FIN­ISTÈRE REVEALED

Get a deeper un­der­stand­ing of Brit­tany’s west­ern fringes on a tai­lor-made tour.

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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

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