Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Belle Ile

Back in the summer of 2003, a friend and I tried to go on a trip to Brittany. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of a massive train strike and the man at the ticket office just laughed at us and told us to go and ride our bikes in the forest instead. I suspect that we probably did.

And so it was that I had a dream of north-west France long before I went there. In my head, Brittany was the wild, Celtic west of France, and my imagination was fuelled by images of ragged coastline under permanent attack from an angry sea, with hinterlands covered in heathery scrub and fiddle music in every pub.

I didn't want to admit it to myself, but the first time I actually found myself en Bretagne, I was a little disappointed. The sea was a gorgeous azure blue, the coastline was somewhat rocky and the gwenn ha dubh fluttered from the ramparts of Saint-Malo but the beaches were seaside resorts patterned with stripy parasols arranged in perfect rows and the coastal path was a concrete promenade bordered by the civilised gardens of English-style houses. (The crepes, on the other hand, were delicious.)

Since then I've learned a little more. West of Dinard, the sentier des Douaniers winds its way along an increasingly wild coast where modern bungalows and sandcastle shops are interspersed with promontories covered with heather and gorse. Particularly inland, the pretty stone cottages are there, and I even managed to find the fiddle music in Normandy. Still missing, though, were the jagged rocks and the roaring waves, and those magnificent lighthouses surrounded by clouds of sea-spray that you see on Breton calendars everywhere.

And then I went to Belle-Ile, and found everything that I was looking for.

Le Palais
We took the ferry from Quiberon, arriving at Le Palais just after 11am. You can also sail from Vannes and tickets from either cost about 30 euros return. I would have bought a day ticket for the bus but Understanding Frenchman was feeling adventurous and wanted to hire a scooter. By walking a few hundred metres from the sea-front, we were able to find one, but if you're interested in hiring a car (there are some dinky little ones that look like they're made of Lego if you're not bothered about going too fast) it would be worth arriving early or booking in advance. A little fearful, I wrapped my arms around his waist and we were off!

Boats at Sauzon
Our first stop was Sauzon, another port further up the coast, where we ate galettes and kouign amman sitting on a wall, then we made our way west as fast as our little 50cc bike would let us.

Pointe des Poulains
I was already happy with what I had seen and was looking forward to exploring the coastline some more, but when, still a good 5 minute walk from the cliffs at the Pointe des Poulains, we could already sea the waves exploding over the rocks, I realised it was going to be even better than I expected. And I was right. The photos don't really do justice to either the scale or the movement of the water, even although we stayed for at least an hour with me trying to capture everything on camera and Understanding Frenchman being particularly understanding.

After that, we went on to L'Apothecairerie to admire even higher cliffs, a huge natural arch, and this little staircase cut into the rock where you used to be able to walk until it became too dangerous.

Aiguilles du Coton
We had accidentally timed it so that high tide occurred around the time we arrived at the Aiguilles du Coton, so named because the spray rising behind them looks like the heads of cotton plants. The rocks themselves are supposed to resemble Mont-Saint-Michel, a howling dog, a
chicken, a sphinx and the profile of Louis XIV. Can you work out which is which?

We finished by taking a tour around the east end of the island, which was also very pretty, although less exciting, especially as we had mastered the technique of going round the bends on the scooter by that point!


  1. One of my childhood friends is from Belle-Ile. Well, he grew up in Nantes but his entire family is from B-I so he used to spend all his time here and he is truly in love with the place.

    The irony? I never got to visit him there! As teens and students, we were usually too busy with our respective summer jobs and exam preps!

  2. You definitely need to go! I can see how as a teenager, particularly outside of the summer, you might wish you were somewhere else, but as visitor, I've really fallen in love with all the different places you can discover when you scratch beneath the surface. I've only been to Nantes once but I thought it was really pretty.