexandre Dumas lived here. I found it along the main street along with another Roscoff attraction - Our lady of Croaz-Batz. Gothic boldness and an elegant Renaissance tower enticed me to encircle its outer wall. On it, a clock design striding huge roman numerals announces an ominous message: fear the final hour. For me, being in Brittany dissolved any fear, including thoughts about mortality.
Finally, Finistère means land’s end‚ but it is here where breathtaking beauty begins — raw, haunting and wonderful to behold.
Finistère is four hours by car from Nantes; Air Transat has direct flights to Nantes.