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The departments of Brittany, part 2: Finistère & Morbihan

The western and southern coast of Brittany, from the Channel to the Atlantic.



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Finistère


Finistère is the ‘most Breton’ of all the departments. Its name is derived from ‘Finis Terrae’, meaning the ends of the earth, as it is similarly called in Breton: "Penn ar Bed". It is however distinctly different from north to south and, apart from Corsica, it is the French department with the longest coastline. With the Channel to the north and the Atlantic to the west, the department boasts a number of prestigious and well-known natural sites, such as La Pointe du Raz, the Crozon Peninsula and Audierne Bay, to name but a few. And, of course, there are all the offshore islands, including Batz, the Molène archipelago, Ouessant, Sein, and the Glénan archipelago.

It has also retained an exceptional heritage from past ages, from the Neolithic period of course, but also from the Christian era, as evidenced in the number of abbeys, churches and chapels, which are sometimes enclosed in distinctive walled courtyards, and fountains ... there is always a wealth of sites to interest visitors in each local area.
 
And then there are the cities… Quimper is the administrative capital, and has a medieval town centre with a beautiful cathedral. The port city of Brest, the most important port in Finistère, was destroyed during the last world war before being completely rebuilt, like Lorient. Brest also offers a bay of 150km², a real paradise for sailing, at the mouth of the Elorn river.

Moving north to south in the department, first of all come the Trégor coast and the Léon coast, then further west the Abers (coastal estuaries).

The Trégor country starts at Locquirec and Morlaix bay in Finistère, before arriving at Carantec, an attractive seaside resort. Next to Carantec are St-Pol-de-Léon and Roscoff, the old corsair city, which lie at the heart of an extensive vegetable-growing region. A rich land, to which the many castles in the region bear testament.

The Aber country stretches from Goulven Bay on the north coast round to the St Mathieu cape in the Iroise Sea to the west. The northern part especially is known as ‘Pagan Country’, thanks to the pirates of old, who plundered passing ships and caused them to run aground on these dangerous coasts. Indeed, the most famous lighthouses in Brittany – or even in Europe – can be found here; it is the main area for beacons on the continent and one of the most frequented maritime areas in the world (the area is protected by 17 coastal lighthouses and 13 more at sea).

Inland, you can visit the ‘Enclos Paroissiaux’ (church and courtyard complexes) and the Monts d’Arrée hills. Elsewhere in this blog you can read more about this corner of Brittany, as well as the Crozon Peninsula, and the Menez Hom, the highest point in Brittany, as well as the Black Mountains.

After passing the bay of Douarnenez, the Cap Sizun and the Pointe du Raz in our southward journey, we arrive in the Pays Bigouden. Whilst officially beginning at Plozévet, the principal towns and villages of this area are Pont-L'Abbé, Loctudy, and Le Guilvinec, and also Penmarc’h on the southernmost tip of Brittany, with its famous 100 year old Eckmühl lighthouse. A busy coastal fishing area, with many picturesque ports, it displays a strong identity, typical of the region.

Not far away, on the banks of the Odet, is Quimper, the administrative capital of the modern department, but also the historical capital of the region known as Cornouaille. The medieval centre is testament to this, with its half-timbered houses, the intricate stonework of the cathedral, and its cobbled streets.

The coast and beaches can be found at La Forêt Fouesnant, and at Fouesnant, known for its cider production. And across the Odet (said to be France’s most beautiful river) from Sainte Marine lies the very well-known seaside resort of Bénodet.

Leaving the mainland for a while, you can join a boat trip to discover the Glénan Archipelago, through our partner company Vedettes de l’Odet, details of which can be found in our dedicated Partner pages. And please do also read more about the Glénan isles in our article about these seemingly tropical islands with their fine white sand beaches and turquoise waters.

And finally, we come to the south of the department, to Concarneau with its walled town and its three harbours: the fishing port, the marina and the commercial port. After this, we enter Aven country, notably Pont-Aven, city of painters, and then the area around Quimperlé and the Rias, Moëlan sur mer, Le Pouldu, Clohars-Carnoët and its forest. You will also find specific articles in this blog about all these localities.




Morbihan

This department in southern Brittany is named after the famous gulf which it encircles; the French name Morbihan derives from the Breton for ‘the little sea’. It is a mysterious land, a paradise for migratory birds which stop off here, with its streams running through coastal heathland before disgorging into the wide ocean. For example, the Etel ria or the Vilaine estuary, where seawater and freshwater mingle, giving life to a remarkable and varied flora and fauna.

Next we come to Carnac, Locmariaquer and Erdeven, and their famous alignments of standing stones – menhirs, dolmens and covered alleys. These parishes between them boast over 5,000 megalithic monuments – more than anywhere else in the world – still intact after 8,000 years! There are also some magnificent cairns, particularly those at Petit Mont and Gavrinis.

The sea is ever-present here, and the seaside resorts which cater for sailing professionals and amateurs are well-known, such as Arzon and Sarzeau, La Trinité sur Mer. It is common to see large sailing ships on the quayside there, busy preparing for competitions and races around the world.
 
The Gulf of Morbihan is a body of water covering 10,000 hectares, and dotted with many small islands and islets, offering favourable and unique sailing conditions as there it is little current and steady winds, the seabed is between 6 and 20 metres down, and it is protected from storms. It is also a paradise for all kinds of birdlife, especially migratory birds, with more than 150,000 visiting individuals recorded. All this explains why so many great seafarers have chosen to settle here.

The beautiful city of Lorient pays tribute to perhaps the most venerated of sailors in the name of their sailing museum centre, ‘La Cité de la Voile Eric Tabarly’. Also of interest, and next door, is the submarine museum.

Lorient, along with Port Louis and its citadel on the other side of the harbour, bears testimony to a rich history, from the colonial times of the French East India Company to the Second World War, when the allies wanted to destroy the Germans’ Atlantic submarine base, although in the end it was the only building that survived the bombings! Having been destroyed, then completely rebuilt in the post-war era, it is now an interesting modern city with many shops. Every year, in summer, the famous Interceltic Festival is held here, which brings together all the Celtic nations and makes the heart of Brittany beat to the sound of the bagpipes and its Breton relative, the ‘biniou’.

From Lorient, you can also head out to the Isle of Groix, whilst Quiberon is the embarkation point for the aptly named Belle-Île. The Quiberon peninsula and its wild rocky coast are also places of great beauty, where the ocean and ever-changing light always offer a wonderful spectacle. The small islands of Houat and Hoëdic, peaceful and more intimate, should not be forgotten either.

Morbihan also offers countryside, beautiful rivers such as the Blavet, the Scorff, and the Laïta, which marks the border with Finistère. There are also famous manor houses and chateaux, such as on the Rhuys peninsula, formerly a hunting residence belonging to the Dukes of Brittany from Suscinio. You can also discover the villages of Poul-Fetan and of Melrand, this latter known as ‘the village of the year 1000’, both living museums where visitors can find out about the life of our ancestors, from the Middle Ages to the 1800’s and early 1900’s. In addition there are theme parks: the Tropical Park in Saint-Jacut-Les-Pins, and the Brittany Prehistoric Park in Malansac.
 
Last but not least, the centre of Brittany: Rohan country, Pontivy and its chateau, plus Josselin and its huge and majestic riverside chateau. Not far away, you will find the Brocéliande forest, the River Vilaine and Oust, legendary home of King Arthur, the fairy Viviane, and Arthur’s sister Morgane, who captured Lancelot, and also the land of Merlin, the greatest sorcerer and bard of Armorique. A network of canals awaits discovery too, as do villages burgeoning with flowers such as Rochefort en Terre and Hennebont. Going back towards the coast, you come to the town of Auray and its beautiful smaller sister, Sainte Anne d'Auray, which hosted the Pope a few years ago.

And then, of course, you come to Vannes, the administrative capital of the department. A beautiful medieval town, with cobbled streets and timber-framed houses, a cathedral, and a marina in the very heart of the city surrounded by terrace cafés. There are some lovely boutiques in the town, and some museums.

You will find each of the places mentioned above in the ‘Photos and area information’ section of our website, with detailed descriptions as well as photographs and videos.

Welcome to Brittany!

Philippe.