Finistère – “la fin de la terre”

After our initial city breaks in London and Paris, we drove all the way to Le Conquet and Pointe de Saint-Mathieu, the most western point in France, in Finistère, Brittany. This marked effectively the beginning of our road trip – the furthest point away from our eventual destination. Every day of travel from here on in will bring us one step closer. Alan noted that it is symbolically fitting that we are starting on Bastille Day in the most western point of France and will finish our journey on Australia Day in Cape Leeuwin, the extreme south-west corner of Australia.

EOS 100D_00914My sister Anne and her two children Odaline and Mayeul joined us for this part of the voyage, travelling for two weeks through Brittany together.

We embarked with the children on a 10-km walk from our accommodation in Lochrist to Pointe de Saint-Mathieu to the town of Le Conquet and looping back to our starting point.

Pointe de Saint-Mathieu is a beautiful area – wild, rugged, isolated. It used to be called “Penn ar Bed” (“la pointe du bout du monde”) or literally the point of the end of the world. It has been an important navigational landmark since medieval times. The cape today comprises the remains of a medieval abbey, a famous lighthouse, a semaphore (signalling tower) from the Navy, and a memorial cenotaph that is unique on several counts. EOS 100D_00944This juxtaposition of buildings associated with religion, navigation, naval defence, and remembrance is evidence of the significance of this site.

The Abbey Saint Mathieu de Fine Terre was first founded in the 6th century. In the late 17th century, monks started to light fires in the tower of the abbey to guide boats towards Brest. Then in 1835 the lighthouse (Phare de Saint-Mathieu) was built; it was inhabited by a lighthouse-keeper until 1996 before being refitted and fully-automated. The top of the lighthouse – 163 stairs up, 55 meters above sea level – offers a magnificent view embracing the Rade de Brest: from Ouessant island to Pointe du Raz.

EOS 100D_00977Also on the Pointe, the cenotaph, Mémorial National des marins morts pour la France, is notable as it is the only one in France that commemorates all sailors lost at sea in the defence of the country – including those from the fishing and commercial industries, as well as the Navy – putting all the same level rather than the traditional hierarchy. Built in 1927, the memorial inspires respect and refection.

Hundreds if not thousands of photos of sailors who perished at sea in the last century – purposely without indication of rank in order to convey how all become equal in death – cover the walls of a succession of small, dimly-lit rooms. In the background there is a recording of a female and a male voice who cite one after the other the name of vessels lost at sea, with the date and the context of the loss. The flat intonation of their voice and the very succinct enunciation of those dramatic facts seem to echo the immensity and depth of the sea, where even the biggest vessel is of infinitesimal significance in the context of nature – in stark contrast to the dramatic loss of human life and the devastating impact on their families.EOS 100D_00982

The cenotaph recognises the families’ loss and grief: at the top of a column, a sculpture of a woman, the face wracked with anguish, is facing the ocean. It symbolises wives, mothers, families left waiting on land for the safe return of their loved one from their duty at sea.

Such a tribute to these men and women in this rugged and desolate setting is awe and respect-inspiring.

Having marked the start of our road trip from this westernmost point of France, we made our way through Brittany to the small town of Le Faou, where my dear grand-mother, who passed away this spring, lived some of her childhood years. Anne and I remember vividly some of the anecdotes she had told us from those happy years in her life and it was touching to walk in her footprints some 100 years later.

EOS 100D_01428Then we had a short stop in the picturesque walled-citadel of Concarneau, another highlight of Brittany: a reminder of the traditional connection between the Bretons and the sea, and their proud maritime heritage.

We concluded our time in Brittany with a family reunion in Pornichet, Baie de La Baule. My grand-mother had lived for the last 30 years in this little seaside town and we all have many good memories of visiting her, spending Christmas celebrations, and family holidays there.

We have compiled a photo album our time on the road in Brittany.  You can click the link to view it.  Enjoy!

 

 

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