Quimper and South West Brittany – June 2017

Left Rennes on Tuesday morning, June 6th and arrived in Quimper around noon. We are in a small attached bungalow house with a beautiful garden. Very cold and blustery today and rain forecast for the afternoon and tomorrow morning. 

What a welcome we received from our host,  Olivier Francois. He stocked the fridge with homemade preserves, a bottle of local apple cider, some local salted butter, a bowl of fresh fruit, a baguette and lobster pate! Super friendly, showed us how everything worked and spent a bit of time with us telling us where we should visit. We hope to be able to use the garden area while we are here.  

A little history on the house we are renting here. In the early 50’s about one hundred families joined together to build their housing. They opened up this hillside, built retaining walls, built roads and built all the houses together. A lottery then took place to see who would reside in which house. Today, we are told that the people in this neighbourhood are very close and watch out for one another. Our host told us that he went on holiday for a few weeks, forgot to lock the house and even left his car keys in the ignition and everything was fine when he returned. Some of the original people still here and now sons and daughters of the original builders have moved here as well. Francois Olivier has redone the interior of the house; very comfortable, beautifully decorated and so well stocked. 

Although showers forecast for the next few days, should not stop us from touring the nearby towns. We always pack our umbrellas and light rain jackets, so we will be well prepared. 

Quimper sits between two rivers, the Odet and Steir. The population of Quimper proper is about 63, 000 and 120,000 for the surrounding area of the city. Quimper is known for its Faience (ceramic/pottery) which is still manufactured by hand in the Locmaria district. In 1690 Jean Baptiste Bousquet settled here as the firewood, clay and water were plentiful, so that he could continue with his craft. 

Quimper was a hub for resistance activity in WW11 and was lucky enough to avoid most of the destruction that happened in other Breton towns. 
Lots of traffic circles here as in other cities in France. Our host told us that Quimper was the one of the first towns in France that experimented with traffic circles. Robin and I don’t mind driving through them at all, just remember that whoever is inside the circle has the right of way! I have a friend (you know who you are) who hates traffic circles and will do anything to avoid them. We only have a handful of them in Calgary. I think they are a very efficient way of moving traffic, makes sense to me. 

First thing we find is the local grocery store to get stocked up for the next few days. It is so great being in Europe where one can buy everything you need, including wine in one location. We walk into the Locmaria neighbourhood and visit the Faience museum and visit a local Faience manufacturing plant. Oldest church in Quimper (X11th centrury) is also located in the Locmaria neighbourhood. 

Faience pottery, a specialty of. Quimper

The pottery’s design reflects a strong traditional Breton influence. Most scenes depict Breton men and/or woman in traditional Breton costumes going about their daily lives, all very brightly painted. In recent years, artists have updated the designs and some we saw at the Faience Museum and a well known factory, HB-Henriot. These artists have taken a more modern take on their pottery designs. One design that particularly caught my eye was a table setting. Each dish design melds into the next, then even into the tablecloth…really quite amazing. Shirley, you would love this!

Have to tell you that since we were in Budapest, Robin has come down with a really bad cough and severe nasal issues. This morning, Wednesday the 7th, I texted our landlord, Olivier Francois, to see if he could recommend a Doctor. Well 5 minutes later, I get a text giving us the name of a Doctor, but not only that, he has already made the appointment for us….WOW! This guy is so amazing! 

We head to the old town of Quimper (Kemper in Breton), referred to as the ” The Bishop’s Town”. The Cathedrale Saint Corentin towers over the old town and its spires dominate the skyline. It is built in the Gothic style and dates back to the 13th, 15th and 19th centuries. Beautiful flying buttresses and an ornately carved portal as one enters the church. Wonderful stained glass windows were made in local workshops. The choir part of the church is built out of line with the nave to accommodate an older chapel, I believe one of the pictures shows this, quite out of the ordinary. Beautiful pipe organ dating back to 1643 and has been restored several times over the years. 

We also make a stop at “Les Halles” (the covered market), which here in Quimper is opened every day, but the big market is on Saturday. Has everything one would need on a daily basis, looking forward to visiting the market on Saturday, which is not in Les Halles, but in a park area near the river. 

The streets in the “vielle ville” are named after the the trades that made their living here centuries ago….Place du Beurre (Butter Square), Rue des Boucheries (Butcher’s street), and so on. These streets are pedestrian friendly, quite narrow and lined with timber framed houses. Creperies definitely rule the restaurant scene here in QUimper and for that matter, all of Brittany. One square we stopped at for our lunch had 6 creperies…not a word of a lie!

La vielle ville de Quimper

Stop at a shop to buy some makeup removers and in my conversation in french with the saleswoman (probably about 50+) she asks me where I am from as I don’t have a Breton accent, and are we on holidays. I reply that we are from Canada we are indeed on holidays, but in fact we are also retired, so really the same thing really! She laughs and tells me she would take either, but would prefer to be retired. 

We find the Doctor’s office which is just on the outskirts of the old town. Robin has been diagnosed with bronchitis! Off to the pharmacy to get antibiotics and other medication and hopefully he will be better in a couple of days. He has had a hard time in the last couple of weeks. He finally listened to me and went to the Doctor!

In the afternoon, we head out of town and drive to the small towns of Pont L’Abbey and L’Ile Tudy. Not much in Pont L’Abbey except an encounter with some school children. As we are passing the school, I hear “Pardon Madame, aidez nous”. They are asking for my help as the ball they were playing with has gone over the fence to our side of the walk. I am about to throw the ball back and one of the teacher’s comes over and asks me if they said “please”. I reply most definitely and throw the ball back…..I get back a “merci” in harmony from all the kids. 

Drive on to the very tiny town of L’Ile Tudy. This is on the ocean and we are so near, wanted to see it. Until the 19th century it was an island until a bridge was built to join it to the mainland. At one time the village was a busy fishing port, but is now a fashionable for out of towners to have a second home, very evident. A class of schoolchildren taking sailing lessons in the harbour. Nice to be by the ocean.

Pont. L’Abbe and Ile-Tudy

Thursday sees us on the road to Concarneau, known as “Ville Bleue” as traditionally the nets that the fishermen used were made of blue twine. The town is still an important fishing port. Historically they fished for sardines and whales but today their catch is mainly tuna. Their is a fish auction every morning held on the docks. The town has a traditional festival every year to celebrate their history of fishing. This festival originated in 1905 as the sardines were fished out and fishermen’s’ families starved as they could not make a living. The nobles and merchants put on a festival to raise money to help those in need. 

The “Ville Close” (walled town) is a charming one. Not very busy in this part of the world, although we are told that in the summer, one cannot move. Lots of tourists and people who own second homes frequent this region. The old town has a fishermen’s museum and mainly restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Robin notes that most of the clothes being sold are nautical (blue and red stripes). I realize I am wearing my blue stripe shirt, who knew I could fit in so well!

 We take a navette across an estuary (took about 2 minutes to get across) and go for a walk along the promenade for about one hour. Not many people about, very nice to be by the ocean. At one point we come across some signage that indicates that Concarneau was occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1944 and they had built bunkers along the coast. We could see remains of one of the bunkers. 

Cool and cloudy today, but fortunately it has only rained in the evenings so hasn’t cause us any problems. 
After our walk, we stop in the old town for lunch. My first moulles and frites and Robin has fish and chips. On our way back to the car, we stop at a bakery whose specialty is “kouign” and pick up a few to have with our tea later. These are small sweet cakes made of sugar, butter and almonds. Today you can also get those with varied fillings…chocolate, raisins, berries and caramel…..yummmmm. I was told they have “no calories”!

Only home about 1/2 hour when our landlord Olivier Francois arrives. He is checking up on us, mainly Robin. He asks if the house is warm enough, how is Robin feeling and do we need anything. I do believe that in all the years we have rented, he rates right up there. He is so friendly and extremely helpful. 

Meant to mention that when we were in Concarneau, there was a man looking for edible crustaceans in the rock pools as the tide was out.

When travelling by car and visiting small towns in Europe, parking is so varied. In some cases the parking is absolutely free, in other cases one needs to pay…o.k., makes sense so far. Well, you definitely have to look at the signs. Need to pay between 9 and noon, free from noon till 2 pm, then need to pay again from 2 – 6 . In other areas, you can only park for 1 1/2 or 2 hours, but it is free…so…you have to display a little blue time card and you indicate the hour you arrive. Well, when we arrived in Concarneau we parked where we needed to display the card. Unfortunately this rental car did not provide one, so being inventive, I put a small note on the dashboard saying we arrived at 10:30 and drew a picture of a clock. Proceeded to stop at the tourism bureau to get a map of the town and I told them what I did….they all smiled and sold me a time card for 1 Euro and told me to go back to my car and replace my “little note” with the time card!

Friday we decide to head north of Quimper and visit three towns, Le Faou, Locronan and Pont Croix. We got a great book from the tourism office when we first arrived in Rennes and it has been invaluable for pointing us in the right direction for towns to see in the Brittany area. These towns are classified as “Petites Cites de Caractere” or “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”. 
Our first stop, Le Faou, is about one hour north of Quimper. Pretty sleepy little town at the head of an estuary. Tide is out, so once again we see boats sitting in the mud flats. The town street are being redone and interesting to see them working on them, No, the streets are not being paved, they are redoing it with cobblestones and them putting a cement slurry over the top to bind them….similar to grouting. We stop at a small wine shop as we wanted to buy our host a nice bottle of wine for everything he has done for us. Get into a conversation with the owner and once again when he finds out we are Canadian, he tells us about his two trips to the Montreal area. He tells me I have a nice accent and I don’t sound like a Quebecois. He says he sometimes has a hard time understanding the Quebecers….I just laugh. He also finds out we are headed to the Loire so advises us that we must visit a certain winery there, a favourite of his. A short stop here, although a nice little town, not much to see. As we are leaving he says “Bonne Ballade”….strictly translated this would mean “good walking”, but loosely translated it means “Enjoy your roaming around!” 

Le Faou

The houses in Le Faou are a bit different that the half timbered houses we have become used to seeing. The majority are smaller houses and slate has been used on the front of the homes. Again, as is most small towns in France, an old church stands in the centre of the town. Find the carvings in the stone spires and portals of these old churches to be works of art. 
Hop back in the car (got to use my little blue parking card again……getting my Euro’s worth) and drive on to our next destination, Locronan. The drives we have taken in the countryside here have been so nice. We are taking secondary windy roads, so fun to drive. Beautiful rolling hills, farmland and then the ocean in the background. Looks like most farmers have already brought one crop in and have already planted their secondary crops. Since arriving in Quimper, the weather has been cooler, but it hasn’t stopped us from seeing the sights. 

The countryside
On the way to Locronan we stop in the village of Chateaulin which sits on the side of a canal that runs from Brest on the coast to Nantes, which is in the extreme south east end of Brittany. Some French classify Nantes as part of the Loire. Stop for a tea/coffee at a “sale de the” and indulge in a almond croissant, which we share, by the way! This shop also has amazing pastries and they make their own chocolates. Not unlike other patisseries in France, all the pastries are works of art. Good thing we are walking a lot!

Locronan sits on a promontory and is said to be the religious centre of Breton origin. This town is also classified as one of the “prettiest towns” in France. The houses here are made of bue-grey granite. The town was found in the 15th century and was Brittany’s sailcloth centre, up until the 18th century. The church here is built in the Romanesque style. Went into the church, as we normally do, for some time of prayer, contemplation and thankfulness for the life we are able to lead. Some beautiful statues, carvings and stained glass windows.


Our last stop for the day is Pont – l’Abbe, where we stop for a lunch of galettes. Again a very small town and the main square where we are eating, is where the local workers are having their lunch. This is usually their main meal, and they seem to eat out a lot. Usually a beer or aperitif before their lunch then a good amount of wine with lunch and a desert and coffee. This really is a way of life for the French, no stigma about drinking, just part of their life. We walk through the town after lunch, again some nice stone house, but this place is pretty quiet, not many locals around. Come across two churches within a few meters of each other and the remains of a convent, dating back to the 14th century. The town was known for its embroidery work and they still have a festival each year to commemorate this art. 

I have talked about apple cider and how it is the drink of choice for all Breton’s. Really just dawned on me that every restaurant or cafe that we go to, has the special cups already laid out on the table; they just assume everyone will be drinking apple cider. The apple cider is less than 5% alcohol. 

In this part of Brittany, we have seen very few foreign tourists, mainly just French on holiday or the odd bus tour. 
In Brittany we have seen many, many wind turbines which makes sense as we are near the ocean. In 2016, 72% of France’s electricity was produced by nuclear power. Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro) only accounted for 18% and the remainder via fossil fuels. 

Went to the Saturday outdoor market today in Quimper. A good number of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, prepared meals (thank you, that is our dinner tonight) and others selling clothing and handmade goods. Just picked up a few things are we are headed off to Amboise, in the Loire region on Sunday morning, the 11th. As we were walking through the market, Robin and I were speaking and an old gentleman, probably in his 90’s was scowling at us and he said in very broken english…”where are you from?”. I reply in French….”du Canada”…his face breaks out into a smile and he walks away!

The Quimper Market
Baskets for sale at the Quimper marke. Locals use these to do all their shopping. Won’t fit in my carry on!
At the market today, we stopped by a “caviste” (wine shop) and picked up a bottle of wine. He had a really good selection of French wines from all over the country. In speaking to him, he told us that one really does not need to spend a lot of money on wine. You do not need to buy a “Sancerre” for example, which is quite expensive. You can buy another type of french wine that will be very close to a Sancerre, but will sell for a much reasonable price…….think this is called marketing on behalf of the Sancerre! As we have found before, the Caviste are well worth seeking out, very knowledgeable. 
Stop for a coffee/tea in one of the local squares, seems to be the thing to do after the market. Nice to see the parents with their kids at the market. This town, although a good size, still has a small town atmosphere about it, people are very friendly. Our host, Olivier Francois, told us that his grandmother always told him that to be polite, one has to always keep their door open (really, she meant, literally…keep the door open) and secondly always have a pot of coffee on the stove. He says having coffee with friends is still very much a way of life here, and you can certainly see this in all the squares and cafes.

Over the years when we have travelled by car in France, I have often noticed signs by the roadway that will say “VIde Grenier” on such a day in such a location. In my mind, I assumed in my own french mind, that this meant a celebration to fill the granaries as they were empty after the winter,and the first crop was in. Well….”grenier” can mean different things and yes it does mean granary, but it also means attic. What a “vide grenier” really means, after I finally looked it up, is a garage sale/flea market. One is never to old to learn new things!

We try to go to the “Musee des Beaux Arts”, but unfortunately it closes at noon and we arrive about 11:40. The attendant tells us we really would only have 10 minutes, as they clear everyone out 10 minutes before closing…o.k.

Drive to Pont-Aven, a town that has been on our list and today is the day, our final day here. A bit more sunshine today, which is nice, but still a cool breeze coming off the ocean. A very lovely town, one of the prettier ones we have seen. At one time in its’ history the town had 14 mills and 15 houses. Today these buildings have all been transformed into hotels, art galleries and shops. The reason for so many art galleries is due to the history of artists in the town. In the 1880’s a colony of painters settled here, one of them being Gauguin. Most of the colony was made up on English or American painters. The reason Brittany was chosen was not only for its lovely landscapes but also that they could live here very cheaply. Gauguin only stayed here for 3 years before moving elsewhere, but the artists colony remained.  

Robin tells me that France is known as a nation of shopkeepers’. This is very evident when you spend time in small towns. There are numerous butchers, bakeries, pharmacies and lots of optician shops. Believe this goes back to the French spirit of independence. 

Have enjoyed visiting this part of Brittany, beautiful villages, wonderful landscapes and very friendly people. Our host here in Quimper was just incredible and this little house made us feel like we were right at home. 

Off tomorrow morning, Sunday June 11th for our next destination, Amboise in the Loire Valley. Should take us about 5 1/2 hours or so to get there. 

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