Travel

Weekender: Finistère

Brittany’s extreme west is a land of plenty, offering grand lighthouse landmarks and beachside restaurants celebrating some of France’s finest seafood. Tuesday, July 23, 2019

By Carolyn Boyd
Old town, Roscoff.

Where France hooks its Breton arm into the wild Atlantic, you’ll find Finistère, the French equivalent of Land’s End. Located on the northwestern shores of France, the waves here can be ferocious — but this coastline can also be temperate, gentle and exotic thanks to the Gulf Stream, which lends its warmer climate to golden-sand beaches, picturesque harbour towns and botanical gardens.

Off the coast there are the islands to explore. Most can be reached by foot-passenger ferries and are car-free, peaceful havens for cycling. From Roscoff, the Île de Batz is just a 15-minute boat ride away. Hire a bike on the quayside and pedal past granite cottages with gardens brimming with flowers. Off the west coast, the islands of Molène and Ushant (Ouessant in French) are two of around 20 islands and islets in the Ponant archipelago, which forms the westernmost bastion of metropolitan France. Île de Molène is rich in wildlife, with grey seals, otters and seabirds basking on its beaches. On the wild and remote Ushant, meanwhile, there are six lighthouses to protect ships from its rocky coastline. 

Not so long ago, you’d have heard only Breton being spoken out here in northern Finistère. A stronger Celtic tradition — all lace bonnets and Breton bagpipes — is found in the south of the department, at Quimper and Pont L’Abbé, but locals here remain fiercely proud of their Breton identity and its seafaring, land-working heritage. 

The region’s proximity to Grande-Bretagne also has its influence: in Roscoff, people have a close relationship to England, made stronger by generations of onion sellers crossing the channel from Roscoff to peddle the town’s delicate pink onions door-to-door throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Anglo-Breton friendship is maintained these days by the hundreds of Brits rolling off the overnight ferry from Plymouth — by far the easiest way to arrive. While many pass through to destinations south, those who linger a while in northern Finistère will be spoilt by region’s plentiful cuisine; there’s a bounty of fresh vegetables grown in the red-hued soil and a decadent array of seafood and fish landed fresh each day. Just take a seat on the terrace of a harbour-front restaurant and tuck in. 

Roscoff Onion Festival.

Food, glorious food 

The gentle climate on Finistère’s north coast facilitates a bounty of delicious produce: try cauliflowers, globe artichokes and Roscoff’s celebrated pink onions, which — thanks to the town’s history of ‘Onion Johnny’ sellers — have their own museum. There’s even an annual festival in their honour. The coastline offers a huge variety of seafood, from giant crabs and fat, juicy langoustines, to daily fresh fish and edible seaweed gathered from the rocky beaches.

Where to stay 

Try the Hotel Brittany in Roscoff, which has an indoor pool and spa as well as an excellent Michelin-starred restaurant. At Brignogan-Plages, the eco-friendly Hôtel de la Mer opens out on to the beach and offers seaweed-gathering workshops. In Le Conquet, a seaside town on the far west coast, the Sainte-Barbe Hôtel & Spa is due to open later this summer, with spectacular views out to the islands of Molène and Ushant as well as a spa and restaurant.

Tropical gardens 

On the Île de Batz, the Georges Delaselle Garden was established in 1897 by Parisian insurer Delaselle. It brings together hundreds of plants from the southern hemisphere, many of which were brought back by sailors returning from Australasia.  

Île de Batz lighthouse.

Take three: Lighthouses

Île de Batz lighthouse 
The 144ft granite lighthouse on the enchanting island of Batz makes for the perfect end-destination when cycling around the island. Pedal past rolling farmers’ fields and then climb the 198 steps to gaze back towards the Finistère coast. 

Créac’h lighthouse
There are six lighthouses on or around the island of Ushant. The most striking is the mighty black-and-white striped Phare du Créac’h. The most powerful lighthouse in Europe, its beam shines almost 40 miles across the Atlantic below. 

Saint-Mathieu
On the wild west coast, south of the harbour town of Le Conquet, the red-topped Phare Saint-Mathieu offers incredible views of the Iroise sea and its many islands. There’s a small museum telling its history and, next to it, is the ruined and wonderfully atmospheric 11th-century Abbaye Saint-Mathieu de Fine-Terre.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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