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Brittany’s Lighthouses

Of the 148 lighthouses along the French coastline, a third are in Brittany, which can be said to be quite logical in fact because Brittany represents a third of the country’s shoreline. Finistère alone contruibutes 23 of them, located either on the coast or at sea, including the most powerful one in the world, the highest in Europe and the oldest!

For a few years or decades now, there have been no lighthouse keepers, but these edifices dotted along the French coast since the end of the 18th century are still a night-time companion to sailors, and are there to safeguard the passage of all vessels at sea.

Phares de Bretagne

photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Brittany’s dangerous coastline, strong currents and powerful tides are the reasons it has the most navigational aids and markers of all the coastal regions in France, perhaps even in the world. And although until quite recently it was lighthouse keepers who made sure the beacons functioned correctly, nowadays all lighthouses in Brittany are controlled remotely.

Whether built on rocks out at sea, or on the coast itself, our region’s lighthouses have become familiar characters in their own right, not only for sailors of all nationalities but also for the tourists who visit them. Because they have been watching over our coasts for many centuries, assuring the safety of mariners out at sea.

For the lighthouse is still essential, even in this age of on-board electronics: radio beacons, radar, GPS. Despite these sophisticated systems, the most reliable aid for sailors is the illumination of the coast provided by lighthouses, hence they still remain a valuable guide. Indeed, what would a sailor do without a lighthouse for guidance? Ensuring maritime signalisation, a lighthouse is equipped with a powerful lighting system, which indicates the position of the shore and guides boats along it, helping them to avoid the most dangerous zones. However, with the aforementioned new technologies, lighthouses are tending to become rare around the world, with not even 1500 still in service globally, the majority of which are automated.

escaliers de Pharephoto by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Whether situated on the edge of the coast or right out at sea, lighthouses are a part of the Breton scenery, and are also the pride of Brittany, and these sentinels of the sea offer the opportunity of a picturesque visit. Here is a selection, albeit very limited, of these “standing giants” of the Breton waters, among the most emblematic:

Le Phare d’Ar-Men

The Ar-men Lighthouse (Ar-Men meaning ‘stone’, perhaps this name derives simply from the rock on which it is built?) can be found at the far reaches of the Chaussée de Sein, a stretch of sea from the Pointe du Raz headland on the mainland to the island of Sein and the rocky isles beyond it. For a long time nicknamed “keepers’ purgatory!”, the lighthouse was automated in 1990.

Le Phare d'Armen

The Phare d'Ar-Men lighthouse, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages,
website www.pecheurdimages.com

Le Phare de l’Ile Vierge

This lighthouse is the tallest in northern Finistère, measuring 82.5 metres, which in fact even makes it the tallest in Europe! Furthermore, it is the tallest lighthouse made of cut stone in the world, with its 365 steps! Consequently, its light protects northern Finistère up to a radius of over 52 kilometres. The walls of this huge tower are dressed with 900m² of opaline, in order to prevent condensation. Deserted by its last keepers in 2010, it was actually the last inhabited lighthouse in Brittany.

Le Phare de l'île vierge

The Ile Vierge lighthouse, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Le Phare de Créac’h

Situated on the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English), this is the most powerful or one of the most powerful lighthouses in the world. Which is perfect for its purpose of protecting the Rail d’Ouessant, one of the busiest maritime routes in the world, from the North Atlantic into the English Channel. In fact, in 1857 the engineer Caradec asked for it to be built so that it would be possible to recognise and identify without any confusion the two points at which one could go around the island of Ouessant. This lighthouse cannot be visited, but if you go to Ouessant you will find at its base, in its former machine room, the island’s famous lighthouse museum, ‘Le Musée des Phares et Balises’. Of particular note is the finest collection of ‘Fresnel’ lenses in the world, and other items including electric arc lamps.

Le Phare de Créac'h

The Créac'h lighthouse, photo by Guillaume Plisson, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Le Phare du Stiff

Also on the island of Ouessant, and constructed in 1699, the ‘Stiff’ lighthouse is the oldest in Brittany, and even in France. It was automated as early as 1878 and has not been lived in since the 1990s. Its double thimble-shaped tower watches over the mouth of the Channel to the northwest of Ouessant.

Le Phare du Stiff

The Stiff lighthouse, photo by Philippe Salin.

Le Phare d’Eckmühl

A real granite giant at 60 metres, over 100 years old, with the semaphore station of Penmarc’h at its feet, at the southernmost point of Finistère. This monument is one of the most visited in the ‘département’. It has to be said that the view from the top is exceptional, a vast panorama of the Breton coast, including the Glénan isles to the south and the island of Sein to the north. This lighthouse was built thanks to Adelaïde Louise Davout d’Eckmühl who, when she died in 1892, left a huge legacy to the French State for the construction of a large lighthouse on the Breton coast, and therefore it was named after her.

Le Phare du Cap Fréhel

Standing 70 metres tall, this lighthouse at the end of the majestic Cap Fréhel dominates the Channel with its beam of light from the clifftops of the cape. It is quite simply one of the five most powerful lighthouses in France; the purpose of this square tower is to secure the passage from the bay of St Brieuc to the harbour of St Malo. It served as a watchtower for the Germans during the Second World War, was destroyed in 1944, but was then subsequently rebuilt in 1950.

Le Phare de Ploumanac’h

Ploumanac’h is a village community on the Pink Granite Coast, in the Côtes d’Armor department, and its lighthouse is perfectly in keeping with this colourful backdrop as it is itself built out of pink granite. At sunset, the reflected light is distinctive.

Phare de Ploumanac'h

The Ploumanac'h lighthouse, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

These imposing buildings are abundant all along the Breton coastline, sentinels of the sea, invaluable guides for sailors.

La Pointe du Raz

Le Raz de Sein, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Of course, many other magnificent Breton lighthouses could also have been mentioned, such as: the lighthouse of Sept-Îles at Perros-Guirec in Côtes d’Armor (first constructed between 1832-1835) with its aerogenerator which allows the light to be autonomous.

Or the Jument lighthouse in Finistère, at Ouessant, in the Iroise Sea, erected between 1904 and 1914.

Le Phare de la Jument

The Jument lighthouse, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

But also the Roches-Douvres lighthouse in Côtes d’Armor, to the north/north-east of the island of Bréhat, a sort of cylindrical tower, made of granite. And also on Bréhat: the Paon lighthouse, at the north of the island, which itself is situated off the coast of Paimpol. This lighthouse was built around 1860, and was powered by electricity from 1942. It was destroyed by the Germans in 1944, and was therefore rebuilt later, in 1949, in the local pink granite, and has since been automated.

And in the department of Morbihan, the ‘Phare des Poulains’ lighthouse was built at the westernmost point of Belle-Île island, lit up for the first time on the 15th September 1868, and is what is known as a ‘house-lighthouse’. Another example of this is the Pontusval lighthouse on the Beg Pol headland at Brignogan in northern Finistère.

Maison Phare des Poulains

La Pointe des Poulains, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

Of Brittany’s lighthouses, seven were already classified as Historic Monuments, and five belong to the rare group of towers that are still manned (Sein, Créac’h, Belle-Île-en-Mer and Fréhel). As of the 15th March 2016, nine other Breton lighthouses have also just been classified as Historic Monuments. The new ones to join the 13 lighthouses already in this list are: Triagoz, Roches-Douvres, l'Île-de-Batz, Four, Pierres-Noires, Ar-Men, La Jument, Nividic, and Kéréon. This latter is nicknamed ‘The Palace of the Sea’! due to its superb wood panelled interior. Master craftsmanship in a living museum, in Brittany’s invigorating fresh air!

Phare de Kéréon

The Kéréon lighthouse, photo by Philip Plisson from our Partners pages, website www.pecheurdimages.com

This official classification is a fitting recognition of these emblematic monuments of the Breton coastline, but also a promise to conserve and preserve into the future these witnesses of our unique history and its heritage.