Southern Brittany

Sunday 22nd July 2007, Ancenis, near Nantes, Loire Valley
Having left Pocé with great reluctance this morning we are now making our way along the north bank of the Loire towards Nantes. Since we started our travels back in 2005 we have travelled much of the length of the Loire from its source right down to its estuary. During its travels from the Cevennes to Brittany it has matures from a lively, bubbling stream to a sedate, matronly river flowing lazily between islands and wide sand banks.

The Loire at Montsoreau

Cave dwellings along the Loire

We are making our way towards Guissény to spend a couple of days with our friend Joël before taking the Roscoff ferry home next week. Never having seen Nantes we have decided to spend a night here at Ancenis as a convenient stop for the city. During the evening we took a stroll beside the Loire and around the town. It is pleasant enough but has nothing of outstanding merit as far as we can tell. It is the home town of the 16th century poet Joachim du Bellay, whose works Ian studied at university. (Jill's formative literary experiences in French started, and practically ended, with Les recrées du petit Nicholas and Les aventures de Tintin!) Following temperatures of 30 degrees for most of the day it has now suddenly decided to rain heavily and we have been driven inside for the night.

Joachim du Bellay, Ancenis

Monday 23rd July 2007, La Roche Bernard, Brittany
Just occasionally during this series of travels with Modestine our route has overlapped with the one travelled last year. Today it crossed on a roundabout, entering and leaving by the two opposite roads that we used in April 2006 as we made our way from Brittany to the Loire! The two routes also converged near the entrance to our present campsite which last year we placed very near the top of a rather short list of good sites worth returning to. It is just as good this time and worth the drive from Nantes to find it again.

We will not guide you around the delightful little town of La Roche Bernard on the estuary of the river Vilaine in southern Brittany as we did so during our earlier visit. You can take a tour and see our pictures for 20th April 2006.

It rained very heavily all last night. The couple next to us had arrived on a couple of bicycles with a tiny tent that definitely did not look waterproof. They had eyed Modestine with envy even before the rain and we felt quite guilty being warm and dry this morning. We can just about pick up the BBC news now we are back within range of Britain and we have been horrified to hear of the dreadful flooding and rains in central England. We sincerely hope none of our friends have been afflicted. Attempts to phone Neil and Jeev have proved impossible but we picked up an email saying the landline isn't functioning because of the floods.

Partly because of the rain we decided to drive into Nantes rather than walking to the station at Ancenis and returning to the same campsite after a day around the city. We are glad we did. Parking was straightforward and eventually we found out how and where to catch the tramway into the city centre – except that it wasn't running because of road works but a relief bus took us in instead.

Almost the only thing we knew about Nantes until today is that there was an edict here in 1598 signed by Henri IV in an attempt to resolve the religious problems between the French Catholics and the Huguenots. Unfortunately it did not succeed as it was later revoked. We are now very slightly wiser about other aspects of the history of both Brittany and Nantes.

French history of the 15th and 16th centuries is very complex with various dukedoms existing in parallel with the French monarchy. In Brittany the region was ruled first by François II and then by his daughter Anne de Bretagne, from the castle in Nantes.

Nantes is regarded as the capital of Brittany, an honour it has sometimes shared with Rennes. It lies on the estuary of the Loire and since the river has silted up, making it too shallow for shipping, it is served by the naval port of St. Nazaire.

The city was badly damaged in the Second World War and has been largely rebuilt, generally quite sympathetically. The old town around the Eglise Sainte Croix is still full of narrow streets with crumbling tenements and warehouses. Nearby is the late gothic Cathedral which internally is very imposing. Begun in 1434, high columns give an impression of great height as they soar, without capitals, straight up to the roof. To one side lies the beautiful marble tomb of François II and Marguerite de Foix commissioned by their daughter Anne de Bretagne in 1502. Marble figures representing various virtues stand at each corner. On the far side of the Cathedral is a 19th century monument to General Lamoricière surrounded by bronze allegorical figures. A modern bronze statue of Anne de Bretagne stands at the entrance to her magnificently restored and picturesque castle surrounded by a moat and pretty gardens. We crossed the courtyards and spent time between the bouts of rain exploring the ramparts which gave us a good impression of the city. From here we wondered about a curious building which turned out to have been a 19th century biscuit factory called LU producing the chocolate coated biscuits known as Petit Ecolier. Ian has always been addicted to them so was quite delighted to discover their origine. Today the factory has moved elsewhere and the original building is a cultural centre. LU now stands for Lieu Unique!

Eglise Sainte Croix, Nantes

Cathedral, Nantes

Tomb of François II and Marguerite de Foix , Nantes Cathedral

Anne de Bretagne, Nantes

Cathedral seen from the castle ramparts, Nantes

Castle walls and moat, Nantes

Castle courtyard, Nantes

Former LU biscuit factory, Nantes

Across the main thoroughfare is the "modern" part of the town full of 18th and 19th century houses, commercial buildings, an impressive theatre and an attractive square – Place Royale - reconstructed after the war, with a fountain symbolising Nantes and its maritime history in the centre. We thought it was in process of restoration but apparently the scaffolding is some sort of art installation and people were queuing to climb up onto the platform constructed around the fountain to see the interior of a temporary hotel room and the top half of the fountain! It all seemed a bit weird and we couldn't be bothered to queue in the rain so instead went off to explore the delightful Pommeraye arcade built in 1843.

Art installation, Place Royale, Nantes

Arcade de Pommeraye, Nantes

The public library was closed but outside someone had scrawled a grammatically incorrect graffiti message – "Culture is expensive, try ignorance." Speaks for itself dunnit?

Question - Who needs libraries? Answer – French grafitti writers, Nantes

We walked down to the banks of the river by which time the rain had started again in earnest so we gave up on the botanical gardens and, pausing only for Jill to fall over on a slippery wet grating, bruise her posterior and get hauled back onto her feet by a gallant Breton, we made our way back to Modestine.

In the past we have seen Nantes in the distance as we have skirted it in various travels around Loire Atlantique. Big cities are never easy to absorb and getting to their centre always takes planning. Certainly one wet day in Nantes was insufficient to get more than an impression. It is a pleasant city with a canalised river, the Erdre, running into the Loire. Boat trips and water buses take passengers through the city as well as the buses and trams. There are literary connections with Jules Verne who came from Nantes, and Alphonse Daudet, who set scenes from his novels in the city.

We left Nantes along a very wet and congested motorway. Progress was slow and unpleasant until we eventually left it and followed departmental roads across country, through a large area of marshland from where salt used to be extracted. By early evening we reached La Roche Bernard to discover we were still in the campsite database from our last visit so all formalities were dispensed with. Later, the rain having been chased away at last by the sunshine, we ate a hot supper outside cooked in our tiny portable oven. An Englishman can to chat, telling us he now lived in France and had come here for his holidays. He sold up in Bedfordshire and bought a canal boat, moored near Calais, and a camping car. They live on the boat and travel around in the camper. They are sixty-eight and love every second of their new lives. They say they don't speak much French but would never dream of going back to England. We wonder if they will feel the same ten years from now!

Tuesday 24th July 2007, Pont Aven, Brittany
We have to say that last night we did not sleep well and last year's impression of the campsite at La Roche-Bernard has taken a knock. It is not really the fault of the campsite but we were permanently disturbed during the night by the hum of mosquitoes around our ears. How they managed to get through the insect screen we do not know. Ian lashed around with a fly swat, zapped a few and banged himself painfully on the nose, and we went back to sleep. This became a regular pattern throughout the night until we fell into an exhausted doze around 6am. At 7am the municipal lorry arrived to collect the bottles for recycling. We had inadvertently parked just on the other side of the hedge! Deciding we might as well count out any further chance of sleep Jill went off to the shower and slipped on the soapy remains left by the previous user! Not only did I land right on the same bruise as the one I got in Nantes yesterday, I managed to bruise my back on the glass shower screen as I fell! Feeling shocked and miserable I sat in the shower tray under the jet of tepid water and cried! I seem to have fallen, twisted ankles, stubbed toes and generally suffered personal physical damage so many times in France it seemed like the last straw!

Crying is a bit pointless when there is nobody around to sympathise. Dry and dressed back at Modestine, Ian administered the necessary sympathy together with a cup of tea and breakfast. My multiple bruises are starting to turn pretty colours and if they are really spectacular my posterior may even appear on the blog in a day or two as a modern work of art!

Candidate for the Turner Prize? School of Hard Knocks. Large research grant and eager models required to develop this new genre of human art.

Looking at our road map there are not that many places of note we have not already visited along the coast of Southern Brittany. Lorient was an obvious exception but as 85% of the town was destroyed during the war and it has since been almost entirely rebuilt we did not think we would find much to interest us. Instead we followed minor roads around the Golfe du Morbihan and stopped at Port Louis, just across the water from Lorient. The little town was renamed after Louis XIII when it became a commercial port, established by Richlieu who set up the India Company there, to trade with the far East and bring spices back to Europe. It was not completely successful and was later re-established across the estuary at Lorient – hence the name. From then on Port Louis declined. Today it is an attractive little granite town with an economy based on tourism as well as tuna fishing. During the Second World War its 17th century fort was occupied by the Germans and across the sea at Lorient they constructed a large submarine base for their U-boats. There are several monuments in Port Louis in memory of its residents who were either shot or deported by the Nazis.

Entrance to the fort of Port Louis

View towards Lorient from the ramparts of Port Louis

German submarine base, Lorient

In memory of residents killed by the Nazis, Port Louis

A more happy aspect of Port Louis

We walked around the impressive granite ramparts in the hot afternoon sun before exploring the port and wandering through the streets of the town where an evening market was being set up. From the bakers we shared a piece of far Breton – a cholesterol laden batter pudding loaded with prunes and sugar - enjoying the nostalgic taste of Brittany.

Eventually we made our way back along the coastal footpath to Modestine and continued on to Lorient. As we expected, it is a large modern town. It looked clean but unremarkable as we drove through and we did not stop. The roads are busier in southern Brittany than anywhere else we have been in France but this is probably because we are now in the middle of French school holidays. Just outside of Lorient we passed through the seaside resort of Guidel-Plages. It was chaotic! Nose to tail traffic crawled slowly along the seafront and there was not a parking space anywhere. Campsites all along the coast are mainly full and quite expensive. We continued towards Pont Aven, a pretty fishing town famed as the home of the expressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Just before we reached the town we found a campsite that seems quite pleasant in the usual eccentric way of French campsites and are happily settled for the night. It has unisex showers, wash basins and toilets – including urinals surrounded by mirrors but no doors! It is nearly 16 euros for the night, rather than the 10 we paid last night.

Wednesday 25th July 2007, Châteauneuf-du-Faou, Brittany
This series of travels is fast drawing to an end and this may well be the last night we camp as tomorrow evening we will be with Joël in Guissény until we return to England.

We left the campsite, which apart from the really inhibiting and strange sanitaires, was fine, and drove down to Pont Aven on the estuary of the river Aven. It is to Brittany what Newlyn is to Cornwall. It was a magnet for artists in the 19th century, the Pont Aven school making great use of vivid colour, influenced primarily by Paul Gaugin whose works include not only local scenes from southern Brittany, but vividly coloured scenes painted in Polynesia where he later travelled and died.

The town is really pretty and therefore an obvious Mecca of tourism. We were there quite early, even finding time for a stroll through the lovely Bois d'Amour beside the river and the old mill featured by Gaugin in his paintings. In the town we browsed the little shops selling very attractive Breton souvenirs including cider, biscuits, Quimper pottery and butter cakes. We felt very contented as we enjoyed coffee in the sunshine and listened to the many different languages being spoken around us – Italian, Dutch, German and English as well as French.

Scene beside the river Aven painted by Paul Gaugin

Mill painted by Gaugin, Pont Aven

Town of Pont Aven

Public toilets, Breton style, overhanging the river at Pont Aven

We continued around the coast to Concarneau with its fortified old town on an island in the middle of the harbour. There are several magnificently engineered fortifications along the coast of Brittany, apart from Concarneau and Port Louis there is of course the classic fortified town of St. Malo.

Ville Close, Concarneau

National marine research laboratory, Concarneau

Most of the rest of the day has been spent around Concarneau, a lovely town with sailing and fishing boats crowding the harbour, and the narrow streets of the fortified Ville Close, devoid of traffic, thronging with tourists, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, museums and even an open air theatre and a small park. We climbed onto the walls of the fortification with its high granite crenelations defending it on one side, and nothing on the other! It was quite unnerving at times to see an unfenced drop down into the streets or the waters of the harbour. Below, just inside the main entrance, musicians were entertaining visitors with traditional Breton music, using bagpipes and flutes.

Inside the fortified walls of the Ville Close, Concarneau

Walls of the Ville Close, Concarneau

Musicians entertain the holiday makers, Concarneau

Our travels continued to the small town of Rosporden. Our son Neil once went on a school exchange here and we subsequently visited his hosts and spent a night in the town. We recognised very little and could not recall at all where we had stayed. It seemed rather a quite little place though the church, reflected in the lake was most attractive.

Church at Rosporden

English friends of Ian's moved to Brittany some ten years ago and set up a business running holiday workshops in patchwork and quilting in the Montagnes Noires of Finistère. We have called on then several times over the years as we have passed by. We have recently been trying to phone them without success so called by this evening unannounced. We were shocked to discover the house deserted and up for sale, the garden looking sadly overgrown and abandoned. According to the lady in the village library one of our friends has died and the other returned to England. As we have been travelling for much of the past two years we have not always been able to stay in regular contact with people so this has come as a complete shock to us. It also underlines what we have always said about English couples who move to live abroad. It is fine until one is ill or dies. In this case it is particularly difficult. We know our remaining friend does not have family in England and as it is obviously proving difficult to sell the house, money is tied up in France rather than being available as capital to buy anywhere back home. Tomorrow we hope to contact the notaire responsible for the sale of the house to ask if he can put us in contact with our friend as we have no other way of finding him.

Empty and overgrown, the end of a happy dream

Because his office is in the vicinity we have decided to find a campsite nearby. The rain has returned and we are on a sadly bedraggled site in the deserted heart of inland Brittany as the rain patters ceaselessly on the roof. We have watched a video, eaten everything left in the fridge and as it is now black and muddy outside we may as well retire to bed for the night.