From Bretagne to Britain

Brittany is what the English think of when they conjure up the quintessential romantic image of rural France – complete with the stripy T-shirted Frenchmen cycling about with strings of onions around their necks.

It’s picture perfect villages of whitewashed stone buildings with their pastel shutters are burrowed in among lush green meadows and woods of oak and pine connected by winding lanes and tree fringed rivers.

It is the home of the crêpe and ‘moules frites’ is written large on every restaurant sandwich board.

Young men sit outside cafes at midday enjoying lurid green crème de menthe.

To English eyes it is oh so very, very French.

Which is funny really because the Bretons are Celts who in some ways have more in common with the Cornish across La Manche than many of their fellow countrymen.

In fact, if you removed the crème de menthe, the ubiquitous crêpes and perhaps the Bretons themselves, you could easily be in Cornwall.

The countryside and villages bear a striking resemblance to England’s south west peninsula.

Like Cornwall, Brittany is a glorious place to explore on a boat with countless pretty river inlets, bays and seaside towns.

Also like Cornwall, Brittany attracts many wealthy urbanites who flock there for their weekend and summer breaks, buying up second homes and lending the more popular seaside destinations an air of chic affluence usually reserved for the city. Brittany has the price tag to match its popularity as we quickly discovered on being charged €4 for a small beer. This may have been less of a shock had we arrived from our own expensive British Isles but coming from Portugal then Spain it caused us both to gulp silently.

Sadly for us, but possibly not for our wallets, we did not have the time to do anything more than poke our nose into South Brittany for a couple of days before we headed for home waters.

But after crossing Biscay, Brittany was a brief heavenly respite.

We moored up in Sainte-Marine on the mouth of the beautiful River Odet which snakes it’s way up to the small city of Quimper.

A more picturesque spot than Sainte-Marine would be hard to find. The village clusters around a tiny river cove where a handful of café bars and restaurant terraces offer views across the Odet and its hotch potch of little boats to the larger resort town of Bénodet.

Every house in Sainte-Marine seemed to have been designed and built for the sole purpose of preserving and enhancing the prettiness of the village. Purple wisteria draped itself elegantly over stone walls, blossom fluttered from gardens to the roadside and wild flowers bloomed from every hedgerow.

Keen to stretch our legs, we walked for four miles along the coast to Île Tudy, another gloriously postcard village squeezed onto a spit of land on the mouth of the Pont L’Abbé river estuary.

A pristine white beach lined most of the route across which little wavelets gently fizzed as they advanced and retreated over the hot sand.

Behind it thick golden meadows were grazed by cattle casting long shadows as the sun sank low in a cloudless sky.

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On Saturday we decided to head to Quimper. It was only about 10 miles up the river and we’d read that one could easily take a boat to get there.

What we had not factored in was that we would need to cross the river to Bénodet to get anywhere at all, that the only boats to Quimper were not ferries but tourist tour boats that charged a small fortune, only left twice a day and took you to about three other places enroute and lastly, that we were in France, the land of the Gallic Shrug.

A small ferry usually ran throughout the day between Sainte-Marine and Bénodet. But not today it seemed. The ferry had temporarily stopped working due to celebrations taking place across the river over the launch of a new lifeboat.

We were told by the local harbourmaster it would resume service at 12.30pm. In two hours’ time and too late for us to catch a boat to Quimper.

We asked about buses.

He shrugged, maybe from Bénodet, but not from here.

Could we take a taxi?

Again from Bénodet. But, shrugging, it will cost about 50 Euro.

Both ways?

One way.

We went to the tourist information office. It was closed, of course, I mean, it was the weekend after all when no tourists ever need assistance.

We went to try and bribe a local rib owner to rent us one of his boats for the day. Not to Quimper, he said, too shallow.

Could he take us across to Benodet? We asked.

Non. He’d like to but if he did he would have to start saying yes to everyone. Shrug.

We asked him again about the ferry – it will start running again at 12.30pm yes?

Well, pff, he answered, shrugging. Maybe 12.30, maybe 1.30pm, maybe not. You know, ‘e is French.

Ah okay, we understood. What about the buses from Benodet? They are quite regular oui?

Well, another shrug and a grin. They are French bus companies…

We understood.

We decided in the event, to walk to Bénodet which involves following the river a couple of miles to the nearest big road bridge outside both towns. It was actually a lovely hour and a half’s walk and we kicked ourselves for wasting the previous hour and a half trying to get there by lazier means.

However, having struggled to reach a town that was quite literally 150 yards across the river from us, we felt a bit defeated at the prospect of battling to get to Quimper. And more importantly, getting back. Our French advisors had not filled us with confidence.

So, shrugging, we settled on visiting Bénodet for the day.

It turns out there isn’t much of Bénodet to ‘visit’.

It is a great example of where the tiny original town or village has been grossly expanded with residential holiday homes, apartments and hotels largely thanks to the huge sandy beach next to it. Being French, it is done with more tact and style than what one finds on the Costa del Sol but much of it definitely felt like a ‘resort’ rather than a town.

After eating some of the best crêpes France has to offer – smoked sausage with cheese, tomatoe and sweet onions followed by the classic chocolate and banana with a sprinkling of coconut – we ambled along the Bénodet seafront, browsing the overpriced shops and looking down at the early summer tanners sweating on the sand.

We agreed we had chosen the superior side of the river.

That evening, being our last night in foreign climes, we treated ourselves to dinner in the Bistro du Bac overlooking Sainte-Marine’s cove. A starter of six of the freshest oysters Pete had ever eaten while I enjoyed sardines from a town just a few miles up the coast, confirmed this as a good decision.

We both oohed and aaahed over the delicately cooked local fresh fish served as our mains – lobster, scallop, cod, prawn and others I couldn’t confidently identify – washed down with a delicious bottle of Mâcon-Villages.

Les desserts? Mais oiu! Bien sûr!

Pete went for his favourite, crème brûlée, while I opted for a more unusual pistachio mousse and raspberry cake which was delectably candy sweet.

We left sunday morning with the tide to sail north around the Brittany coastline then towards the Channel Islands before crossing north to the Isle of Wight.

The forecast had warned of a notable absence of wind but we had a wedding to get back for so accepted our lot and prepared to motor most of the way home.

The sea was glassy calm as we chugged out of the river Odet. Hardly a ripple disrupted it’s silky surface.

We needed to get past Ushant with its notoriously strong tidal race while the tide was favourable so we remained under engine throughout the afternoon reaching our target by early evening and turning north east towards Guernsey.

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As we drifted further from land a swallow, clearly exhausted, swooped down and tried to land on the boat. The movement of the sails and probably our presence on deck spooked it so it flew off again but, desperate, returned and this time flew straight past us into the saloon. It sat on the book shelf for a few minutes surveying its surroundings before hopping off and disappearing into the bow of the boat. We accepted our stowaway for the night, left him some water and hoped the rest would do him good. He flew off again at 5.45am while I was on watch, hopefully this time reaching land.

The wind remained weak and patchy throughout but the next morning we killed the engine and got the sails out, determined to try and make some of the journey under sail power alone.

We drifted about tacking, letting the sails out, getting them in again, switching north then east as the wind, like a true trickster, leapt about. It blew confidently for 15 minutes from one direction then veered around 90 degrees before dying entirely and repeating the whole charade from a new direction.

Just when I was on the verge of giving up and putting the engine back on, it would gear up again with a healthy breeze from where it had started.

Pete was enjoying some sleep down below while I waged my own personal war on the wind, whooping and cursing intermittently.

Happily by the afternoon a light breeze settled from the north and we sailed along at a relaxed pace past the Channel Islands which loomed briefly out of the haze then disappeared again.

By dusk the wind had once again fallen to a whisper so we engined across the busy shipping channel as cargo ships, cruise liners and other floating giants ploughed towards the traffic separation zone dwarfing little N’Tiana.

The English Channel – or La Manche if you are French and are damned if you are going to assign ownership of that shared stretch of water to the English – had returned to an eery calm.

There was mythical ghostliness to the still silent water as the sun melted into the blue horizon and the sea melted into the sky.

We were suddenly in a new realm with no beginning and no end.

When darkness fell, the stars were reflected on the water so that we could have been sailing through the night sky.

I felt I might wake up and, instead of the Isle of Wight, find we’d arrived in Atlantis or the Underworld, although I didn’t feel we’d behaved sufficiently badly on this particular trip to deserve the latter.

It felt like we were being silently borne somewhere – hopefully home – by some inexplicable mystical force.

So it was that the lights of the South Coast and Needles Channel bought us back to reality with their distant glow at about 3am the next morning as we glided towards them.

For me this was the perfect home coming. Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight is the place I have visited every summer, rain or shine, with my family since I was a newborn babe.

It is the place where my sisters and I learnt to sail. The place where I learnt to love to sail. A place of happy memories. A safe haven.

So it seemed fitting that Yarmouth should be our first landfall in the UK. The first harbour in her entire seafaring life where N’Tiana has not had to fly a courtesy flag. We had finally bought her home.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. andrewprynne says:

    I have so enjoyed your descriptions of what you have seen and experienced on this great voyage north from southern Portugal and your safe homecoming to dear old Yarmouth. Looking forward to more excellent travelogue as you sail round the challenging British coast.


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