08 September 2011

The Forgotten Coast

Brittany's northern coast is a beautiful, salty stretch of land. This is far from the sand and glamor of the Côte d'Azur and the Aquitaine coast, and has none of the tourist and war hubs of Normandy or the dramatic cliffs of Picardy. Even the southern coast of Brittany is better traveled, with Morbihan's broad beaches and milder weather. But there is a lot here, in what is called "La Côte d'Emeraude" (the "Emerald Coast"). One senses that it is a forgotten region, with things to discover and unspoiled, quiet stretches that are both lonely and lovely.
The tourism that is here mostly spills westward along the eastern stretch of land. Visitors to Mont Saint-Michel and the Normandy hordes make small inroads and daytrips along the shore, most making it no further than St. Malo, the medieval walled city on the bay. Cancale, where we stopped for oysters, is busy, and some of the beaches along that way are sandy enough for lounging, but the crowds thin as the land grows rougher.
By Paimpol, about halfway out Brittany's spit of land, trawlers and fishing vessels outnumber pleasurecraft, and the waterfront cafes are full of crewmen. The land might seem meager, but the waters are rich with life, and small boats are able to turn a profit in the surrounding coves and further out in the English channel. More than half of France's domestic fishing haul is caught by boats based in Brittany. Three quarters of the domestic mussels are also sourced from here, and 100,000 tons of seaweed is harvested annually. Pretty harbor towns are tucked into coves, where men still sing sea shanties in the evenings and wear galoshes and slickers.
Brittany is a Celtic land, with it's own dialect - Breton, or Brehoneg in Gaelic. While only about three percent of the population is still fluent in the tongue, the local accent is heavily influenced and the culture is decidedly different than the rest of France. Bagpipes play on the radio, beer and cider are more popular than wine, the widespread catholicism has more Welsh and Irish traditions than French. The people have warily embraced France, but there's a long history of persecution against the Bretons, and a strong sense of independence.
Still, some of the things that are most stereotypically French have their roots in this stretch of coast. Galettes and crêpes were created here, and the black and white striped shirts (and wide straw hats) of lore had their origins with the "Onion Johnnies" that travelled from Roscoff to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Onion farmers from the coastal region used to travel by ferry to England's coast, where they would sell their harvest on their bicycles, dressed in the distinctive clothing of the region.
The small, slate-roofed town of Paimpol, where we have been staying, was once an important cod fishing center, with scores of boats and an economy dominated by the catch. For hundreds of years, and as late as the 19th century, crews left from here in search of "la morue", spending stretches of six to eight months on the sea. During the latter part of Paimpol's history with cod, the boats spent most of their time off the coast of Iceland, where the fish bred and spawned. A fascinating museum in the town details the life of the seamen and features a great collection of model ships and nautical paraphernalia.It's strange to see people sitting on the pebbly sand in sweaters and long pants, their hair whipped by a cool wind. A cold coast conjures up involuntary thoughts of sun and warmth, but none of the heat-innebriated, uninhibited surrender of a July weekend. A kind of mournful quietness comes over every seaside town in September. It's accentuated what we've felt here, that we have come to the end of both France's land and its frenetic season. Our campsite has been growing emptier every day, the seaside walkway feels more deserted. A period of cool weather and rain has swept in off the straight, and the smell of autumn mixes with the rotting kelp and salt air.

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