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The Isles of the Glénan Archipelago

L'Archipel des îles Glénan

photo by Philip Plisson who is featured in our Partner pages, site web www.pecheurdimages.com 

If there is an archipelago in Brittany that can come close to its southern sea counterparts, it is the Glénan Archipelago, a scattering of nine large islands and numerous smaller siblings in the sea off Concarneau, its snow white sands lapped by clear turquoise waters

The Glénan Archipelago is composed of nine principal islands and a large number of smaller isles, but it is thought that way back this mass of granite had been a single land mass; indeed local legend even talks of how the nine Glénan isles were once one big island. They were eroded gradually by the waves over time but, if popular hearsay is anything to go by, collective memory of the time when this archipelago was part of the continent is not yet completely lost. It is said that it used to be possible to walk from Beg Meil (on the mainland) to the Ile aux Moutons, which is now far out at sea, and also that the Trévignon headland used to adjoin Cigogne island.

The archipelago is now extremely jagged, so much so that its surface area is difficult to calculate and nautical charts of the area cannot successfully plot all of the rocks and reefs. The archipelago has sometimes been described as ‘a glimpse of Tahiti in southern Brittany’. It is famous for the clear waters of ‘La Chambre’ (the Chamber), a sheltered zone in the western end of the ‘inner sea’ created by the circle of islands. Often referred to as a lagoon, this area stretches between the isles of Saint-Nicolas, Drénec, Bananec and Cigogne, and is ideal for pleasure boats to anchor. At very low tide, the Chamber can be crossed on foot and becomes a paradise for collecting abalone, clams and other shellfish, and crustaceans.

L'Archipel des îles Glénan

photo by Philip Plisson who is featured in our Partner pages, site web www.pecheurdimages.com

Lying in the sea off Concarneau, the seven main Glénan islands offer an exceptional site for nature lovers as well as sports enthusiasts. These latter, guided by the Penfret lighthouse, will find the international centre for scuba diving on Saint-Nicolas. Part of this island is also a designated nature reserve, for the protection of the Glénan Narcissus (Narcissus triandus ssp capax), a native plant identified in 1803 and still present across the archipelago. As the narcissus grows in short grass, the abandonment of crop growing in the islands played a part in its decline, as former farmland turned to brush and scrub. As early as 1924, it was noted that the narcissus had almost completely disappeared. But in 1974 part of the island of Saint-Nicolas was set aside as a nature reserve, a move initiated by the SEPNB, an association for study and protection of nature in Brittany.

Budding ornithologists can set themselves up to do some birdwatching at the 18th century fort on Cigogne island, but the best encounters will surely be had on Giautec and the unspoilt isles surrounding it. Two isles are private: Brunec to the north and, to the south, Loc’h island which is owned by the Bolloré family.

L'Archipel des îles Glénan
photo by Philip Plisson who is featured in our Partner pages, site web www.pecheurdimages.com

The Glénans sit about 20km out to sea from Concarneau, although they are officially within the jurisdiction of Fouesnant. The principal islands are Bananec, Cigogne, Le Drennec, Giautec, Guiriden, Loc’h, Penfret, Quignénec and Saint-Nicolas. Arranged in a loose circle, these islands form the perimeter of a sort of interior sea known as ‘La Chambre’ (the Chamber). In summer its clear waters are often a turquoise colour, imitating a tropical lagoon, and its beaches look equally exotic, swathes of white sand worthy of a south sea shoreline. The whiteness of the sand is due to a high proportion of maerl, a calcareous deposit constituted of fine gravel and debris from algae. The area is a favourite spot for windsurfing aficionados from southern Finistère, a get away from it all destination just an hour or two by boat from the mainland.

Since the 1950s, the Centre Nautique des Glénan (sailing school) has garnered an international reputation and has taught generations of yachtmen and women. With bases on several of the islands, but notably Penfret and Fort Cigogne, the school’s navigation handbook is a go-to classic for those learning to navigate by sail. The association was founded by two former members of the resistance, Hélène and Philippe Viannay (also director of the former newspaper France-Soir), who discovered the islands for themselves in the summer of 1945 and returned the following summer to create the Centre Nautique which would encourage a range of nautical activities. Boats taught in were Vauriens, Caravelles, Corsaires and Mousquetaires. A sailing course was launched in 1951, which became widely recognised in 1961 when the navigation handbook was published. Edited and updated many times since then, it remains a sailing ‘bible’. Nowadays the sailing school, which also has bases on Bananec and Drenec islands, has a truly worldwide reputation.

The scuba diving school is equally renowned. It was set up in 1959 by GAP (Groupe Atlantique de Plongée, translated Atlantic Diving Group), who were seduced by the pure waters of the archipelago. Their base on Saint-Nicolas was initially an old farmhouse, before moving to a former lifeboat shelter. In 1980 they relaunched as the ‘Centre International de Plongée Quimper-Ecole des Glénan’.

A daily link to the Glénan islands is provided by the company Vedettes de l’Odet, and departs from Beg-Meil quayside. Step aboard the ‘Glenn’, the ‘Rivage’, ‘Capitaine Némo’ or ‘l’Aigrette’ for a day trip to the Glénan Archipelago. Although only 10 miles or so from the mainland, you may feel you have been transported to a fantasy world: a string of stunning isles whose unbelievably white sandy beaches enclose a lagoon of transparent emerald green waters. Penfret, in the east, is the home of the famous sailing school as well as an iconic lighthouse; the Ile du Loc’h is the largest island and recognisable from afar by its chimney; Cigogne is noted for its fort; and there is still more for visitors to this unique part of Brittany to discover on the other islands, Drenec, Bananec, Guéotec and Saint-Nicolas…

SaintThomasTV / Chaine Vimeo

A real paradise in southern Brittany, and a taste of the tropics in the middle of the north Atlantic!