DO YOU know where the world ends? According to the French, it ends somewhere near Ruscumunoc, a little fishing village in Brittany. Just follow the road up the hill, the locals tell me, then straight, then to the left.
As I drive up the narrow potholed road, the radio that has been blasting Breton Celtic music goes completely quiet. After a kilometre or so, the road suddenly ends.
I park my small rental car and walk up an overgrown path to the crest of a hill. There the ground suddenly drops in a dramatic cliff toward the Atlantic Ocean, and France is no more. A sign points to the west: New York 5 080km, it says.
To my left, at the base of the cliff, is a small sandy beach. It’s so postcard pretty I scramble down for a suntanning break at the “end of the world”. There’s no one in sight.
I’ve wanted to go to the westernmost French department of Finistère (from the Latin finis terrae, or the end of the earth) since the day I first heard about it a few years ago. I wanted to see this edge of Brittany, the land that time forgot, and take a break from the rush of modern life. I wanted to see the wild, empty beaches, the tiny roads and villages.
But what lured me most to Finistère and to Brittany were the lighthouses, promising remote beauty, relaxing solitude – and sweeping views. There are 148 lighthouses in Brittany, one of them dating back to the time of Louis XIV. Some are perched on rocky islets lashed by waves; others sit safely on the coast, looking out to sea. Once, their lights guided sailors to safety. Today, 80 are working, but many others are just majestic ghosts of the past.
To get a good view of Brittany’s stunning coast, I decide to climb to the top of the 19th-century Eckmühl (named for a Napoleonic general) lighthouse. After climbing its 307 steps, my muscles are sore and my legs rubbery, but I emerge into the vast panorama of the Atlantic, the wind bringing up the smell of salt and algae and wet sand.
The village of Penmarc’h spreads out below, with its small white houses set against green pastures. If the name Penmarc’h doesn’t sound French to you, that’s because it isn’t. The word means “head of a horse” in the local Breton, a Celtic language brought to this region in the Middle Ages by Britons migrating to the continent. The name comes from a local legend about a king whose head was turned into that of a horse.
The lighthouse of Saint-Mathieu, a classic white-and-red tower, is gentler on my knees: it’s only 163 steps up. The semi-modern lighthouse, built in 1835, is part of a crumbling 16th-century abbey, picturesquely set at the edge of the ocean and built on the site of an even older, sixth-century monastery.
Saint-Mathieu is a calm, quiet place, yet its history is far from peaceful. Taking a short walk along the coast, I stumble upon a reminder of Brittany’s turbulent past. Hidden in a carpet of wild grasses are German bunkers: concrete installations built during World War II to guard the coast against the Allies during the German occupation of France.
This area was once the site of raging battles, including the Battle of Brest, which lasted from August to the end of September 1944 and was one of the most violent of the war. It may not have the famed D-Day sites of Normandy, but I find exploring the war mementos of Brittany more compelling. Here, I can sit at the edge of the ocean and reflect on the past with no crowds of tourists to interrupt my thoughts.
For me there’s nothing better in Brittany than walking. Countless trails run along the cliffs, starting at
PICTURESQUE: Cap Frèhel, with its sturdy good place to enjoy a picnic of farm-fresh s cheese while watching the waves.
ISOLATED: At the western-most point of France, is the Pointe du Raz, a narrow peninsula with a sharp and high rocky ridge.