A reluctant visitor discovers the unhurried charm of Brittany, France
By Bill Heavey,
Bill Heavey for The Washington Post
The thing that sticks in my mind after two weeks in Brittany — not the part of France I’d originally planned to visit — is walking into a boulangerie and watching seven honeybees buzzing around an apple tart. It’s not unusual to see bees in boulangeries in France, but seven on one tart was impressive. And these were excited insects. I knew what they were saying to each other. “Dude! Can you believe this? We made it into the boulangerie! Then we made it into the case! And now we’re sitting on the sweetest thing in the store! Woo hoo!” They were the happiest bees I’ve ever seen.
My French girlfriend and I had planned a swell 10-day walking tour in southwest France along the Way of St. James, a major pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages. Just weeks before our departure, however, Veronique came down with medical issues for which extended walking was contraindicated. Instead, she proposed that I meet her to spend our vacation in Brittany, about 600 miles northwest of our original destination, where she had grown up and where her mother and many of her friends live. Her mother lives in Lorient, and Veronique’s friend has an apartment in Larmor-Plage, an un-touristy little seaside town nearby with secluded beaches. She tried to spin this as an opportunity for me to meet her mother and her friends, to show me where she spent childhood summers and to relax on the beach.
This sounded awful. I’d envisioned a trip on neutral ground, a place that would be new to both of us. Instead, we would be vacationing on her turf with no particular itinerary other than lying on the beach and socializing with her friends and mother. My French is decent but rust-covered. I’m socially awkward even in English, and I don’t do particularly well on beaches. I’ve always lacked the necessary tolerance for sand. I sunburn easily. I get antsy. Frankly, I’m probably not a great deal as a boyfriend. But that ship had sailed, so I did what any boyfriend with half a brain would do: I said it sounded wonderful.
Thirty-six hours after taking off from Dulles International Airport, I was sitting at a seaside cafe in Larmor-Plage with a huge bowl of steamed mussels, a sturdy beer from a nearby abbey and some wonderfully crisp frites accompanied by housemade mayonnaise. (Fries with mayonnaise sounds heathen, but it was delicious. Travel truly does broaden the mind, at least with respect to mayonnaise.) The mussels had the tang of the sea. There are mussels everywhere in Brittany. In fact, I could watch people with plastic buckets picking the black shells off rocks from where we sat. The beer bespoke monks who recognized that earthly life should also have its pleasures. I began to unclench a bit. There are possibilities here, I thought.
The Larmor-Plage beach along the Atlantic Ocean; the seaside town of about 8,000 is approximately four miles outside the larger city of Lorient.
Larmor-Plage is a seaside town of about 8,000 approximately four miles outside the larger city of Lorient, population roughly 50,000. It’s almost completely skipped by guidebooks and has little tourist infrastructure other than places that rent windsurfers and small sailboats, a decent number of cafes and restaurants, and a few hotels. This part of Brittany isn’t remote, but it lacks the dash of cities such as St.-Malo, Rennes and Dinan, a small but hiply historic place that took up the majority of my single guidebook’s entry on Brittany. Both Larmor-Plage and Lorient were almost destroyed by bombings during World War II, so the architecture in these towns is less than 80 years old. This suited me fine. The problem with staying in postcard-perfect towns in Brittany is that they attract other tourists, which leads to tourist infrastructure, which leads to parking difficulties and the feeling that you are just another wallet. Far better — to my mind, at least — to lodge yourself somewhere off the tourist trail and do day visits to the quaint places.
We did visit the Lorient Submarine Base, a huge repair facility capable of servicing about 30 U-boats at a time. The Nazis built it in record time starting in 1940 after they conquered France. The base was bombed heavily by the Allies but was so fortified that it never sustained serious damage. The tour guide spent most of the time relating facts about how many yards of concrete were placed over various facilities, including bays the size of cathedrals. He said the concrete was so thick in some places that it took 50 years to cure. For connoisseurs of concrete, this is a must-see. I may have missed something on the tour, because one four-star review on a website includes the following: “I went with my young adult kids who are all pacifists and everyone enjoyed themselves.”
Today, the area has become a center for sailing and has a sailing museum that pulls yachties from all over the place. We opted to skip this, partly because it has a large-screen presentation of ocean racing so realistic that the seats are equipped with a rail to steady those who experience seasickness from the you-are-there cinematography.
The aspects I enjoyed most weren’t outings to see Pont-Aven, where Paul Gauguin and other post-impressionists lived for a time, or Carnac, where thousands of ancient stones, possibly dating back to around 4500 B.C., are set in rows (although that was pretty cool). To my surprise, what I enjoyed most was lying on the beach and taking walks along the coast. I attribute this increased tolerance for beaches to age. Maybe you just reach a point in life where you’re happy to stay put and watch the world parade by. The coast of Brittany is scenic and rugged, with craggy rocks and cliffs, inset here and there with beaches, some of which are quite small. The paths sometimes skirt the beaches below and sometimes take you right down to the beach itself. The beaches are swimmer-friendly: long, flat affairs with the water deepening gradually. They’re ideal for children.
The Lorient Submarine Base, a huge repair facility capable of servicing about 30 U-boats at a time, was built by the German Navy during World War II. Visitors can now tour the space, which houses a museum and a marina.
Veronique turned out to be a connoisseur of the local beaches. She has ones she likes at high or low tides, as well as sheltered ones for windy days. She even has favorite spots on the beaches. One night, having an apéro — the French word for an extended cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres, which often ends up lasting until 11 p.m. — she persuaded our party of six to relocate to a “nicer” spot on the same beach.
Sit on any French beach and you can’t help noticing that, although France certainly doesn’t lack for overweight people, it can’t begin to rival the United States, one of the most obese nations on earth. It’s one thing to know this intellectually. It’s another to see it. There are McDonald’s here, of course, but they lack the golden arches and are rather camouflaged. The interesting thing is they don’t seem to be taken particularly seriously, because the French are serious about what they eat.
We soon found ourselves following the French model. You go shopping daily, even if only for bread. And it’s amazing bread. There isn’t a bakery we visited that didn’t put the ones I buy back home to shame. I know, because I bought a baguette shortly after returning. To my newly educated eyes, it looked very sad.
My companion quickly demonstrated an ability to lie on the beach all day, taking breaks to walk back and forth in chest-deep waters, which seems to be a popular activity, at least in Larmor-Plage. She insists that this is wonderful once you get used to the water. I tested the temperature, found it a good bit brisker than I cared for, and went off to explore.
Bill Heavey for The Washington Post
A beach near Moëlan-sur-Mer in Brittany.
There are footpaths along the shore everywhere in Brittany. There are no historical plaques about them, but they feel as if they’ve been there for centuries. Some of the cliffs along the shore are 75 or 100 feet tall. The sea goes through a spectrum of subtle color shifts as the light changes, from deep green to lighter green to blue and darker blue. I grew to love the simple act of walking and being mesmerized by the changing water.
Brittany is at a northerly latitude, with summer sunsets that occur after 10 p.m. The experience was so powerfully relaxing that, after a week, when a friend of Veronique’s asked for my address, I blanked on my own Zip code and had to check it on my driver’s license. This, incidentally, is the mark of a successful vacation. As with the experience of lying on the beach, I found that I felt comfortable among Veronique’s friends. I even got on with her mother, a formidable person who softened a bit when I complimented her on the wild mushrooms in the omelet she fed us. She seemed to know the seasons of every wild edible in the countryside.
One day, I walked so far that I got lost. I stopped and asked a man at a beachside cafe whether he could tell me where I was. I couldn’t understand his explanation, so I asked him to hang on, called Veronique and passed him the phone. He spoke to her for a while and handed the phone back. “Don’t move,” Veronique said. “Stay where you are, and I’ll come get you.”
She announced that she wanted to take me to a place she had heard about in nearby Baden. We drove down a small road until I was convinced we were lost. About then, we came upon a small harbor, a wooden shack with tanks holding fresh oysters and a small outdoor deck. It was way off the beaten track, obviously open in summer only, and jammed with people who seemed to have sought it out. I ordered a dozen oysters, a beer and moules a la crème, while Veronique had a half lobster and stuffed clams. It was all ridiculously good. For dessert, I had kouign-amann, a local specialty made of butter, flour and sugar. But it is folded endlessly until it develops a caramelized texture on the outside and a dense, sweet, salty, melting texture on the inside.
“We’ve got to get home before long,” I said with a sigh.
“Because if we stay, I’ll eat six of these every day.”
Heavey is a writer based in Bethesda.
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If you go
Where to stay Best Western Plus Hotel Les Rives du Ter 15 Blvd. Jean Monnet, Larmor-Plage
011-33-2-97-35-33-50 lesrivesduter.com One of the nicest hotels in the area with a good bar, restaurant and veranda overlooking the Etang du Ter near the ocean. Rooms from about $157 per night and from about $202 with breakfast. Les Mouettes Rue de Rennes, Larmor-Plage
011-33-2-97-65-50-30 lesmouettes.com/?langue=en This romantic boutique hotel just steps from the water is set off by itself a short walk from shops and restaurants. Rooms from about $142 to about $189 per night. Where to eat Moulin Vert 1 Quai Gilles Gahinet, Ploemeur
011-33-2-97-82-94-92 le-moulin-vert.fr A bar, restaurant and brasserie that’s a good place for seafood right on the ocean. Entrees from about $15. La Toulverne Pointe de Toulvern, Baden
011-33-2-97-57-00-19 aurythmedesmarees.fr/contact A wonderful bar-restaurant with a veranda right on the water. Try the fresh oysters and the kouign-amann, a pastry of Brittany that has made more than one person say: “To hell with my diet!” Reservations recommended. Entrees from about $23. Galet’& Co. 11 Place Notre Dame, Larmor-Plage
You’ll need to bone up on the difference between crepes and galettes before or soon after your arrival in Brittany. Crepes are thinner, usually made of wheat flour and have sweet fillings. Galettes are a bit thicker, made of buckwheat flour and have savory fillings of meat, fish, cheese or vegetables. You’ll find the latter here. Le Péché Mignon 2 Rue du Port, Larmor-Plage
Wonderful bread, croissants and pastries. La Boul’ange 2 Rue du Beau Rivage, Larmor-Plage
Good all-around breads, croissants and sandwiches. What to do Lorient Submarine Base Cité de la Voile Éric Tabarly, Lorient
011-33-2-97-02-23-29 billetterie.lorientlabase.fr/content The German submarine base built during World War II now houses a submarine museum, a marina, and other cultural and civic venues. Ninety-minute guided tours available daily at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. Adults about $8, children about $4, children 3 and under free. Information brittanytourism.com B.H.
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