It rained all night and our pitch was a muddy quagmire this morning. Surprisingly, and to our great relief, Modestine did not get bogged down and by the time we reached the notaire's office in Briec the rain had been replaced by a blustery wind that has continued for most of the day.
Of course at the notaire's the only person who could help us was on leave until next Tuesday. As we are returning to England on Monday the secretary agreed to pass on a letter from us to our friend, via the notaire on her return to work.
As we were in the heart of Brittany we decided to investigate the interior with its forests, rivers and moorland region known as the Montaignes Noires. Inland Brittany is known as the Argoat (woodland) whereas the coastal part is the Armor (sea).
First we stopped at Pleyben where we discovered the first of a series of several granite churches, elaborately carved and decorated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Together they form a circuit through the Argoat known as Les Enclos Paroissiaux (parish closes). Each enclos has a church, an ornate belfry, an ossuary, a calvary and a triumphal entrance. They are all heavily carved and decorated and surrounded by a granite wall to safeguard the graveyard and keep out pigs, dogs and other animals generally found within the streets of villages during the 16th century. It became a challenge in this part of Brittany for each parish to attempt to produce a more decorated and original calvary than those of the neighbouring parishes and the results are quite stunning. After travelling so far around Europe and seeing so many rare and beautiful sights, these little granite churches and their religious decoration still have the power to astonish us with their simple beauty.
The churches at that time played a pivotal role in village life. Few country people could read or write and the stained glass windows, symbolic friezes, wooden carvings and painted saints inside the church, together with the figures on the granite calvary in the churchyard, interpreted the Christian Faith for people. They were picture books in wood, glass and stone, the bandes dessinées of their time teaching parishioners in graphic images about the Bible and the life hereafter. They show scenes from the life of Christ and the saints, frequently dressed in 16th century contemporary costume. Mixed with the figures of the saints and tableaux from the books of the Bible are frequently found Celtic strapwork patterns and pagan symbols – lion's heads, grotesques and monsters representing Hell. Beside each church stands the ossuary. Originally people were buried in the churchyard for a period of time before their bones were exhumed and placed in the ossuary - frequently stacked in reliquaries – to create further burial space for new occupants. The ossuaries were normally decorated with carved figures representing Death or with skulls and bones as a reminder to the faithful of what lay ahead for them.
Having been fascinated by the enclos at Pleyben we determined to spend the rest of the day exploring the countryside as we made our way around the circuit visiting some of the other churches on the way. If collectively Breton enclos are not yet on the Unesco list of World Heritage sites they most definitely should be. Other particularly beautiful enclos are to be seen at Guimiliau and St.Thégonnec.
Our travels took us around the deserted interior of Brittany with its green hedgerows and quiet country lanes. At Huelgoat however, in the wooded heart of the region, there were many summer visitors wrapped in warm waterproof jackets slithering through the mud along the mossy woodland paths where several of Brittany's renown beauty spots are to be found. Amongst a chaos of huge granite boulders and flowing water known as the Virgin's kitchen pots, we discovered a metal ladder fixed to the rocks and below, once our eyes adjusted to the deep gloom, we found a low, narrow, slippery passage through the rocks to a ledge overlooking a thundering cascade of water known, predictably as the Devil's cauldron. Further along the forested path we heard the haunting sound of flutes and bagpipes as a couple of young men busked beneath the ancient oak trees.
We were later than anticipated arriving in Guissény but nobody minded. Joël was not alone and we were overjoyed to discover his son Stephan and daughter-in-law Cathérine, whom we had missed in Thionville when we visited Luxembourg, are here with their children Gwladys and Donatien (typical Breton names). Joël's second son Emanuel was also here to greet us though he currently lives in nearby Lesnevan. He used to visit us in Exeter as a teenager and he and our son Neil have retained a friendship. Danielle's cousin Annie from southern Brittany was also visiting with her husband and grandchildren. There were thirteen of us at supper! We all spent a brilliant evening with happy smiles and laughter, tinged at moments by sadness that Danielle can no longer be a living part of it. How she would have adored her lovely grandchildren.
Friday 27th July 2007, Guissény, Brittany
(Guissény has been described in our earlier travels with Modestine. See Tuesday 11th April 2006)
Joël was up before 6am and off with his friend Marcel to check his lobster pots. We were still at breakfast when he returned with a large bucket containing seven spider crabs and several ormers. Ormers are large, rather meaty shell fish that can occasionally be found on the rocky shoreline of Brittany and the Channel Islands. They are becoming increasingly rare. The children were fascinated to see the crabs clambering around in the bucket and Stephan soon had them cooking in a massive saucepan. (Crabs, not children!) He and Joël then disappeared up to the village to give blood at the mobile unit.
Meanwhile, we went for a morning stroll around the familiar granite village and to the churchyard to see the tombstone that has been erected for Danielle since our brief visit last autumn after she died from breast cancer. Guissény church holds so many memories for us and we had mixed emotions there today. It does not yet seem real that we are here, staying in Danielle's home with her husband and sons and playing with her grandchildren, when she is no longer with us. She has been a close friend to Jill since we first met at Champagne-sur-Loue as teenagers. It is good that the Guissény churchyard is right in the heart of the village with friends and family passing nearby every day as they go about their shopping so she is still naturally a part of the community.
Back home Emanuel had arrived for lunch. The plan for the afternoon had been for us all to take out Joël's boat – also named Danielle - for a sail around the little harbour at Le Curnic. However, the wind had risen again during the morning and visibility was not brilliant so the plan was abandoned. Instead Emanuel disappeared into the workshop where he is busy restoring furniture made by his grandfather, Danielle's father, a master joiner from the Jura, ready for his new flat at St. Pol de Léon. Meanwhile Joël trimmed the garden hedges while Jill raked the clippings into piles and Ian and Stephan loaded them into the van and disposed of them at the local tip. We all felt quite relieved when the rain returned in earnest, forcing us to abandon work until tomorrow.
Back indoors we translated the English instructions for replacing the reeds and tuning-in the drones on Joël's Breton bagpipes. Rather surprisingly they are manufactured in Australia! There is presumably a workshop near Alice Springs called Didgeridoos and Breton bagpipes R Us! We now have an in-depth technical vocabulary in both French and Breton concerning the Biniou that is quite probably unique in the English speaking world! Meanwhile the children kept us all entertained and gave us an initiation into grandparenthood. They are incredibly lively and found English nursery rhymes and games such fun they kept us repeating them all afternoon! Gwladys can now chant a couple of phrases that are recognisably English even if she has no idea what they mean.
Late this evening Cathérine's brother, his wife and daughter arrived from Mayenne to spend a week's holiday by the sea. They have brought more rain and wind with them, though they are still hoping to take the boat out tomorrow morning. There are ten of us staying in the house at the moment. So much for our anxiety that we would find Joël lost in such a large house without Danielle when we arrived!
Saturday 28th July 2007, Guissény, Brittany
The wind dropped and the rain disappeared during the night so this morning Stephan and his brother-in-law were up early and had the boat out. Meanwhile, we drove into Lesnevan to buy some champagne for Emanuel to celebrate getting his own flat, some wine for us and some cheap diesel - about 66p per litre - for Modestine before we return home
At lunchtime the pink, dismembered crabs appeared in a couple of huge bowls on the dinner table. The next couple of hours were spent with metal hooks teasing the crabmeat out from body cavities and from within the joints of the long, spidery legs. There is a surprising amount in your average crab though neither of us really felt it was worth the effort. Bretons are surprised that so little seafood is eaten in England. We were told that English fishermen tend to bring their catches of crabs and lobsters over to Roscoff to sell as there is a more ready market here.
It took several very sociable hours to finish the various courses of lunch, and the box of assorted cakes we'd purchased in Lesnevan were greeted with enthusiasm over the coffee.
This weekend Guissény is having a celebration of the sea, to raise funds for the Guissény lifeboat down at the little harbour of le Curnic where Joel's fishing boat is moored. This includes blessing the sea, a display of the work of the French National Lifeboat Service, guessing the weight of a huge lobster in a tank, the village children reciting poems in Breton and some anarchic sort of dance that came close to rivalling our experience at the Trinidad Carnival at Couva - but less volubly! During the afternoon everyone except us drove through the village down to the cove to join in the festivities. Having enjoyed both porto and wine at lunch we decided it might be wiser to follow the coastal path on Hinge and Bracket instead. This was a lovely ride of a few kilometres with views out across the estuary of the little river Quillemadec, the white sandy beaches and the islets and rocks just off shore.
We reached le Curnic in time to see the sea rescue dogs put through their paces. We've never heard of these before but they are apparently stationed along the Breton coast and provide a valuable service swimming out and towing back to shore small fishing and rowing boats in distress. They are to the French coast what the St. Bernard is to the Alps. They are huge, powerful swimmers working in perfect harmony with their wet-suited owners. Today they were towing back to the jetty boatloads of sea drenched volunteers.
Next we settled to hear an open air concert of sea shanties sung in both Breton and French. Of course almost everyone in the audience was related to somebody in the fishermen's choir so there was considerable cat-calling and joining in with the singing. Around us we heard people speaking Breton and the elderly man next to us told us he used to be a fisherman and his brother was in the choir. He shouted the chorus and waved his arms enthusiastically, jumping up from time to time to dance a few steps with the spontaneous line of dancers that were occupying the central aisle. His accent was almost incomprehensible in French but he proudly told us he spoke some German as during the war he had worked as forced labour for the Germans constructing blockhouses along the Breton coast.
Everyone queued for the alfresco supper of spicy mergues sausages served with a tray of chips and a glass of Breton cider. We all sat at communal benches for supper while a band played Celtic folk music and people danced in a circle around the tables.
Almost all Bretons know their traditional dances. They are brought up to it from infancy and if by any chance they slip through the net there are special classes held over the winter months in the village halls. Danielle was not Breton by birth but learned the dances and wore the Breton costume for special ceremonies – such as when the relics of St. Sény are paraded through the streets of the village on his feast day or pardon. On one autumn visit a few years ago we were drummed into attending these classes. It was really an excuse for everyone to gather for some fun, some music and a verre d'amitié but the teacher took it all very seriously. We were the most useless students, except for the village policeman who had recently arrived from elsewhere in France. As we linked little fingers, rolled our arms first clockwise, then anti-clockwise, and shuffled around the room treading on peoples' toes and giggling the policemen commented glumly to us that we were okay as we were going back to England before the next session but his wife had signed him up every Thursday night for the next twelve weeks! Even today we shrank into a corner in case anyone remembered our lessons and dragged us out to join in the circle!
Monday 30th July 2007, On board the Pont Abbé ferry between Roscoff and Plymouth
We have been having such a grand time in Brittany we forgot about coming home! We arrived at the port late last night to await the ferry departure early this morning, only to find everywhere completely deserted! When we found and checked our ticket it was to discover we'd missed the boat which had left early Sunday, rather than Monday! We felt rather stupid as we settled alone on a vast empty concourse beside the deserted dock to sleep, having decided there wasn't much we could do about it until the morning. We slept really deeply and woke to the sound of the ferry docking as it arrived from Plymouth. The lady from Brittany Ferries at reception was charming, realising immediately that she was dealing with a pair of pensioners who were beginning to lose their marbles. She clicked her mouse a couple of times, charged us 7 euros (£5) and directed us off towards hot showers and coffee!
There was no early ferry this morning so we have had to wait until 4.30pm to finally leave France but it did give us an extra, sunny day around the coast and Roscoff.
The town is famed for its onion sellers who would regularly take the ferry across to England with bicycles loaded with strings of pink onions. How it could have been economically viable is questionable. There is a museum in the town devoted entirely to the Breton onion industry and the lives of the onion sellers. The author Alexander Dumas happened fortuitously to be staying in Roscoff as he reached the letter O while writing his dictionary of French cuisine, so was able to include Ragout d'onions!
Yesterday it was pouring with rain and we were beginning to tire of playing Incy Wincy Spider with the children so went off for a ride in Modestine along the coast to look at the Abers. These are drowned river valleys stretching well back inland that have become flooded by the sea. Brittany is remarkably like Cornwall and under a wet mizzle it has a definite Celtic charm. There were few people out and all the villages were deserted. Eventually we passed through a village and discovered a queue right down the street waiting to be served at the bakery. In St.Renan we found the remnants of the market being cleared away, the wet stallholders eager to get home for Sunday lunch and to dry out.
We drove down into the city of Brest hoping for some animation on a wet Sunday. It is really a very uninspiring place, just as deserted as the surrounding villages. As a badly bombed naval port during the Second World War it had been entirely rebuilt. It is one of the most ugly, purely functional modern cities we have seen. It parallels Plymouth in many ways, both being destroyed ports and both ending up rebuilt as architectural disasters. Plymouth however, is a far more interesting city and more of the older housing around the centre has been preserved than is the case in Brest. Along the promenade overlooking the commercial port and the citadel there are pleasant public gardens, but the rest of the town is really dismal. Even on a sunny day boredom would rapidly set in.
On our way back to Guissény, still in the rain, we stopped at the little town of Landernau with its famed mediaeval bridge complete with houses and shops, the river running under low arches beneath the slate hung buildings. In the street crossing the bridge Celtic music was being played on a flute and there was the inevitable line of Breton dancers enjoying an impromptu concert. It was the liveliest place we had found all day.
Next though, we had to hurry back to Guissény for the second day of the fête at le Curnic. This is probably the reason we got confused about our return ferry as we had been excited to hear Joël would be playing the bagpipes at the festival. Would it still take place in the rain? Would we find the beach deserted? As we arrived the rain eased and we were just in time to hear the sound of the Celtic band as it made its way down to the sea, accompanied by dancers in traditional costume.
The entire village seemed to have turned out again. People were drinking cider, eating Breton pancakes (crêpes) and the mobile canteen was cooking hundreds more sausages and chips. As the band arrived we all gathered around the stage where we were treated to a series of complex dances from ladies wearing lacy caps and men in black waitcoats and wide-brimmed hats. The Guissény band consisted of three sets of bagpipes known as binious and various wheezy clarinet-like instruments called bombardes. The players were smartly dressed in their cream and burgundy tunics and we felt very proud of our friend Joël, seeing him for the first time as he played in public. When we first knew him he was just starting to learn and we also recall him playing for us as we practiced our dance steps around the dining room table with Danielle after our memorable lesson in the village hall.
It was time for us to leave. After hugs, bisous and farewells we left the entire family to enjoy their sausages at the fête and made our way through a sun-drenched countryside along the coast towards Roscoff. After the rain of the day, the sunlight and the sunset were particularly beautiful. It is still clear daylight at 10pm here and we were able to drive over to Morlaix to stroll around the town, admire the impressive viaduct across the river and find somewhere for supper. We returned along the river estuary towards Roscoff where the sun was sinking as a scarlet ball in one direction as the huge, orange harvest moon was rising in another.
So that's it for now. We are at last heading home after four more months of travel. It's still an amazing and wonderful way to spend retirement and we appreciate how lucky we are. It is good though to know we have a home to come back to and another life beyond Modestine. Things are appreciated more when they are in contrast and after months of coping with the unexpected at almost every turn, it will be good to be back in our own home amongst family and friends for a while. No doubt there will be further travels but just now it will be good not to have our lives disciplined by maintaining this blog!!