MHF’s Own DBK Takes a Quick Tour of the Coast of France’s Most Westerly Departmen
Why take your Motorhome On The Coast of Brittany
If you like Cornwall you will love Brittany. Pretty villages and churches it has in abundance but for me the highlight of Brittany is its coast. The Celtic word “armor” means “country by the sea” and references to this word are often encountered in Brittany, including the name of a ship, the Armorique, operated by Brittany Ferries.
I return to Brittany almost every year. There are megalithic tombs and standing stones over five thousand years old, wide sandy beaches, footpaths almost everywhere and as a sea food enthusiast I’m in heaven.
How to Get There
Brittany may not the most accessible part of France for those visiting the country by motorhome. From south-east England it is a long drive of eight hours or more from Calais but there are other options. Brittany Ferries operate services from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth with the Portsmouth to Cherbourg route taking just three hours. Those based in Northern Island can drive down to Cork and take the ferry to Roscoff. Irish Ferries run a service from Dublin to Cherbourg. However, none of the longer routes are cheap so the majority going to Brittany will choose one of the shorter sea crossings or the Tunnel. I suggest if you have the time, not to rush along the north coast before you arrive in Brittany. There is much to see here, including Honfleur and its huge aire which if it isn’t the biggest in France must be somewhere near the top of the list. From the aire a pleasant walk takes you into the town and where you will find the old port or Vieux Bassin.
After Honfleur you approach the start of the D Day landing beaches. Near Ouitreham the excellent Pegasus museum records the battle for the famous bridge.
Talks in English about the exhibits and the operation are offered by the museum and I recommend you join one if you can.
Sword and Juno beaches start just west of here. One way systems make it occasionally difficult to drive along these beaches without several detours but it is worth the effort. A visit to a few of the memorials will help you imagine what took place here.
Bayeaux is famous for its tapestry and if you haven’t seen it then while passing through this region this is your opportunity. Those following the D Day trail should head for the British Military Cemetery on the south west side of the town.
To find it just follow the ring road, built by the Allies so they could get around Bayeux without going through the narrow streets of the centre. The museum opposite the cemetery has a lot of information about the German prisoners of war held in the camp at Bayeaux after the War. This gives an interesting perspective on events not covered in other museums.
If you can find room an overnight stop on the free clifftop aire at Longues Sur Mer is perfect but it is popular and not large so be mentally prepared for not finding a space if you leave your arrival too late.
A visit to the nearby US military cemetery is a must and a short hop from there brings you to Utah Beach and its excellent museum. Nearby is Sainte Mère Eglise, the first French town to be liberated. The Airborne museum is excellent and is close to a large but not cheap aire. You may prefer to overnight somewhere else and use the aire only for your visit to the museum.
I’ve mentioned several museums so far and you might think they are all the same but this would be wrong. Each has a different character and slant on events.
As you travel further along the coast west you will come to the well-known landmark of Mont Saint Michel, an abbey on an island accessible at low tide. This is a popular tourist attraction but the focus of this article is Brittany and Brittany starts just west of Mont Saint Michel so this is where our loop around the Brittany coast starts.
What to do in Brittany
What you do in Brittany will be driven by your interests. You don’t have to do anything! Some days I can sit in the shade and read a book or snooze off one too many glasses of wine taken at lunchtime. But there are many footpaths around the coast and you are rarely far from a village with a bar or restaurant to take a rest in. On a typical walk I will carry a small rucksack containing a packed lunch, water, my camera and waterproof jacket and trousers if the weather looks as if it might change. A pair of light binoculars around my neck completes the list of everything I need to carry. The only other essential I take is a smart phone with a geocaching app on it. Geocaching is using the phones’ GPS to locate hidden caches in holes in trees, under bridges or hidden in rock crevices. Brittany is a hotspot for geocaching and I recommend you try it out here. The joy of geocaching is it will take you to places you wouldn’t have found on your own.
A short video explaining things can be found here: https://youtu.be/vuFiLhhCNww
The next section covers a tour of the coast. To explore Brittany I find a guide book essential, otherwise we might drive past and miss somewhere we would have found interesting. The DK Eyewitness Travel guide on Brittany is my main source of information and it is easy to use with clear maps showing the highlights. The Michelin Road Atlas for France is another essential for me and if you share my other interests then you will also bring bird and plant identification books.
Where to Go in Brittany
Your first impressions of Brittany if you are arriving from the direction of Mont St Michel may not be overwhelming. The sea is often cloudy here and at low tide it goes out a long way. This is the Baie du Mont St Michel which experiences a huge tidal range, the Channel Islands are not far away. The bay is a major centre for mussel farming. There is an aire at Le Vivier Sur Mer and a short walk from it westward along the path behind the beach will bring you to an excellent seafood restaurant in a wooden shed. It has an attached shop where you can buy a bag of mussels at a good price. Moules marinière are easy to prepare in a motorhome providing you have a large pan so make sure you find room to pack one. The mussels we bought were clean with only a few beards to remove. After softening finely chopped shallot and garlic in oil add a good glassful of a dry white wine then when it is boiling tip in the mussels and cook with the lid on until they are all open, shaking the pan a few times during cooking. Add a small pot of double cream and chopped fresh parsley if you have it but dried parsley is better than nothing and was what we used when we came this way. Serve with crusty bread. There are many variations of this recipe, you can use a dry cider which is a traditional Bretagne way of cooking them and crumbled Roquefort cheese gives a nice tang when added just before serving.
Saint Malo is the first major town you will encounter and may even be where you land if you use the ferry from Portsmouth. Saint Malo was once France’s most important seaport and was heavily fortified after attacks by the English at the close of the seventeenth century. To explore the walled city the most convenient way is to take a bus or cycle from the aire “Les Ilots” three kilometres north east of the port.
Dinan, just inland from Saint Malo, is another fortified town and an aire without services near the centre makes a convenient base.
With so much coast to explore you could spend years and not see it all but a highlight can be found by heading west past Saint-Brieuc then north west through Lannion and on towards Trégastel. This is the Côte de Granit Rose or Pink Granite Coast and the extraordinary rocks and boulders on the Île Renote are one of the best examples of what to expect here.
The sheltered bay next to the Île Renote is one of many such places on the Brittany coast ideal for water sports, including kayaking and paddle boarding.
West of Trégastel is my favourite Brittany campsite, Camping du Port.
This is a great base for exploring the coast northwards along the well-marked coastal footpath. The camp restaurant is good and the merchant just outside the campsite sells shellfish.
Continuing the westward journey, Pol de Leon just south of Roscoff is attractive. Those arriving on the Roscoff ferry may rush past the town but there are aires and campsites although like most of the northern coast of Brittany the campsites will close in September or very early October and the main aire in Pol de Leon turned into a winter boat store. The town is dominated by the twin spires of the cathedral in the town centre and a little south by the single spire of the Chapelle de Kreisker. This is free to enter but before you enter glance up at the spire overhead then look for signs of the spire inside because there are none. The entire spire is supported on slender pillars and is an amazing but not unique example of Bretagne church architecture.
The old part of Roscoff has a good range of restaurants and is within walking distance from the free but busy aire on the coast road to the west.
The coast west from Roscoff has some spectacular and often empty beaches. There isn’t a lot of history here, many of the houses are modern and a few of them are extremely modern with copper roofs and futuristic shapes. The French have an adventurous streak in architecture and more imaginative planning regulations than ours. A more traditional Bretagne architectural feature is the lack of gutters on the oldest houses. Even modern houses try to copy this look, with discrete gutters.
There isn’t an easy road west of Roscoff to follow the coast and your best option might be to take the D788 towards Brest then strike north to places you wanted to visit. There are aires and campsites all along this stretch but remember the campsites are only open for the summer.
If you keep heading west you will come to the Point de Corsen, the most westerly point of mainland France and a quiet aire. There are no shops or places to eat anywhere around so arrive with enough supplies for your intended stay. If you have a dog be careful on the beach below the aire as it was here ours came too close to a Portuguese Man o’ War.
It was stranded and barely alive but it had enough venom in it to leave him with lesions on his lips which took a while to heal. You can get these jellyfish on any beach so keep an eye out for them. They are very distinctive with a blue cast. The tentacles can grow to thirty metres which is probably why all the local surfers where wetsuits!
South of Corsen is the little fishing village of Le Conquet which has a free aire. I cycled here from Roscoff once and took the ferry from the port to the island of Ouessant or Ushant where I camped. The ferry is only for foot passengers. It leaves in the morning and returns late afternoon and bikes can be hired on the island. Check the Penn Ar Bed company website for timings https://pennarbed.fr/en/times-and-prices. I took my bike with me on the ferry across to Ouissant. They lashed it to the foredeck where it suffered a prolonged saltwater shower from the spray thrown up over the bows of the ship. Over the next few months, I had to replace several corroded components so if you have bikes leave them behind and hire them on the island. Ouessant has some spectacular lighthouses including one serviced by an aerial ropeway, now derelict. Anyone who has used one of the long ferries from Spain to Plymouth or Portsmouth will have seen these islands. This is the place where the ferry slows right down and creeps through a region of sea with lethal rocks protruding from the waves all around the vessel.
I come to Brittany to avoid big cities but Brest has attractions and next to the large Oceanopolis aquarium is a free aire. If you plan to use this read the reviews as the barrier closes in the evening and doesn’t open until the following morning, locking in any vehicles. Buses will take you into the city centre where there a maritime museum and WW2 German submarine pens. Brest is a major base for the French navy which explains why in satellite view in Google maps the port area is blurred.
After Brest make sure you stop in Landerneau. It has a good aire, a former municipal campsite near the town centre which, if you can find them, has electric points hidden under the bushes. The historic Pont de Rohan is an interesting old bridge which like the electric points in the aire you might not notice unless you knew it was there. It hides in plain sight because there are shops and houses built on it. It is impossible to tell you are on a bridge when you walk over it.
South of the bridge is the historic old quarter. See if you can find the house with faces of the moon on it!
Opposite Brest is the Crozon peninsula which has plenty of campsites and a few aires. The southern tip of the headland is the Cap de la Chèvre or Cape of the Goats. There is free motorhome parking above a beach here and though busy during the day is quiet at night. The police visit and have insisted chairs and awnings are not used. This is the strict interpretation of the “no camping” rule which applies to many places but isn’t always enforced. The northern tip of the peninsula is the Pointe de Espagnols. A Spanish force landed here and built a fort at the end of the sixteenth century. Their ultimate aim was to establish a base from where they could attack England. It was retaken by a combined French and English operation during one of those rare periods we were not at war with the French!
The next headland south of Crozon is the Pointe de Raz. There is a carpark without services here you can stay overnight on but it is expensive so a brief visit and a walk to the point might be the best choice.
On Brittany’s southern coast I recommend you visit Concarneau staying either at the aire near the disused railway station or on a campsite outside the city.
The draw here is the ville close or walled town built on an island in the harbour. It is reached by a short bridge at one end and a ferry. The fortifications were designed by Vauban who designed fortifications all over France in the second half of the seventeenth century. This remarkable and prolific engineer was also responsible for many ports, harbours and canals.
There are lots of places to eat in the ville close and though popular with visitors you should be able to find a table. Our favourite time for eating out is lunchtime and you will know when to grab a seat when you see the best outside tables filling up. Like a game of musical chairs when the music stops sit down quickly at this point.
A glance at the map of this part of Brittany will show the distinctive Quiberon peninsula jutting out into the sea. It can be bleak and windswept but there are two good aires. The southernmost one has an external service point for visitors and an internal water point after you have gone through the barrier. This is the first place in France we encountered a water point needing a male to male connector. I didn’t know these existed then but I had enough spare bits with me to make up something which worked. I now carry an adaptor with a tap incorporated in it so the flow of water can be controlled. This is useful for water points which discharge high-pressure water as soon as the adaptor is plugged in.
From the Quiberon peninsula you will soon come to Carnac where if you are lucky you might find a space in the free aire near the town centre. The alignment of Megalithic standing stones on the outskirts of Carnac are vast but unlike the first time I visited here, you can’t now walk amongst the stones unless you are part of a group with a guide. In July and August English speaking guides are available and tours are booked at the Visitors’ Centre at the large carpark beside the stones.
However, there are other standing stones you can visit which are not fenced off, including the Alignements de Kermaux a kilometre northeast of Carnac. Brittany itself is full of prehistoric monuments including tombs, single standing stones and stone circles. You will see signs beside the road all over Brittany pointing towards these sites and they are almost always rewarding to visit. Before you leave Carnac the museum of prehistory is interesting and is close to the aire.
We are now almost at the end of the Brittany coast but there is one place left to explore, the Gulf of Morbihan. This is an area rich in wildlife and history and some of the most interesting menhirs, dolmens and tumuli to be found in Brittany. The Gulf is a sheltered bay filled with islands and formed by two arms of land which wrap around it. On the western arm is the small town of Locmariaquer. Here is the Grand Menhir Brisé which dates from around 4,500 BC and weighs an astonishing 350 tonnes. It is broken into four pieces now and lies on the ground but it is still impressive and is the largest known menhir in the western world. There are other things to see on the same site though at least one dolmen (burial chamber) has been heavily reconstructed. From Port de Larmor-Baden you can catch a boat with a French-speaking guide and visit the Cairn de Gavrinis on an island. Lack of French won’t detract from the enjoyment of your visit as the interior of the tomb is lined with stones with symbolic carvings on them. After visiting the burial chamber the boat will make a short excursion to a smaller island where there is half a stone circle to see.
The other half of the stone circle lies under the sea and the sight of the stones disappearing into the water, depending on the tide is virtually unique. There are aires around the Gulf of Morbihan but they can be busy, especially the free ones but there are also plenty of campsites which out of season and with ASCI rates are not too expensive. As with much of Brittany, there is a coastal footpath which allows for easy exploration on foot. Signs forbid the use of cycles on the footpath but this being France they are frequently ignored.
Brittany now ends a little way beyond the Gulf of Morbihan though until 1969, when the border was redrawn it used to stretch much further and included the area around Nantes. If you have the time, having reached this far I suggest you continue on until you reach the Loire and then follow it upstream for as long as you choose. There is much to see on the banks of the river and you can even, as we have done, follow it all the way to its source which is a long way. The Loire is France’s longest river. Alternatively, from Nantes, the Nante-Brest canal runs northwards back into Brittany. I’ve cycled the entire canal on the towpath but you can’t do this in a motorhome or even follow it closely by road. But there are aires all along its length or close to it and quite a few opportunities for wild camping. Look for minor roads crossing over the canal. There is often a picnic area beside the towpath.
WHERE TO STAY
I have mentioned a few aires in this article, including some of those we have stayed at and can recommend. But there are a huge number to choose from and these websites are useful for finding aires and campsites suitable for motorhomes:
All of the above also have an app which is the easiest way to use them on a mobile phone or tablet.
The book All the Aires France published by Vicarious Books is recommended if you prefer not to use an electronic device. The ASCI card and accompanying books obtainable either from ACSI or through Vicarious Books are a good resource and one I use often.
Choosing where to stay can often be a hard choice if there are many alternatives in your chosen location. I can only suggest looking at reviews, the facilities and the location in terms of proximity to paths, shops and restaurants etc. As always, where you go will depend on your interests but whether you want to visit a busy town market or get as far away as you can from civilisation you will find somewhere to suit you in Brittany and especially on its coast.