Islands In The Mist
I had long dreamed of going to Brittany. It isn’t just the wild beauty of this not so well-trodden part of France, celebrated in fiction and poetry for its sea-sculpted granite shores, medieval ramparts, half-timbered houses and tragic tales of seafaring fishermen lost in the treacherous waters off the coast of Iceland, so enduringly immortalised by Pierre Loti in his novel, The Iceland Fisherman. It was an accidental encounter, over 30 years ago, with Yahne le Toumelin, a French Buddhist nun passing through New Delhi.
She was originally from Brittany and a painter who had been introduced to the Parisian world of art by the writer Andre Breton, one of the founders of surrealism. The nun-painter held me spellbound by her stories of Celtic lore; particularly about a goddess called Tara – the subject of a couple of her paintings. I imagined she was a distant cousin of the Taras in our part of the world: Tara is the female counter part of Avalokiteshwara in Buddhism. The luminous quality of Toumelin’s canvases and the way she made light manifest in paint was quite other-worldly. I imagined Brittany would be like this, sublimely mysterious, elemental – surreal actually.
Brittany had to wait, until this summer. It did not disappoint. I almost jumped out of my skin when French friends, Annick and Jerome Adam, invited my husband and me to visit them. They had recently retired to Ploubazlanec, a small village in the extreme North-West of France. Take away the cars and the cell phones and you could be in the 19th century. You can go along a scenic route in Northern Brittany from Paimpol on a steam engine train – La vapeur du Trieux – called tchou-tchou.
It was light years from Paris. The TGV, the superfast train from the Gare de Montparnasse takes three-and-a-half hours to Saint Brieuc, and another hour by road to Ploubazlanec, adjoining the picturesque commune of Paimpol with hundreds of sailboats anchored along its shores.
There is something of a faraway land about this part of Brittany – at the other end of the world some would have it. The ancient name for Brittany is Armorica, the land of the sea, and it has often been described as a junction between an ocean and a continent. The vista where the water ends and the land begins changes perpetually: come high tide all you see is ocean, and when it ebbs, monstrous rocks, pebbles, oyster beds come into view – unveiling as it were the bottom of the ocean.
From our hosts’ home, perched on a bay and walled with climbing, fire-engine-red roses, you can see imposing granite rocks, several islands – and the Atlantic Ocean in the far distance. On a clear day that is. But when fog descends, as it often does, it all looks like an impressionist painting – blurred, poetic and a bit melancholic. Claude Monet would have had a ball with the reclusive light.
I understand the next morning why a certain air of tristesse hovers over the landscape. Actually, make that seascape. We went to the Widows’ Cross (La Croix des Veuves) a few miles away. Here, on an incline, is a rather grim-looking 73-foot granite sculpture made in the beginning of the 18th century. It has stood since then, like a sentinel, on this lookout point where women waited for their husbands to return from cod fishing expeditions in the waters off Iceland. Apparently, on a clear day you can see forever, actually 10 miles. It is commonly believed that from here the eye meets the horizon. Fishermen’s wives stared out as far as they could see, waiting for the sailboats to appear on the distant horizon.
Not all the boats and fishermen did. Our next stop takes us back to Ploubazlanec and to the Church of Sainte Anne. The cemetery attached to it has a wall dedicated to those lost at sea – le mur des Disparus en mer. Many of the wooden panels have disintegrated. However, a few wooden crosses, crowns and photographs are still visible. Fishermen set out between the 16th to the early 20th century from the bay of Paimpol near Ploubazlanec to Newfoundland in search of whale fat and cod fish.
This poignant memorial has the details of shipwrecks from 1852 to 1935, when the last boat named La Butterfly disappeared: the fishing expeditions stopped then. The worst year was 1901, when 117 sailors were lost at sea. Inscribed on each panel is the year, as well as the names of the boats and the number of sailors who never made it back.
Brittany has inspired many painters. There are stunning medieval cathedrals and beautiful abbeys. The Beauport Abbey established by Count Alain de Goelo in 1202 had monks from Ireland. It also became a centre for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela. Quaint little churches dot the landscape. Each village, no matter how small, has one. Most of them are simple and rather cute, and occasionally idiosyncratic: we saw one with a seriously crooked steeple; another is whimsically asymmetrical. Bretons from the extreme north are said to be very religious. Perhaps, the fact that death by water is not uncommon today may be responsible for their traditional evident faith and piety.
Even experienced sailors are in for nasty surprises. The waters appear tranquil, inviting, but the rocks underneath – hidden by the waters – can be as deadly as a minefield. Navigating is all the more challenging because the rocks play a hide-and-seek game with the sailors – visible one moment, totally down-under the next. Even the ubiquitous lighthouses are often literally at sea. And, occasionally, almost swallowed by it.
Northern Brittany’s seascape is two-faced. Its picture-post-card serenity is deceptive, as we saw in Plougrescant, one of the most photographed places in this region, situated a 40-minute drive from Ploubazlenec. The piece-de-resistance is a house, called Castel Meur, which is squeezed between two huge granite boulders – like a foot forced into a small shoe with a shoe horn.
However, to get to this bizarre place you have to negotiate your way through a rather surreal Daliesque landscape of sea-sculpted granite rocks. Down below, on the right, giant waves charge violently through mammoth granite boulders, throwing up sprays of water hundreds of metres. Some years ago the sea was so ferocious that it almost swept away the house: the collapsed cliffs here are testimony to its fury. The bay has an unofficial moniker: Abyss of Hell Bay.
There’s quite a bit of heaven around too. The Island of Brehat, actually two islands joined by a bridge, is considered to be one of the loveliest places in Brittany with its pink granite shores and turquoise water. The pink granite turns red with the setting sun in some parts of the island. Luckily, we have a constant ringside view. Well, almost: water and a 10-minute boatride separate us from it; but, we can see it from the home of our hosts. No cars are allowed in this little bit of paradise which has beautiful homes with gardens and the most amazing flowers and vegetation – like the purple agapanthus, hydrangeas and phoenix palms. Apparently, the Gulf Stream from the North is responsible for the subtropical flowers.
No wonder many Parisians built their summer homes in the area. Across from the Island of Brehat is Launay Bay, which is known as La Petite Sorbonne. A large number of scientists and intellectuals, including a few Nobel laureates moved here during the early part of the 20th century. Marie Curie and her daughter Irene Joliot Curie also had a house here. The most imposing home is a white, double-storied and sprawling mansion which belongs to Liliane Bettencourt, the 89-year-old L’Oreal heiress who recently lost control of the empire. She and her husband Alain Bettencourt entertained a French president or two here.
The fields of Brittany also come alive with the sight of larger-than-life artichokes swaying in the wind. Clearly, it is the land of supersize food: the village markets are full of coeur de boeuf (ox heart) – an enormous, wedged tomato which could weigh a kilo and resembles a huge heart. Buckwheat crepes and cidre is the emblematic dish here. And their patisserie, simple and utterly butterly delicious, is to die for – literally, it is loaded with butter, as are their galettes (biscuits).
I never saw the French Buddhist nun again but thought of her each time we came across light trying to break through the fog and mist that often shrouds the seascape here.
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