Popped across to France during the Easter holidays for slightly less than a week at HPB Manoir du Hilguy in the outskirts of Quimper, the capital of Brittany on the west coast of France.
Booked at short notice, we were due to stay Wednesday to Wednesday, so the first surprise of the holiday was that there are no night sailings into Roscoff or St Malo on Wednesdays with Brittany Ferries – of all their long channel crossings, only Portsmouth-Caen runs on Wednesday nights. So the crossing out was nearly fully booked and we could only get reclining seats, not a cabin; and there was a long drive across the top of France to get to digs on the first day.
Travelling in through Normandy had its advantages too – my companion had never been to this part of the world before so it opened up opportunities for me to revisit some of the treasures of Normandy again. On the way from Caen to Quimper, we stopped off at the Bayeux tapestry. I have seen this before but could remember nothing of it, so was very happy to troll around the embroidery again. I had completely forgotten the cause of the Norman invasion in the years running up to it – Harald swearing and reneging on an oath – and all the filthy rude pictures around the edges were entertaining too.
A bit of a running theme throughout the visit was value for money. We felt many things of equivalent cultural importance in the UK would cost an awful lot more to visit. The thousand-year-old treasure of the first cost us under a tenner to see.
A second running theme though is opening hours and availability. Lots of the things we were interested in were not yet open for the season. Of all the HPB properties, only Hilguy is shut down for the winter, because not enough people visit to make it viable to keep open. But you can kinda see why – the weather forecast was terrible for our visit and many of the attractions in that part of the world are only open June-September.
On our way from Bayeux to Quimper, I took T to see the Château de Balleroy, Normandy home of the Forbes magnate. We could only glimpse through the gates as the castle doesn’t start doing visits until April.
Long drive onwards, arrived at Hilguy early afternoon. Quick nap, evening meal in the bistro onsite, long sleep.
First full day, after a lie in, leisurely breakfast and first experience with the Hilguy bread delivery (it’s awesome tasty bread, but you have to get to reception early enough in the afternoon to order it!) out to Quimper, a beautiful city with tricky parking. We found a space immediately in a car park across the river from the cathedral, but could only stop there for a few hours, on threat of high fines if you overstay your time by only a minute. We had better than expected weather which allowed us to walk the streets, including the Rue des Gentilhommes …
…and Place au Beurre (Butter Square) – where there were at least 5 crêperies all doing good business.
(I had been in this square 9 years previously but had no recollection of it.) We stopped in a delightful pancake shop which was very busy, full of French patrons, and had a delicious lunch. I was expecting to order a galette but the slightly frosty menu explained that this is a Norman thing – in Brittany, you have a crêpe au blé noir. I went for a “complète” and added creamy mushrooms – egg, ham, cheese, mushrooms.
I also wanted a pudding so went for a pancake “au froment” – I wrongly assumed this meant fermented, but it’s just the French for wheat. They made their own caramels, so I had a coffee flavoured caramel pancake and it was da bomb.
As we arrived the cathedral had been closed, but the doors were open after our lunch, so we went in for a visit. It’s dedicated to St Corentin of Quimper, a hermit who lived in the woods. He was blessed with a miraculous salmon that jumped out of a fountain at his prayer, and miraculously replaced any flesh that was sliced off it. The wikipedia page for the cathedral is incredibly detailed and helps as a guided tour.
The cathedral has a kink in the middle, because they found they couldn’t put footings in the swamp when they were building it.
We visited on Good Friday, so the statues were veiled.
There was a fab bay with an interesting story of a pilgrim who had entrusted his fortune to a friend whilst off gallivanting. On his return, his friend had pretended not to know where the money was and refused to give it back. There was a tribunal when his friend continued his lies in front of lay judges. At this point a statue of the crucifix began bleeding, and the friend gave the money back. The bay had a stained glass window depicting this, as well as a reliquary holding the head of the mediaeval statue which bled, and the cloth it bled onto.
Out of the cathedral, with the parking clock ticking, we had a choice between a fine art museum and a museum of Breton life, and chose the latter, in the Bishop’s Palace right next door. Lots of lovely furniture, ceramics and costumes, including lots of information about Breton women’s headdresses. An exhibition of a female illustrator of children’s books and her other paintings.
Back to car, supermarket trip, home, dinner. It was Good Friday and the TV ads had been banging on about lamb for weeks, so I bought a leg of lamb with the intention of roasting it one night and using the leftovers for shepherd’s pie on another occasion.
The second day, we were in pursuit of a nice castle, but were hampered in that a lot of the obvious places to try were not yet open for the season, or closed because of Easter. One in particular was Keriolet, “a Russian princess’s dream” but we didn’t get to go there at all. At reception, they explained that Brittany was a poorer region, not many châteaux, many more manors.
We eventually set out for the Domaine du Trévarez – I didn’t know much about it on the way. We arrived before it opened for the afternoon, so went for a bit of a drive, and walked around what felt like a ghost town of Châteauneuf du Faou, a town on a hill overlooking a bend in the river. We peeked around two churches and got back in the car.
Trévarez felt like it was ready for a huge number of visitors – vast carparks – but we were the first to arrive and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. It was built in the 1850s – at much the same time as the houses of Parliament and St Pancras, and had a similar sort of vibe. The architecture looked back to the 1700s but more modern techniques of construction were used, such as iron frames, and this was an early example of electricity (powered from a steam generator in the stable block), central heating, and fully indoor plumbing. The exterior of the castle had been perfectly restored, but the interior was very limited, and showed the damage done as the Allies bombed it in 1944, to try and remove the Nazis who had set up shop there.
The gardens were amazing, with heather and camellias in abundance.
There was a nice caff with some trad Breton cakes and biscuits.
We snacked on cheese and salad, and delicious pots à la crème which I always look out for in France.
April 1st, Easter Sunday, was the worst of the weather, so we set a course for Brest, and the largely indoor Océanopolis, a massive aquarium. I had been there before, before I became a teacher, and was hugely struck to find “bassin de requins” – shark pool – a phrase I use in my teaching. I must have internalised it last time I was there.
There are three pavilions – tropical and coral, arctic and local – with long exhibitions around each of these themes. It’s not perfect for a wet weather day as there are still uncovered walks from the car park to the tanks and between each various bit but it was the best way to spend a day with really atrocious rain.
We came back via the bakery Paul just outside the aquarium for a late lunch, and in the evening availed ourselves of the wood-fired pizza van which visited site.
Monday we visited Concarneau, an extremely picturesque fishing town. The Old Port is a walled fortress with ramparts, and the sun came out while we were there.
The Old Port itself is a real tourist trap with lots of ice-cream and sweet shops, and the last word in knick-knackery and Breton tourist tat.
We took a slow route home via Pont l’Abbé where we visited a brocante, a statue and a looked at the strange tower on the church.
Also a statue of five ages of women all mourning dead sailor fishermen fathers and husbands.
We also took in a classic Breton beach with impressive kite surfers, and tried to imagine how nice it would be at the height of summer.
We drove over a huge viaduct over an inlet and stopped to walk back over it to take photos.
Tuesday we started at Audierne for a bit of a wander – churches, graveyards, marinas, delicious crêpes where I was a bit more adventurous with ingredients.
Then on to the Pointe du Raz – not quite the most westerly point of France, but very close. Very picturesque coastal walk.
Statue of Our Lady of the Shipwrecked
Down the road from the Pointe du Raz is the most gorgeous Baie des trépassés – we came down to sunshine, shelter from the wind at the cliff top, but huge green waves and surfer dudes taking advantage.
Then to a flying visit to Dournanez. Another place I could not remember, but on return, found I had taken almost identical photos. We arrived too late, but there is a shipping museum here where you can walk around the boats, based on the town’s vital sardine industry.
Our final day was the long drive back to Caen for the overnight ferry, but with 12 hours to kill between being kicked out of digs near Quimper and checking in at Ouistreham.
Before we left we took some final pics of the manor.
Four hours driving was split up with a visit to Mont St Michel. Again, I place I have visited before but have little memory of. I think in my mind I was muddling the abbey at the top with another city… Prague perhaps? as what we saw up there rang no bells at all for me. The ramparts and the tourist shops on the way up were familiar, but since the last time I went they have built some serious infrastructure – distant car parks and free shuttle busses were all new. As with the Bayeux tapestry, visiting this world class, UNESCO monument, was actually not very expensive at all.
We had had patchy weather on the drive, but the sun came out as we arrived so we got some fabulous photos.
It started to rain as we were there but that more or less coincided with arriving at the abbey for the indoor part of the tour.
The worst of rain was happening as they practised an evacuation drill – we were taken out of the Salle des Chevaliers down a staircase only used in emergencies and swept out of the building by women with “evac” armbands. Getting out of the building was the hardest part because people were extremely reluctant to leave given how hard it was raining.
Our timetable allowed us a really brief visit to central Caen. I set the satnav for the Abbaye aux Hommes and we dove into the Hôtel de Ville car park with a plan for a quick walk and a nice bistro, but as we were leaving I saw a sign saying the car park closed at 8, so take your parking ticket with you. Unsure if that meant we would get the car trapped and be unable to catch the ferry, we ended up with a whistlestop tour around some of the monuments before heading out of town to Flunch for our last dinner in France.
Something Olympic was going on at the Hôtel de Ville.
Since I had not been able to get a cabin on the outward trip, I sprang for a luxury cabin – with a window! – for the return, and after a day of driving with another in prospect, it was a bit of a relief to be able to board the ferry, go the cabin, and just stay there all night!