Get a deeper understanding of Brittany’s western fringes on a tailor-made tour.
Brittany has long been a favourite of mine, as I have spent many a family camping holiday, school expedition and seasonal work placement in the region. Despite returning regularly to France’s Celtic corner, it dawned on me that I rarely ventured beyond the sandy beaches, lunchtime crêperies or campsite bars chatting to other tourists.
Intent on straying off my well-beaten Breton path, I decided to take a private, guided tour of Finistère, its westernmost département. I went with Enjoy France Tours, founded by Michèle Clark Nickler, who is also the main guide, interpreter and organiser. “You’re not going to want to go home,” she laughed while revealing the long list of activities planned for my four-day break.
Enjoy France Tours is based in the fishing town of Douarnenez, a sweet, quintessentially French town that has stacks of charm and character; attributes shared by its friendly locals.
Well-known for its canned sardine trade and lively working harbours, Douarnenez is inextricably linked to the sea, and the area’s maritime culture was the first port of call. Led by the affable Fabrice, from the tourist office, we joined the Chemin de la Sardine walking route, following the fish emblems embossed on the pavements. We followed the track to Port du Rosmeur where maritime monuments included a pastel pink house on the waterfront that was once a refuge for down-on-their-luck fishermen and now contains hundreds of books about the sea.
Our next stop was Île Tristan, just off the coast, and as the tide was out, we were able to walk to the tiny, uninhabited island. As views of Douarnenez Bay peeked through the rustling trees on the island’s private garden, Fabrice regaled us with fantastical tales of a one-time resident, the pirate Guy Éder de la Fontenelle, who, if you believe the rumours, hid treasure on the island, that is still to be discovered. Fabrice
Steps had been worn away by the clogs of workers at the sardine canneries
continued with entertaining stories about the lovers from the Celtic tale of Tristan and Iseult – part of which is set here – and of the legend of Douarnenez’s most famous daughter, the princess Dahut. “There’s romance all around this island,” Fabrice whispered, careful not to disturb the magical atmosphere.
Back on the mainland, we visited Le Port-musée, Brittany’s largest maritime museum, where an impressive 200 boats represent the world’s seafaring cultures. Eight are docked outside in the port and I took the chance to board one and look at the crew’s quarters and engine rooms.
By way of celebrating my new-found sea-legs, Michèle arranged an evening aperitif on a fishing boat in the harbour. “We’ll let the guys do the work,” she said as fisherman Gilles Kerdoncuff and Enjoy France Tours driver Lucien brought out a table from the boat decks and laid it with olives, pâté and champagne. As the sun started to set, we raised our glasses and toasted the nautical life.
Days with Enjoy France Tours are packed with activities, but you still have a chance to unwind. Ordinarily, I would have opted for a lie-in on Sunday morning, but Michèle’s suggestion of a hike around Pointe du Raz proved much more restorative. This wild and windy headland offers spectacular ocean views along the scenic walking routes. Armed with his map, we followed our guide Bernard along clifftop paths running above the perilous waters. The epitome of calm, Bernard was happy to adapt to our small group’s natural slow and steady pace – ideal for taking in the sights and sounds of the fishermen setting out to catch sea bass, fellow ramblers in the distance and a trio of lighthouses on the horizon. “Welcome to paradise,” said Michèle, with the Atlantic Ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see.
Each day’s pair of activities were arranged to complement each other. Sunday morning’s hike was followed by an afternoon at the Natural Seawater Spa Therapy Thalasso in Douarnenez. A back massage and a facial were so relaxing that upon leaving the treatment room, I felt as though I were walking on air; a blissful state bolstered by an hour spent switching between the luxurious sauna and the steam room. A door led from the pool area to the beach, so it was easy to get to the ocean and indulge in a particularly rejuvenating treatment – a swim in the sea.
The seaside was also the setting for the most soothing of the wind-down activities – an evening yoga class on the beach with Isabelle Didier from Dz Sport et Nature. After a quick warm-up jog along the water’s edge, Isabelle led us through the hour-long class that was gentle, meditative and perfect for a novice yogi like me. Yet regardless of skill level, anyone would benefit from reaching out towards the sky and stretching on the sand, with the smell of the sea, the sound of the seagulls and the sight of Douarnenez Bay lying before you.
Inevitably, food and drink played a part in the tour, and included a trip to the market in Douarnenez, with its
stalls full of fruit and vegetables, breads, cheese, rotisserie chickens and fish. In between shopping for some of my favourite French produce, I tried some of the more unusual offerings, including oyster leaves and a Vietnamese-style wrap. The Bretons’ insistence that you taste a little of everything extended beyond the market – Michèle was eager for me to try as many Breton specialities as possible and I was more than happy to oblige; from the lunches of moules frites and crêpes to starters of fresh oysters and rather too many helpings of the Breton cake, kouign-amann.
As well as eating to my heart’s content, I got the opportunity to cook at the Quimper-based culinary school, L’atelier des Gourmets. A chef took us, step by step, through the cooking of a monkfish dish in a creamy sauce set on Chinese-style pasta. We chopped and stirred away, and then tucked into the result, which seemed all the tastier for having been made by my own hands.
What tickled my taste buds the most was a trip to the Distillerie des Menhirs in Plomelin, a fifth-generation, familyrun business that makes cider and fruit brandies, and buckwheat whisky – the only one in the world. “We wanted to do something different, something very Breton,” our guide Anastasia explained on introducing the whisky, Eddu. We saw every stage of the process, from malting and distilling to fermentation and bottling, and met Kevin, one of three brothers who run the business. “Do you export internationally?” I asked. “We export to France, so yes,” Kevin joked, highlighting the Breton pride at the heart of the brand. In a dimly lit room, we saw 1,000 oak casks full of whisky which mature for a minimum of three years. Later, on tasting three varieties of Eddu, it was clear that it was time well spent.
To get further insights into the area’s history, we visited the Plus Beau Village of Locronan, to the east of Douarnenez. Starting at the impressive Gothic church, our guide Lionel regaled us with tales of the village’s social and economic past, which included making sails for the French navy, starting in the 16th century.
While listening to the story of Saint Ronan, the hermit and pilgrim who came here from Ireland in the fifth century, I marvelled at the stained-glass windows and baroque-style staircase that complemented Lionel’s narrative. Locronan is a popular location with film-makers and it was easy to see why as we strolled through the streets with its traditional craft shops.
On my trip with Enjoy France Tours, I really got to know this corner of Brittany. Instead of sticking to the usual tourist hot spots, the tour allowed me to live like a local; from clinking champagne glasses with Gilles and going off the beaten track with Fabrice to saluting the sun with Isabelle, it was the cast of characters that made for such an unforgettable, authentic experience. Michèle was right, I didn’t want to go home, but I consoled myself by promising to return to Brittany soon to seek out another adventure to remember.
Quai du Port Rhu in the port of Douarnenez
MAIN PICTURE: The tiny Île Tristan, just off Douarnenez; BELOW, CLOCKWISE: Landing sardines in the port; Flowers for sale in the market; The Plus Beau Village of Locronan
ABOVE: Barrels of whisky at the Distillerie des Menhirs in Plomelin; TOP: Catriona makes her way to the headland of Pointe du Raz
ABOVE: Catriona prepares a dish of monkfish at the Atelier des Gourmets in Quimper