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.