August 19, 2009
Missillac, Brittany, France
There are regions that hold you at arm’s length. Brittany’s coast of twisted bays and knotted granite cliffs defies casual exploration by summer tourists. The peninsula that you see faintly at the other side of the water may be an hour’s drive away or it may be three, or it may be on an island accessible only by boat. There are chateaux and thatched cottages hidden here and there, but all you see from the main road are identical modern houses, white and square as elsewhere in France, though stamped with traditional Breton granite lintels and slate roofs as a sign of geographic solidarity.
We are staying near Nantes, just north of the Loire estuary, on the edge of the Brière marsh, our destination chosen on a whim after watching an episode of Des racines et des ailes, a French documentary series. We’re on the edge of the region, and Brittany as I thought I knew it (having never before visited the region) is north, or northwest, as my husband corrects me. So far, we’ve spent our days wandering everywhere but the Brière – inaccessible except by boat, we’ve learned. We turn to the ocean instead.
But it is surprisingly difficult to approach the sea. It is everywhere, and the coastline snakes up riverbeds to meet villages and plays hide-and-seek among the salt beds and sand dunes. Yet even my husband, who is obsessed with maps since childhood, seems anxious when he tries to pinpoint the best place to land. Between sandy beach, muddy tide flat, windy cliff, forest-ringed cove with silent green water, you must navigate carefully. I can guess the terrain well enough from the detailed IGN maps my husband brought along, but the distances between ports and inland villages still deceive. We are mariners searching the horizon for blue water and not for dry land.
Tréhegieur was our first port of call, a village on the southern bank of the Vilaine river where it widens into the sea. There were working boats in the port, equipped with mussel farming gear, mechanical arms to pull the clusters of shells from their poles. In my constant, frivolous quest for authenticity, I was happy to see that a large, old granite house with carved window frames stood across from the port. A small stone chapel nearby was converted into a shop selling local seafood and seemed to do a brisk business. The tide was out and I breathed in the smell of salt- and sun-soaked mud.
We then headed for Pénestin, weaving our way up around the headland to the south of the Vilaine, where there were more identical white beach cottages. We thought we’d gotten lost in the looping subdivisions when we saw the parking lot for the beach. It was half-past seven in the evening, the time when all self-respecting French vacationers are heading back to start the barbecue and open up a chilled bottle of rosé, so we were swimming upstream against the crowd as we hiked down to the beach. We stripped le Petit down to his diaper and t-shirt and ran alongside him as he went off to splash in the water.
With a sandy cliff behind us and granite stacks of rocks just beyond the edge of the surf, the beach looked just like home to me. It could have been any beach along Washington’s Pacific coast, except that the lapping waves apparently couldn’t be counted on to move gnarled driftwood tree trunks and, I noted with surprise, the water was warm. The sand was fine, gray, muddy, and punctuated with rocks covered with seaweed and mussels. I was in love. “All the beaches in Brittany are like this, I’m afraid,” my husband sighed, as le Petit ran around and gleefully jumped in the puddles left by the tide.
The next morning was market day in Pénestin. We parked as best we could just out of town and followed the flood of tourists pushing strollers and carrying shopping baskets into downtown. It was a summer market like in every other coastal town in France, with stalls hawking sandals and cheap t-shirts, others local honey and sea salt caramel, fresh fish, local cheese or imported olives, or piles of bright ripe peaches, tomatoes, and apricots. I was bewildered, a tourist lost in the herd, but my husband found Breton artichokes, peppers and fresh beans to buy, stocked up on apricots for le Petit and fresh goat cheese for me. It was well past one o’clock when we got back to the house we’d rented, and by the time we’d eaten lunch it was le Petit’s long, late naptime.
We studied the map. There was a beach near the port of La Turballe, a long, westward-facing stretch of sand that according to the guide was beautiful at sunset. When we arrived it was well-past seven and the beach was nearly empty. As with most difficult to access beaches in France, the furthest reaches were clothing-optional; prudishly American as I am, I averted my eyes as we hiked well to the modest side of the “Beyond this point correct apparel is required” sign. “This is a real beach,” my husband approved, “With sand dunes and pines. No mud. No rocks.” All the beaches of my husband’s childhood were reached by sandy paths through pine forests. Le Petit and I were less convinced; it was beautiful but windy, and we both shivered when we left the water, but the sunset painted the sand a warm gold.
The next day we headed west to where the Pointe de Penvins jutted out into a calm sea and lobster boats dropped traps into the water. It was hard to imagine the shipwreck in the aftermath of which a chapel was erected on the grassy point. The beach stretched away to one side in a crescent, and we could just see the château of Suscinio behind the dunes at the far end of the cove. We’d planned to hike to it, but le Petit had other ideas, so we set down our backpack and let le Petit play for an hour in the surf. We later spied the château from the car, a half-ruined fortified castle rising above the salt marsh.
In the evening we drove to the small point of Pen-Lan on the northern edge of the mouth of the Vilaine, where a demur lighthouse kept a lower profile than the granite steeple of the village church, also shaped remarkably like a lighthouse, probably to confound tourists. I went for a run along the trail up the river while my husband hiked with le Petit on his back. We stopped together at a rocky beach ringed with tide pools.
On Tuesday we headed north (no, west!) to the far edge of the Golfe du Morbihan, an enclosed bay studded with countless islands and carved by small, winding coastal rivers. The road kept frustratingly far away from the coast, and I had the feeling of visiting the bay without ever seeing it. We hiked up the side of a salty riverbed from the river port of Bono on a path shaded by oak and pine. We passed egrets and herons, several rotting half-drowned rowboats, a château and an old tidal-powered mill rumored to have once housed pirates.
We had lunch at a crêperie in Baden, and enjoyed crispy buckwheat crepes so rich they seemed to sweat butter. Le Petit ate his crepe with his hands, delighted to pull it apart and find ham inside. My husband ate his with a fork, and was no less delighted with the combination of tripe sausage and apples. I shrugged; to each his own. We ordered sweet crepes for dessert, caramel apple and calvados-drenched pear, and ice cream for le Petit, which he refused to eat. Naptime was on the road, and we crept up one peninsula after another while le Petit slept: Locmariaquer, La Trinité-sur-Mer, Quiberon. We drove through the fields of prehistoric menhirs, slowing to a crawl to admire the rows of granite boulders from the car window.
Somewhere near the isthmus of Quiberon le Petit woke up. After some bickering, we decided to stop at the beach. A good choice: between running up and down the beach as fast as he could, splashing in the surf, endlessly refilling the moat of a sandcastle and playing in the waves with my husband, le Petit seemed to have never had such fun. It dawned on me that not since I was a kid had I enjoyed the beach so much myself.
Today was market day in Guérande. The fortified city, aloof, surveys the ocean at a conservative distance from behind its marshy salt fields. Bags of traditionally-produced salt were for sale, along with striped Breton sailor shirts, caramel and shortbread cookies, and all the usual tourist delights. We bought le Petit a blue and cream-colored striped shirt that he refused to try on in the shop. The bright colors of the market seemed out of step with the severe granite façades, and the whole had the look of a high school play staged with a borrowed set. I imagined the same scene in winter, when the souvenir shops would be deserted.
It is Wednesday, and we’ll be leaving in three days. I realize that I’ve just started to discover a hundred kilometers of Brittany’s southern coast, which is nothing at all. I can sketch the real Brittany with the faintest of lines now, but with the map spread out in front of me I see what’s left: west to the islands of the Finisterre, north to the channel coast, the highlands and forests inland, and everywhere bays, inlets, mountains. There are worse things than feeling obliged to come back.