Friday, September 14, 2007

Little Britain

It's only a small hop, skip and jump from Amiens to Calais and the English channel where scores of ferries cross the busy straights every day ... so how come I'm still in France? Well, I've never been one to take the most obvious route and have taken a little detour to visit Brittany. Though not originally part of my plans I decided to come here as I was in the area (well, at least in the same country) and had never been before, and because the first people who I met on this trip, almost three years ago in Creel) and with whom I am still in touch live here and they invited me to visit. Jean-Luc and Nadine live in Brest at the western tip of the French mainland. The city itself is rather ho-hum with little to interest the casual visitor unless they are big fans of military hardware as Brest is the main base for the French navy and especially its nuclear submarines. But one doesn't visit Brittany for the cities, but for the coastal landscapes and villages imbibed with the distinct Breton culture. Earlier the region used to be called Lesser Britain (to differentiate it from Great Britain), and for good reason, as the similarities are many.

Traditionally the Bretons speak a Celtic language descended from Cornish and their music and folklore heritage, of which they are inordinately proud, has also more in common with the British Celts. Bagpipes, whistles and fiddles inhabit their music accompanied by repetitive chants. But it is also in the terrain and countryside that I am seeing similarities with my childhood memories of Scotland. The Breton peninsula is full of small rolling hills covered by heather and bracken and bisected by narrow, winding roads hemmed in by tall bramble hedges. Small villages and farmsteads dot the landscape, built low and sturdy out of the local granite and topped with grey, slate roofs, to withstand the howling winds that come in off the Atlantic. Cows can be found in every field, providing the butter that forms the basis of the cholesterol-laden Breton cuisine. I had been hoping to hitch a ride on a boat back to England and spent several afternoons to this end, going down to the marina and asking random boat owners whether they were heading north. Personally, following my experience in Djibouti I wasn't holding out that much hope, but then today I came across an older English couple who accepted so readily that it left me somewhat bewildered. If all goes well we sail on Monday night with the tide.

This left me with a bit of time to spend discovering Brest and its surroundings. Nadine and Jean-Luc were kind enough to show me some of the more out-of-the-way corners of this pretty region, especially along the northern coast where large groups of boulders reach dangerously out into the sea and small coves hide beautiful little beaches with perfect white sand (not that, apart from quick ritual dip of my hands, I was going anywhere near the cold waters of the channel). I also popped over to the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English), the westernmost part of France (in the photo below I am at the westernmost tip of the island). I spent the day wandering along the coastal paths that gave views over the unending expanse of the Atlantic, which was behaving itself and very calm that day. And now I'm looking forward, not without a little trepidation, to the last leg of my journey and how things will turn out once I return home.

1 comment:

Mignon said...

Good post.