Douarnenez, commune and town, is particularly well situated. Tucked into the very end of the Bay of Douarnenez with Cap Sizun providing shelter from the prevailing south-westerlies and the Crozon peninsula protecting the northerly aspect. Sheltered and mild; who could ask for more? Certainly not sailors and fishermen. Douarnenez boasts 4 ports, if you include the modern marina, and it would be confusing and unfair to marina users not to.
Residents of Douarnenez are spoilt for good walks and need only make up their minds which way to walk on the coast path. But whilst enjoying the staggering cliffs of Cap Sizun or the long beaches of the Bay of Douarnenez, they might well be thinking that they have better beaches at home - in town.
4 Ports and 4 beaches. Douarnenez has beautiful sandy beaches that enjoy the shelter and benign conditions making them somewhat more user friendly than the more atlantic beaches typically found on the caps and peninsulas on this westerly edge of Europe. Plage des Dames is perfectly sheltered and safe, although a café/bar teeters precariously on top of the wall that wraps around it. Plage St Jean (see photo) seems to appear from nowhere as you make your way around the coast as do many other tempting swimming spots. At Tréboul, Plage des Sables Blancs showcases the cosmopolitan, modern impression that Douarnenez exudes, contrasting with the largely agricultural nature of the region. Every conceivable water-based activity can be observed. Wet-suited enthusiasts march up and down, up to their waists in water in what’s called aqua-marche or marche-aquatique, sometimes performing Bretagne dancing. Kite-surfers and stand-up-paddlers go back and forth at their allotted speeds. Joggers, thoughtfully dressed signalling that this is not someone fleeing danger, pound the paths.
Of the 4 ports, Port Rhu is the most picturesque and the oldest. Formed in the estuary of the river Pouldavid it is what I understand to be a floating harbour (I am from very near Bristol where these things are important). I have seen it described as a “wet dock”, but that implies the opposite of a dry dock where as Port Rhu is a whole harbour where you can go where you will, whatever the state of the tide. This is achieved with a weir and a substantial lock. Best of all a passerelle crosses the weir with a neat little lifting bridge to let craft through at high tide. Fortunately, the passerelle or footbridge was built when beauty and elegance were regarded as hallmarks of good design - if it looks right, it probably is. And it is an attraction in itself. The coast path crosses the passerelle affording fine views of the floating harbour.
Port Rhu has been put to very good use following the decline of the fishing industry. Douarnenez has started to collect interesting boats and ships. This delightful mania is presented to the public as a maritime museum and folks are free to roam about the vessels as well as enjoying indoor exhibits. Traditional boat building is thriving along the port adding to the pleasant atmosphere, as do the bars and cafés. A great place to wile away some time.
Perhaps in an attempt to lure in more interesting boats, a festival of classic boats takes place every 2 years, following on from the Tonnerre de Brest, a similar boat festival up the coast in Brest. “Tonnerre de Brest”, incidentally, was an expletive used by Captain Haddock in the original Tintin books. I can recommend the Tintin books if you wish to read, and perhaps learn, conversational French from the 1950s. The next festival of boats is in July 2019 from the 25th to the 29th.
Those wishing to see more of the town might follow the sardine trail which takes you around town looking at sites important to that industry. It’s worth doing even if you have only the merest interest in sardines as it shows off the town well.
The sardine industry is all but gone from Douarnenez, but there are still canning facilities in the town. Tinned fish is not dismissed as a store-cupboard food in Brittany. There are shops (which I must admit took me by surprise), usually in the tourist towns, which sell nothing else, with some tins at very fancy prices.
Tinned sardines were not Douarnenez’s first dally into the fish export market. Head for the Crozon on the coast path and you quickly gain the charming cliff-top village of Plomarch. Here the coast path takes you past some curious and well-preserved Roman remains in the form of vats. It’s not at all obvious what their purpose was. So the inquisitive are drawn to the signs which reveal that this was a production facility for garum, a fermented fish sauce. Plomarch is downwind of Douarnenez, probably the most important factor when choosing where to locate this facility. The recipe for the best garum hardly makes the mouth water: the intestines, blood and fins of tuna were mixed with salt then fermented in the vats for a couple of months. Lower grades were made with whatever fish could be gleaned. Don’t be put off, apparently this recipe has been recreated and it is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals - a 1st century health food, although it may have been responsible for spreading fish tapeworm around Europe; not so healthy. This sauce, used as a condiment, was widely popular and sent all over the place in amphorae. Although a different preservation method, not that dissimilar a concept to the export of tinned fish.
Douarnenez also has a lost legendary city in its bay and a small island accessible at low tide packed with enough history for a considerably larger island. With Bronze age settlements, Arthurian ties, an abbey, a pirate garrison and Douarnenez's first canning factory all associated with île Tristan. It’s now part of the marine national park and is well worth a visit if tides allow.
The splendid town of Douarnenez falls between our Crozon and West Finistère itineraries and can be included in either.
In 1970s Somerset, we had an excellent local baker - of bread. But, I don’t think I’m being unfair in describing the selection of cakes offered by bakers in the 70s as mildly disappointing. Doughnuts, whilst acceptable fresh, rapidly lose their allure with the passing hours i.e. by the time we got them. Chelsea buns and hot cross buns at Easter (reluctant cakes) are difficult for a child to comprehend, let alone get excited about. We weren’t offered much more. Lardy cake was good, if a little strange; as were eccles cakes. Happily, home-made fruit cake and sponges were divine.
Things improved over the years. The cream and the custard slice, became available at our local shop, adding a taste of continental glamour to our lives, although looking back, the cream substitute was rather sickly. The Belgian bun and Danish pastry made the 90s more tolerable, but for years the Channel proved an effective barrier to colonisation by continental fancies.
Incidentally I went to Belgium a couple of years ago with the intention of trying an authentic Belgian bun. But, no matter where I went or who I questioned, and I included small children in my survey who should know about these things, nobody had heard of or, on hearing my description, thought they might like to try a Belgian bun. I don’t think the Belgians are a bun eating nation at all. We have been badly misled.
Being taken to Brittany for a wedding as a young teenager in the late 1970s, out of the barren, cake wilderness that was the UK, was a revelation. Practically every village had a boulangerie/patisserie selling delicately textured perfection.
I’m not suggesting that the cakes in Brittany are the best to be found anywhere. I’m not in a position to judge, being insufficiently travelled. But artisanal excellence is out there in many small towns and villages.
As in the rest of France, as far as I know, Viennoiseries are a popular and excellent start to a special day. Brittany has its own specialities less suitable for breakfast save Bretagne far which makes an excellent breakfast. More on that later.
Viennoiseries are often, slightly incorrectly referred to as pastries (and I probably shouldn’t call them cakes, but I like the word cake). They are, in fact, a dough, with yeast and rising and other such un-pastry-like and indeed un-cake-like characteristics. Incidentally, the name somewhat suggests that they are not at all an original product of France. I intend, one day, to visit Vienna and satisfy myself that I’m not missing out, although after my nasty surprise in Belgian I am braced for disappointment. Whatever the quality of the products in Vienna, no one can deny that the French have embraced the concept, trained the practitioners and make a thoroughly good job of it.
The usual Viennoiseries found in most Bretagne boulangeries would be: croissant, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, torsade (or tortillon or in some cases suisse, in others a suisse is quite different) and croissant au amande. The croissant and pain au chocolat need no introduction, but the torsade might be less familiar. When baked as I prefer, it’s my favourite. A thin, long twist of dough interlaced with chocolate, hopefully slightly gooey in the centre.
The difference between boulangeries is marked. I have made mental notes concerning the establishments we pass going up and down the coast. This variety should be celebrated. I avoid buying bakery products from supermarkets which are putting the traditional boulangeries out of business. Why the French government allows this on-going disaster is a mystery. I can’t think it would hurt the supermarkets much to stop selling bakery products, preserving the boulangeries which are so much part of the shrinking heart of small towns.
Whatever the difference and whichever establishment you favour, the boulangeries are a real leveller. For 1€10 spent in a small town somewhere in Brittany you can enjoy as good and expertly crafted a pain au raisin as the President of the Republic might be enjoying in Paris.
Where to eat your warm Viennoiserie? At the other institution struggling on at the core of small French towns, the tabac. You don’t need to buy tobacco (note supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell tobacco which keeps these little cafes in business -so why not the boulangeries?), but you can buy a coffee instead for the reasonable price of 1€30 -1€40. You can have it with milk or sometimes a cappuccino, but that’s usually as far they go in the fancy coffee line. You can also have hot chocolate. But, they do small coffees really well with a proper, hissing machine and this is the best option. In the civilised manner of the French, no tabac owner would dream of objecting to you eating your Viennoiserie, purchased in another establishment, with your coffee.
The tabac is a splendid institution in its own right. It manages to find a sweet spot that cafes and pubs have failed to achieve in the UK. A combination of cafe and bar where all are welcome and the purchase of a coffee endows you with the right to hang around for as long as you want. Perfect for the older, leisured classes without deep pockets.
Bretagne far is an egg custard baked with a dusting of flour in the tin giving it the hint of a brown skin. In some boulangeries that have a tea-room attached (Les Sables d’Or near Erquy and Camaret sur Mer are fine examples) far is served with cream and often a dash of chocolate sauce for a world beating breakfast owing nothing to the Viennese. Brittany boasts other regional cakes, but as yet I have little experience of them.
Daily briefings, if required, on the local boulangeries are all part of the service at sanssacados and bikes are provided for that delicious morning expedition.
A tip for beginners at French: The French don’t have, but take food, and they often use the present tense for events in the future. (We do as well, I see the Queen on Friday for example.) So Bonjour …. Je prends un croissant, s’il vous plait is how you might ask for a croissant.
I've been lucky. Three of the four places I've lived have been blessed with swallowtail butterflies. Admittedly, in Norfolk they are not easy to see, you are more likely to see a cat swimming. I saw one swallowtail, at a distance, whilst I lived there and I lived and worked on the Broads. However, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust feels the future "looks brighter" for the swallowtail with cutting of reed and sedge allowing other plants to thrive including milk parsley which seems to be the exclusive food of the British subspecies. Being tied to one plant food is thought to restrict their ability to spread to the rest of the UK.
The continental subspecies is said to be much more liberal with its choice of larval food, as long as its an umbellifer. I'm sure this is true, but in our garden, where the Brittany photos were taken, dill and fennel, when available is definitely the firm favourite. This doesn't surprise me as fresh dill is amazing, any attempt at preservation making it ordinary.
We often see swallowtails at the coast -we do spend a lot of time there. Wild fennel does well at the coast providing a food source for the larvae.
In Crete we planted fennel and dill, as we do in Brittany, to lure the swallowtails into our garden. I appreciate that all insects are important, but some simply bring joy.
I would imagine that the absence of swallowtails in most of the UK has something to do with the last ice age and the Channel preventing recolonisation. The continental subspecies has been spotted in the UK, presumably storm-blown. Perhaps UK residents should plant some dill just in case.
With a flight period coinciding with our season, there's a good chance of spotting a swallowtail on the Brittany coast path.
We cycle a lot (Sarah especially). I wouldn't say we don't cycle for pleasure, as we enjoy it. But our cycling is mostly going somewhere practical. Taking the recycling to the bin or a 16 km round trip to the shops. Definitely not 40 k on a Saturday afternoon with the pack.
Our attire usually includes wellington boots for added confidence around enthusiastic farm dogs. Never anything tight-fitting, logoed and colourful.
We've also not been enamoured with the idea of providing our service to keen cyclists, largely because they cover such incredible distances in a day. But, also because the roads that get you along the coast, where we know the campsites, are often not memorable.
Although you can't cycle on much of the GR34, we provide two decent, basic bikes for our walking guests so they can shorten a walking section (with a detour on the road) or fetch supplies from the boulangerie in the morning. These have also been profitably used in the evenings hunting for menhirs or returning to a harbour to buy fish (never carry fish on a long walk). That pretty much sums up our involvement with cycling to-date.
Whilst we were plotting the west Finistère itinerary, I was driving along the coast to meet Sarah, keeping as near the sea as possible, basically turning left unless it was a no-through-road. I noticed that at every turn there was a little green sign. A closer examination revealed these were signposts for the V5 cycle route. I was inadvertently driving the Baie d'Audierne section which was very nice with sea-views on small, quiet roads.
I remembered that we had received a message from someone wanting to plan a combined cycling and walking holiday. With such pleasant cycling on one of our itineraries, we might be able to help. If you've clicked that Baie d'Audierne link, you'll see that this section of the V5 goes from Bénodet to the Pointe du Raz and doesn't stray far from the coast at all.
After the Pointe du Raz, cycling would be miserable and you'd miss one of the best bits of walking on the Bretagne coast. A long, straight, country road, the kind where people tend to drive too fast, takes you in an exposed and uninteresting fashion the 36 kms to Douarnenez. But of course you'd be walking that section and we'd be going down the dull road, perfectly content as we'd be towing the caravan.
As an exercise I went through our 3 itineraries (which join up) to see which sections could be and which definitely shouldn't be cycled. Here is the list.
(i) Le Pouldu to kerfany (start of our s Finistère itinerary) 2 day's walking (you'd miss too much if you cycled)
(ii) Kerfany to Port Manec'h cycle around the rias lots of small lanes about 25 miles. 1 day.
(iii) Port Manec'h to île Tudy (s finistère and w finistère itineraries) 5 day's walking.
(iv) Loctudy to the Pointe du Raz. 70 miles cycling, so 2 days?
(v) Pointe du Raz to Douarnenez 2 day's walking Now see Crozon itinerary.
(vi) Douarnenez to Morgat cycle. Its coastal roads and about 30 miles. 1 day
(vii) Morgat to Camaret sur Mer 2 day's walking.
(viii) Camaret to Landévennec (including a tour of the pointe des Espanols) about 30 miles cycling. 1 day
Those with the ability to grasp figures from a muddle, will see this is a total of 16 days.
Perhaps this list might help cyclists to make plans. A week's combined tour could be created with a cycling start from Penmarch, finishing by walking in triumph into Camaret sur Mer with us transporting your bikes and gear.
The distances I'm suggesting for daily cycles would probably have keener cyclists frustrated and furiously cycling circuits around the campsites. But chasing cyclists across France and ending up in Marseilles at the end of a week with a caravan is not going to be a new venture for sanssacados.
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