Photos by Teddy Verneuil - Text by Nicola Clark
For those drawn to the roar of the waves and the invigorating sea air, Brittany’s coast beckons. This is a region rich in contrasts, with its jutting granite cliffs, sprawling turquoise beaches, tranquil coves and fertile estuaries. Nestled among the natural splendor are scores of vibrant towns and villages that brim with seafaring tradition, fine art, architectural splendor and – of course – delicious food.
If France’s far-west doesn’t often feature on the itineraries of foreign visitors, it’s partly because it can take so long to get to: Finistère – the department that juts deepest into the Atlantic Ocean – literally derives from the Latin phrase “end of the earth.” Those willing to make the journey, however, will be rewarded by its dazzling landscapes and charmed by the richness of Breton life, history and culture.
Lorient, a four-hour journey by TGV train from Paris, is a convenient gateway for discovering this enchanting region. Founded in the 17th century, Lorient – in the department of Morbihan – served as a major port of the French East India Company, which traded in textiles, porcelain and exotic spices. Thanks to its strategic location, Lorient later became a significant base for the French Navy – a factor that eventually led to its heavy bombardment during World War II.
The city that eventually emerged from the post-war reconstruction is now a thriving nautical and cultural center, with a population of around 60,000. Its sparkling waterfront and sailboat marina are ringed by lively bars and restaurants, while the pedestrianized center offers plenty of opportunities for shopping. Don’t miss Les Halles de Merville, a covered market that’s open daily and where you can buy and sample many Breton delicacies, including fresh seafood (of course!), luscious strawberries and mouth watering cheeses.
In addition to being France’s largest commercial fishing center, Lorient is also a popular leisure port that welcomes sailors as well as cruise ships to its docks. Regular ferry services also offer sea crossings to the nearby island of Groix, with its stunning beaches and lighthouses that are easily, and pleasantly, reachable by bicycle. An excursion to the citadel of Port-Louis, with its fortifications designed by Louis XIV’s master engineer, Vauban, is also worth the detour, as are the vast, windswept beaches of Gâvres nearby.
Less than an hour’s drive east, you will find the picturesque town of Vannes, with its historic ramparts and gardens, as well as the impressive gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, whose construction spanned seven centuries. Head south and explore Quiberon and its eponymous bay, bounded by 35 kilometers (22 miles) of wild dunes. To the west, you’ll find the fascinating walled port of Concarneau, as well as Pont-Aven, home of an artists’ colony founded by Paul Gaugin. Perhaps your curiosity and sense of adventure will take you as far as the Pointe du Raz, the western-most point of the French hexagone, where – if you timing is right – you could witness the sunset of a lifetime.
Wherever your journey takes you, this special corner of France is guaranteed to impress and send you home with enduring memories of its wild beauty.
Things To Do
While it’s possible to visit Île de Groix in a day, there is so much to see and do that it is well worth a longer detour. Ferries depart regularly from the port of Lorient between April and September for the 45-minute crossing. If you do make time to explore the singular ambiance of this regional jewel, a rented bicycle is by far your best option. The beaches of Groix are nothing short of miraculous in their beauty, and you are guaranteed to be charmed by its lighthouses and the many colorful cottages that dot its winding roads.
Another island not to be missed is Belle-Île-en-Mer, reachable by boat year-round from the port of Quiberon (50 minutes), or from Vannes, Port Navalo, Le Croisic and La Turballe between April and September. The largest of an island chain called the Pontant, Belle-Île (“beautiful island”) boasts a number of impressive sites, including Vauban’s Citadel, the needle rock formations of Port-Coton (immortalized by Monet) and the nearby lighthouse at Goulphar.
Situated at the mouth of the Blavet river, which flows into the Bay of Lorient, Port-Louis was a major hub of commerce for the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. Coveted by the Spanish and the French, it changed hands several times. It was Louis XIII who finally decided to fortify the site, surrounding the harbor with massive stone walls and guard towers. Port-Louis eventually became the base of the French trading company, La Compagnie des Indes. It was also briefly a jail, whose most famous prisoner was Louis Napoléon Bonaparte – nephew of the emperor Napoléon I – after he led a failed coup d’état in 1836.
A trip to the village of Pont-Scorff will give you a taste of the calm of inland life as you stroll through its bucolic streets that branch out from the central market square, Place de la Maison des Princes. The village is home to a vibrant community of artists, including painters, sculptors, potters and jewelers. Nature lovers will be happy to discover the many walking and cycling trails that surround Pont-Scorff, while gourmands will find plenty of options for a delicious meal.
Penetrating the imposing walls of this ancient town feels like entering a time machine. It’s unique architecture and historic sites have been impeccably preserved, making a stroll along its picturesque streets a true pleasure. With its many museums, galleries and inviting boutiques, Vannes has more than earned its designation as a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire from the Ministry of Culture. Take your time to explore the medieval ramparts, the cathedral and the esplanade by the old port.
Arriving in Pont-Aven can feel like walking into a painting – for good reason. This quant village nestled alongside a quiet harbor continues to attract artists from all over with its extraordinary light and charming, colorful streets. In the latter half of the 19th century, it became a base for a colony of impressionist painters, including Paul Gaugin, who spent a couple of years here. A walking trail from the center of town passes through lush forests and pastures to a 15th century tidal mill and estuary that attracts migrating birds. Explore the nearby villages of thatched houses of Kerascoët and Kercanic to discover the picturesque and typical Breton chaumières – stone cottages with thatched roofs.
The seaside fortress at the center of Concarneau, which first appeared on maps from the 11th century, is known as the Ville Close (closed city). Once an important military stronghold, it is accessible by a small ferryboat that departs from the Passage, the former fishing district. In later eras, wealthy fishermen developed the town on the mainland, constructing grand villas and hotels along the shore. Concarneau eventually became a fashionable vacation destination at the end of the 19th century. More recently, its emerging restaurant scene has started to attract food lovers from all over France and beyond.
Where To Stay
Where To Eat
Venelle de Rosmadec, 29930 Pont-Aven
The Moulin de Rosmadec has the distinction of being the first restaurant in Finistère to be awarded a Michelin star, back in 1993. Local delicacies – including spider crabs, lobster and Plougastel strawberries – bathed in delicate sauces and subtle seasonings, get the star treatment here. Be sure to request a riverside table on the magical terrace!
158, rue du Pô, 56340 Carnac
Inside this typical fisherman’s house tucked behind an oyster bed is a renowned eatery that specializes in grilled fish and seafood. The chefs will cheerfully prepare your fresh turbot, sole, lobster (or your favorite cut of meat) before your eyes in the grand stone fireplace, while owner Alexandru Carausu engages with his guests – regulars and visitors alike. Alexandru knows the region like the back of his hand and can also advise you about local events and points of interests.
4 rue Duquesne, 29900 Concarneau
This restaurant is hidden down an alley behind the marina. Chef Cédric Rivière’s kitchen takes pride in using only ultra-fresh, local ingredients: seafood, of course, but also Breton pork, Bruyère Blanche poultry, as well as free-range eggs and excellent homemade breads made from sarrasin, the buckwheat flour used widely in this region. The service is discrete and personalized and the wine list pleasantly inspired.