THE FIRST time I went camping in Brittany, I found the perfect ice-breaker. Having nearly run out of meths for my camping stove, I went around the various chemists in the tiny fishing port of Camaret, showing them the dregs of purple liquid and asking in my rudimentary French if they had anything like it.
Much bafflement and tentative sniffing of the contents by Gallic noses but all attempts to translate ‘methylated spirits’ failed. I did learn that the Bretons are extraordinarily kind and, eventually, (after eating in cafés for three days) that I was looking for cooking alcohol, which is colourless and sold in every supermarket. After all, they hardly have a problem with people drinking meths in France when the wine is so much cheaper.
I also learnt that I was a fool to think of cooking my own food in Brittany. Crepes and cider, oysters and flans, mussels and mead – the produce of the Atlantic Ocean and the fertile fields of Brittany make it one of the most distinctive cuisines of France.
Of course, the Bretons have more in common with the Celtic nations than with the rest of France. Walk through the early morning mist to see the standing stones of Carnac and you could be anywhere in the mythic west of Britain. The nearby beaches and cliffs, relentlessly beaten by Atlantic waves, confirm the impression. Only the number of people out windsurfing – that peculiar French obsession – or enjoying the sun on the sands reveal that you are not on the west coast of Ireland.
Those names have a Celtic ring too: Carnac, Trébeurden or Concarneau could be Cornish or Welsh. But the most evocative name has to be Finistère, French cousin to England’s own Land’s End. The major difference is that Finistère is a département, rather than a photo opportunity and you’ll have to bring your camera to Pointe de Corsen to find the westernmost point of the French mainland. The point also marks the official boundary of the Atlantic and the English Channel, or La Manche if you want to keep in with the locals.
If the beaches, rugged cliffs, pretty seaside towns and healthy airs of the coast begin to pale, head inland to Quimper, Finistère’s capital, for a taste of urban life. Dominated by its magnificent 13th century Gothic cathedral, the city is also notable for its medieval half-timbered buildings as well as the many footbridges that criss-cross the rivers it is built on. Be warned that it is very hard to escape Quimper without buying some of the colourful pottery it is famed for.
Back at the coast, the crashing waves of the Atlantic awaken the wanderlust in all of us and beckon you even more west. Catch a speedboat out to the remote Glenan Islands, a string of seven large and many smaller islands of blinding golden sands and bright green land. There’s a diving school and a sailing centre while a glass-bottomed boat tour entertains the less adventurous. It’s almost impossible to stay on the islands, as camping is banned and there are only a few small guesthouses. However, their isolation is part of their attraction and a day trip is perhaps long enough to enjoy their idyllic charms in full.
The sea also provides the basis for another uniquely French experience: thalassotherapy. Exercising in a heated seawater pool or being pummeled by high-pressure hoses are among the more energetic ways to flush out the body’s poisons. More sedate but, for a claustrophobic like me, much more stressful, is the full body wrap in seaweed, cling-film and heated blanket. I’ve no doubt it does wonders for your skin but the thought of ever being so immobilized again puts years on me.
The best bit about the local spas for me is undoubtedly the guilt-free way you can then enjoy more of that Breton food and drink. Egg, milk and flour rich, washed down with fine cider and wines, it’s guaranteed to keep you off the meths.
I flew to Brest from Southampton with Flybe, www.flybe.com
For a list of thalasso spas in Brittany, see www.cofrase-thalasso.com