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Mont Saint Michel

GR34: A Detailed History of the Brittany Coast Path

Brittany’s history is distinctive and interesting, and Walking the Brittany Coast Path author Carroll Dorgan has a story to tell for each stage of the trek. Follow along and learn several new and interesting facts about the history of the GR34.

Stage 1: Mont-Saint-Michel to Saint-Broladre

The starting point for the GR34 is beside a modern bridge that crosses the Couesnon River, 2km from Mont-Saint-Michel itself. When Harold, Earl of Wessex, joined William, Duke of Normandy, on an expedition against Conan, Duke of Brittany, in 1064 (two years before Harold and William led the opposing armies at the Battle of Hastings), Harold distinguished himself by rescuing Norman soldiers who had become trapped in the sand of the river.

Harold’s exploit is vividly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (panel n° 17). Today, visitors can safely venture across the sands around Mont-Saint-Michel at low tide with a certified guide.

Mont Saint Michel
The Couesnon River winds its way to the sea beside Mont-Saint-Michel.
Walking the Brittany Coast Path - Front Cover

Walking the Brittany Coast Path

The GR34 from Mont-Saint-Michel to Roscoff


Guidebook detailing a 624km section of French long-distance route the GR34 (or Sentier des Douaniers, the Customs Officers' Path) along the scenic north coast of Brittany from Mont-Saint-Michel to Roscoff. The popular well-maintained trail takes in cliffs, beaches, seaside resorts and fishing villages and is rich in history and culture.

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Stage 2: Saint-Broladre to Cancale

The GR34 passes close to Dol-de-Bretagne (called Dol until its name was changed in the 20th century), which also appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. After getting past those treacherous sands of the Couesnon River, the Norman army besieged Conan in Dol’s motte-and-bailey castle. The Breton duke escaped from the castle by sliding down a rope (panel n° 18), but he was soon forced to surrender in Dinan (panel n°19).

Dol was the ancestral home of the House of Stuart: Alan Dapifer, Sénéchal (Steward) to the Bishop of Dol, moved to England around the time of the Norman conquest and was given land by King Henry I. His great-grandson, Walter Fitzalan, became the High Steward of Scotland in the service of King David I around 1150. His son succeeded him as Steward, and as the position became hereditary, the family took the name Stewart, later gallicised as Stuart.

The first Stewart King of Scotland was Robert II (r. 1371-1390), nephew of David II who had died childless. Dol-de-Bretagne’s principal commercial street recalls this heritage: Grande Rue des Stuarts.

Cancale is Brittany’s leading centre for the cultivation of oysters. You will observe numerous rows of oyster racks (parcs à huîtres) offshore. In the past, wild oysters were dredged from the seabed.

The ‘bisquine’ was a type of sailboat with a large spread of sails (up to 450m2) that was active in Mont-Saint-Michel Bay during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The name points to the origin of these boats in the Bay of Biscay.) Bisquines were used to dredge for oysters (as well as to fish by line and trawling). La Cancalaise, launched in 1987, is a replica of La Perle, a bisquine that was built in 1905. This modern bisquine is based in Cancale and offers excursions around the Bay.

Stage 3: Cancale to La Guimorais

Pointe du Grouin is the first of the great headlands that you will pass on this trek, and standing vigil here is the first of several ‘sémaphores’ along this route. (Others are located in Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, Ploumanac’h and Saint-Quay-Portrieux.)

These striking white structures, bristling with electronic gear, house the personnel and equipment devoted to the regulation of maritime traffic and fishing activities in the Channel, the co-ordination of rescue operations at sea, and the observation and reporting of weather conditions. These missions gained heightened importance and stricter rules in the wake of disastrous shipwrecks and oil spills – in particular, Torrey Canyon (1967) and Amoco Cadiz (1978).

Stage 4: La Guimorais to Saint-Malo

As you approach the ramparts of Saint-Malo, you will see the city’s flag – blue with a white cross and a red canton charged with a white ermine – flying above the Grand Donjon beside the Porte Saint-Vincent. This display of the city’s flag, rather than a French flag, over a building that houses the town hall (mairie) expresses Saint-Malo’s civic pride – and a hint of stubborn independence. Just once in recent times has a French flag flown here: 27 November 2015, in homage to victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis.

In 1590, the people of Saint-Malo declared their city to be an independent republic, in opposition to King Henri IV, a Protestant. They proclaimed: Ni Français, ni Breton: Malouin suis. (Neither French nor Breton: I’m Malouin.) Four years later, after Henri had converted to Catholicism (‘Paris vaut bien une messe’, he explained: Paris is worth a mass), Saint-Malo accepted its place in the kingdom of France – but it kept the slogan.

Grand Donjon
The Saint-Malo flag flies over the Grand Donjon beside Porte Saint-Vincent.

Saint-Malo then rendered extraordinary services to the French kingdom as one of the leading bases, along with Dunkirk, for privateers (corsaires) during the wars of the 17-18th centuries. France’s maritime opponents – in particular, the British and the Dutch – suffered from the depredations of legendary Malouin privateers such as René Duguay-Trouin (1673–1736) and Robert-Charles Surcouf (1773–1827).

The English alone lost about 4000 ships of all sizes to French privateers between 1689 and 1697. The English resolved in 1693 to destroy Saint-Malo – a ‘nest of wasps’ – in an ambitious naval attack that featured an ‘infernal machine’: a 400-tonne ship packed with gunpowder, ordnance and scrap metal. The plan was to sail the ship close to Saint-Malo’s ramparts and detonate its massive charge. The ship approached Saint-Malo by night, undetected, but it ran aground about 50 metres from the ramparts. The subsequent explosion of the ‘infernal machine’ broke many windows and swept away roof tiles, but it did not damage the walls of the city.

Saint-Malo did not fare so well during World War II. Elements of the American Third Army (commanded by General Patton) reached Saint-Malo in early August 1944, shortly after Allied forces broke out of Normandy. The Germans had fortified Saint-Malo strongly, and they resisted the American attack stubbornly. The siege of Saint-Malo lasted for more than a week, leaving the city in ruins. The city within the ramparts (intra-muros) that you see today was re-built in its original style after the war. Walking around the Corniche d’Aleth, you will see stigmata of the battle: armoured cupolas perforated by shells.

Stage 5: Saint-Malo to Lancieux

Dinard became a fashionable resort in the late 19th century. Rochaïd Dahdah, a Lebanese aristocrat who arrived here in 1873, played a big role in Dinard’s growth. He promoted numerous building projects, including a railway station and the rail link with Dinan. Dinard was especially popular among the affluent British visitors, who built ostentatious, idiosyncratic villas overlooking the sea. You can admire some of those villas as you walk along the paved path of the GR34, snaking around the coast.

Villas above the path of the GR34 in Dinard

It is said that one of them was the model for the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. That story may be apocryphal, but Hitchcock does have a genuine link with Dinard: the top award in the city’s annual British film festival is the Hitchcock d’Or. A statue facing Plage de l’Écluse (passed by the GR34) depicts Hitchcock confronting two birds – a coy reference to his famous film The Birds.

Stage 6: Lancieux to Saint-Cast-le-Guildo

As you the approach the head of the Baie de l’Arguenon, the ruins of the Château du Guildo loom over the wooded trail. Panels beside the entrance to the château describe its ‘eventful history’. For example, Françoise de Dinan inherited the lordship of the Château du Guildo in the 15th century.

Her husband, Gilles (brother of the Duke of Brittany), was deeply involved in the rivalries between France and England during the final years of the Hundred Years War – and eventually their victim: arrested in 1446, Gilles was assassinated in prison four years later.

Chateau du Guildo
Ruins of the Château du Guildo.

In 1758, the British had another go at attacking Saint-Malo, this time with a landing force of soldiers. Bad weather forced the abandonment of the attack, and the British troops marched from Saint-Lunaire to Saint-Cast-le-Guildo to be re-embarked upon Royal Navy ships. They probably followed what is now the route of the GR34!

The soldiers crossed the Arguenon River successfully, but French soldiers and Breton militia attacked them and inflicted heavy losses at Saint-Cast-le-Guildo. This was a minor skirmish in the context of the Seven Years War (history’s first ‘world war’), but a glorious Breton feat of arms in local memory. One hundred years later, an 18-metre granite column surmounted by a Breton greyhound striking down an English leopard was erected in Saint-Cast-le-Guildo to commemorate this victory. It’s on Rue de la Colonne.

Stage 7: Saint-Cast-le-Guildo to Petit Trécelin

Shortly after leaving Saint-Cast-le-Guildo and going around the Pointe de l’Isle, you pass a sombre memorial to the frigate Laplace. The Laplace – ex-USSLorain (PF-93), sold by the US to France in 1947 – was a weather observation ship. Anchored in the Baie de la Fresnaye to shelter from a storm on 16 September 1950, its presence detonated a magnetic mine that had been laid during World War II. The ship quickly sank; 51 of the ship’s 92 crew members died in this tragedy.

Stage 8: Petit Trécelin to Sables-d’Or-les-Pins

Fort La Latte stands majestically on a rocky spur 60m above the sea; it looks impregnable but it was not: The fort was besieged and captured by du Guesclin, a famous Breton knight who served the French king (1379), and it was ravaged during the Wars of Religion (1597). James Francis Stuart, son of King James II and VII (hence James III and VIII to his supporters; the ‘Old Pretender’ for others), sheltered here from a storm during his voyage to Scotland to join the ill-fated Jacobite Rising of 1715.

A ship entering or leaving Saint-Malo confronts strong currents and a large tidal range; submerged rocks must be avoided, and there is no shelter from northeast winds. These conditions make Cap Fréhel, a headland projecting into the Channel between Saint-Malo and the Baie de Saint-Brieuc, an important landmark for seafarers – and an obvious site for a lighthouse.

Around 1650, Malouin merchants and shipowners paid for a structure at the base of the cliff that displayed a light from a fire burning wood and coal. This rudimentary lighthouse was inadequate.

Vauban, Louis XIV’s great military engineer, gave instructions for the construction of a proper lighthouse. The 15m structure that is now called the ‘Tour Vauban’ was completed in 1702. A new lighthouse – taller (22m) and with more modern equipment (including a Fresnel lens) – entered service in 1847. That lighthouse was destroyed by German forces in August 1944. The current lighthouse was completed in 1950. (During its construction, the Tour Vauban was returned to service.) It stands 33m above the ground, and its light carries as far as 120km in clear weather. Visitors can climb stairs to admire the view from its lantern.

Stage 9: Sables-d’Or-les-Pins to Pléneuf-Val-André

Sables-d’Or-les-Pins (literally: Golden Sands the Pines), as its name suggests, was created in the 1920s to attract an affluent clientele of holiday-makers. Its Anglo-Norman and Art Deco styles would rival fashionable coastal resorts in Normandy, such as Deauville.

There was a casino, of course, as well as a golf course and tennis courts. The Crash of 1929 and the Depression ended the dream. Sables-d’Or-les-Pins became a quiet family resort after World War II, but it still has that name, which, according to a Breton tourist office, ‘evokes the beach, a gentle climate, a unique setting, eternal style’.

Stage 10: Pléneuf-Val-André to Hillion

A lighthouse – Phare de la Petite Muette – stands on rocks at the entrance of Dahouët harbour. Painted green and white, it marks one side of the channel leading into the harbour.

Trekkers from outside Europe (North America or Japan, for example) might be puzzled, as they observe that this green marker stands on the right (starboard) side of a vessel entering the harbour. That conflicts with the rule that places red buoys on the right side of the channel. Mariners in the US learn this rule with a familiar mnemonic: ‘red right returning’. The Phare de la Petite Muette has not been painted green by mistake, of course. There must be a different rule here.

Phare de la Petite Muette
Phare de la Petite Muette and other aids to navigation in the channel leading from Dahouët to the sea

In the past, there were numerous different systems for marking aids to navigation. In particular, some countries marked the port (left) side of channels (viewed from the perspective of a vessel approaching a harbour from seaward) with red, while others marked the starboard side with red.

An agreement upon a unified system of buoyage was concluded in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1936, but World War II intervened and the agreement was not ratified. The restoration of aids to navigation by different nations after the war was unco-ordinated. In 1971, a disastrous series of wrecks in one lane of a traffic separation scheme in the Dover Strait could not be marked in a way that was understood by all mariners. This finally prompted co-ordinated action to harmonise buoyage, under the auspices of the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA).

The IALA Maritime Buoyage System now divides the world into two regions. In Region A (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Gulf and some Asian Countries), buoys and other aids to navigation on the starboard side of a channel are green, while in Region B (North, Central and South America, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines) those aids on the starboard side are red.

Stage 11: Hillion to Saint-Laurent-de-la-Mer

The GR34 crosses the Gouët River at the Port du Légué, about 3km from the centre of Saint-Brieuc. Many trekkers will visit Saint-Brieuc, as it is a major city with all facilities, including a mainline railway station. The city is named after Brioc, a Welsh monk who was one of the ‘Founder Saints’ of Brittany.

The city’s Saint Étienne Cathedral has the austere, imposing appearance of a castle, complete with meurtrières (arrow loopholes) – and, indeed, it did serve as a fortress or refuge during tumultuous periods in Breton history. The cathedral was besieged several times during the 14th century and pillaged by the Catholic Ligueurs during the final paroxysm of the Wars of Religion (1592).

Emperor Napoleon III visited Saint-Brieuc during a tour of Brittany in 1858 and promised its citizens that the extension of a railway line to Brest would pass through their town. It was completed in 1865 and included a spectacular viaduct in Morlaix, which soars over the GR34 (see Stage 27). As in other countries, the growth of rail travel prompted France to adopt a single, ‘official’ time for the entire country (1891). With that reform, the ‘local’ time in Brest was no longer 17 minutes behind that of Paris.

Stage 12: Saint-Laurent-de-la-Mer to Saint-Quay-Portrieux

The GR34 passes several foursà boulets – ovens that were used during the days of wooden sailing ships to heat shot that would be fired at enemy ships. The oven at Pointe du Roselier is particularly interesting because it has a detailed, illustrated explanation of how it was used.

The principal point to retain from this explanation is that a red-hot cannonball must be handled very carefully when being loaded into the muzzle of a loaded cannon.

Saint-Quay-Portrieux, along with Erquy and Paimpol, is a leading port for landing coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops). The annual Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques rotates among these three cities. It was Saint-Quay-Portrieux’s turn in 2022; Erquy should be next.

It is reported that about 45 tonnes of coquilles are consumed during this two-day festival. Saint-Quay-Portrieux also has a place in French cultural history.

Great Impressionist painters, such as Berthe Morisot and Eugène Boudin, visited and painted here. Josephine Baker, the American-born French entertainer, Resistance agent and civil rights activist (honoured at the Panthéon in 2021), inaugurated Saint-Quay-Portrieux’s cinema-theatre in 1927.

Stage 13: Saint-Quay-Portrieux to Bréhec

Between January and August 1944, French Resistance operatives worked with Britain’s M.I.9 and Royal Navy to evacuate 135 Allied airmen from Occupied France to Britain from the beach of Anse Cochat, code-named ‘Plage Bonaparte’. This was the famous Shelburne Network, described by Airey Neave, the officer in charge of the British side of the operation, as ‘one of the most splendid exploits in which the [Royal] Navy and agents of [M.I.9], aided by French patriots in Paris and Brittany, took part’.

Plage Bonaparte
Plage Bonaparte

The name of the resistance network, chosen by Neave, referred to William Petty Fitzmaurice, Earl of Shelburne, an 18th century British politician. During Shelburne’s brief tenure as Prime Minister (1782-1783), Britain concluded the Treaty of Paris with the United States, bringing an end to the American War for Independence.

The treaty’s generous terms – e.g., ceding the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States – annoyed the French (who were allies of the Americans). The Comte de Vergennes, Foreign Minister of France, grumbled: ‘Les Anglais achètent la paix plutôt que de la faire.’ (The English buy peace rather than make it.)

Stage 14: Bréhec to Paimpol

The French were among the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and fish for cod around Newfoundland. In the 19th century, cod fisheries around Island flourished. This ‘grandepêche’ was profitable for the shipowners, but very arduous and dangerous for the sailors.

Pierre Loti vividly described the drama and hardships of this fishery in his popular novel Pêcheur d’Islande (1886). The fame of Paimpol as a home port of the ‘Islandais’ spread with the popularity of Théodore Botrel’s sentimental song, ‘La Paimpolaise’ (The Paimpol Girl, 1895). The ill-fated hero of the song murmurs as he sails away:

J’aime Paimpol et sa falaise / Son église et son Grand Pardon / J’aime surtout la Paimpolaise / Qui m’attend au pays Breton.’

(I love Paimpol and its cliff / Its church and its Grand Pardon / Most of all I love the Paimpol Girl / Who waits for me in the Breton land.)

Many have noted that, in fact, there is no cliff in Paimpol. Botrel had not yet visited Paimpol when he wrote the song. He probably gave the town a cliff because ‘falaise’ rhymes with ‘Paimpolaise’.

Stage 15: Paimpol to Lézardrieux

The historical highlight of this stage is Vladimir Lenin’s sojourn in Louguivy-de-la-Mer in 1902. He spent several weeks there with his mother and sister Anja.

Louguivy de la Mer

Lenin was clearly the kind of person who, today, would constantly check his email while on holiday. In a letter to a comrade, dated 24 July 1902, Lenin started with a conventional holiday report: he had enjoyed his stay and had a good rest. He went on to comment upon ‘good news from Russia’ regarding support for Iskra (Spark), the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) that Lenin had founded.

He was pleased by praise for his recently-published pamphlet, Whatis to be Done? Lenin concluded by asking about his subscription to a periodical, Socialiste. He had been informed that it expired in December 1901.

Stage 16: Lézardrieux to Le Québo

Between Porz Guyon and the Bonne Nouvelle Chapel, the GR34 passes an old oaken stake with a history. A panel here explains and illustrates the function of a pieu d’amarrage des dromes de goémon.

Until the mid-20th century, seaweed (goémon) was collected offshore and bound together to make a raft (drome) that was poled ashore and secured to a mooring stake (pieud’amarrage).

Stage 17: Le Québo to Tréguier

The Grand Pardon de Saint Yves takes place in Tréguier on the third Sunday of May. The solemn procession of the Pardon – featuring a reliquary with Yves’ skull – leaves the cathedral and passes a statue of Ernest Renan in the Place du Martray.

Skull of Saint Yves
A reliquary with the skull of Saint Yves, carried during the Grand Pardon.

Renan (1823-1893) was a distinguished philologist whose rational, analytical approach to Christianity – expressed most notably in his book, La Vie de Jésus, which questioned the divinity of Christ – offended traditionalist Catholics. Pope Pius IX branded him the ‘European blasphemer’.

When this statue of Renan was inaugurated in 1903, troops had to be called in to quell a riot by a crowd of those traditionalists. In counterpoint to the statue of Renan, traditionalists commissioned a Calvaire de la protestation that was erected nearby on the day of the Grand Pardon de Saint Yves the following year.

Stage 18: Tréguier to Port-Blanc

The Île de Saint Gildas lies a short distance off the coast from Buguélès and Port Blanc. It is privately owned but open to the public once a year around Pentecost for the Pardon aux Chevaux (Pardon of Horses).

Participants ride horses (or tractors) or walk from the mainland to the island at low tide for a mass that is conducted for the benefit of the horses, followed by a festive meal. They return to the mainland at the next low tide.

This tradition dates back to a time when, it is said, horses on the island were spared an epidemic that decimated the horse population on the nearby mainland.

Stage 19: Port-Blanc to Perros-Guirec

Maurice Denis (1870-1943) was one of the founders of the Nabis School of painting and an important figure in the Symbolist movement.

His pithy comment is famous: ‘Se rappeler qu’un tableau – avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote – est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées.’ (Remember that a painting – before it is a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.)

Denis appreciated Perros-Guirec, where he bought a villa: ‘Jamais la nature ne m’a paru plus belle qu’à Perros’ (Never has nature seemed more beautiful to me than in Perros.)

Stage 20: Perros-Guirec to Trégastel

Amid the awesome pink granite boulders along the coast between Perros-Guirec and Ploumanac’h, there are striking man-made structures – in particular the iconic Mean Ruz lighthouse (built in 1948 to replace a lighthouse destroyed in 1944) and a structure that houses a rescue boat. A long ramp for launching the boat leads from the building to the water.

SNSM boat
SNSM boat moored in Ploumanac’h harbour.

That boat belongs to the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (SNSM), a private, non-profit association that undertakes rescue missions offshore, conducts training and offers education to reduce risks of accidents at sea.

It was created in 1967 by the merger of two existing organisations: the Société centrale de sauvetage des naufragés (founded in 1865) and the Hospitaliers Sauveteurs Bretons (founded in 1873).

Most of its personnel are volunteers, and it depends largely upon charitable contributions from the public. The SNSM is thus a French counterpart to Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). You will see coin boxes on the walls of the rescue boat station, lighthouses, etc., where you can make a contribution to support this important association.

Stage 21: Trégastel to Île Grande

This stage passes millennia of human history.

A tall menhir stands beside the trail in Penvern. It was erected during the 5th millennium BCE, but its history did not stop there. It was carved with religious imagery and surmounted by a cross in the 17th century; thus ‘Christianised’, it is now called the Menhir de Saint Uzec. And just off the trail near Île Grande is the Prajou Menhir, analléecouverte (gallery grave, 3rd millennium BCE).

A futuristic white dome rises above the trees of a forest crossed by the GR34. This ‘radôme’ housed the receiving station for the world’s first intercontinental television signal sent from Maine (USA) via the American Telstar satellite in 1962. It now houses a museum, the Cité des Télécoms.

Stage 22: Île Grande to Le Yaudet

Aristide Briand
Monument to Aristide Briand in Trébeurden

Entering Trébeurden, you pass a monument to Aristide Briand, a Breton born in Nantes in 1862. Briand was a leading politician of the French Third Republic, serving numerous times as President of the Council (Prime Minister) and Foreign Minister.

He is best remembered as a statesman who sought to establish peaceful relations among European states in the aftermath of World War I.

Briand and the foreign ministers of Germany (Gustav Stresemann) and the UK (Sir Austen Chamberlain) concluded the Locarno Treaty (1925), recognising and guaranteeing Germany’s borders with France and Belgium as delineated by the Versailles Treaty.

In the optimistic ‘Spirit of Locarno’ inspired by this treaty, the statesmen were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Briand is remembered in Trébeurden because he spent many holidays with his companion, Lucie Jourdan, in her home on Île Milliau.

He died in 1932, before totalitarian dictatorships shattered his dreams of European peace and co-operation.

Stage 23: Le Yaudet to Locquirec

Shortly after leaving Le Yaudet, you pass a line of rocks across the Baie de la Vierge that are visible at low tide. It is believed that these rocks were part of a tidal mill built in the 6-7th centuries.

This is not the first tidal power structure along the GR34. Stage 5 crosses the Rance River on a dam with a tidal power station (usinemarémotrice) that was completed in 1966.

Panels along the dam’s walkway explain how it works and state that the station generates enough electricity for 223,000 people. The trail passes the Moulin des Roches Noires (built in the 19th century) during Stage 7.

There are two tidal mills beside the Ploumanac’h harbour (Stage 20). The second one was built in 1764, replacing one that had been built in 1375. It was used principally to grind grain, but also to process flax for the production of linen and to crush salt. It ceased to operate in 1932, upon the death of the last miller.

An interesting vestige of Gallo-Roman life in this area stands beside the trail in Plestin-les-Grèves: ruins of the Hogolo thermal baths. Panels provide detailed descriptions (in French, English and Breton) of the baths’ construction and operation.

Hogolo thermal baths
Ruins of the Hogolo thermal baths (Plestin-les-Grèves)

Stage 24: Locquirec to Plougasnou

Brittany flourished in the 16-17th centuries, thanks especially to its production of fine linen. Towns in Lower (western) Brittany expressed their religious faith and displayed their wealth by building elaborate enclos paroissiaux (parish closes).

The elements of an enclos paroissial – a lavishly decorated church with its cemetery, an ossuary and a Calvary, all surrounded by a wall pierced with a triumphal arch – conveyed the inevitability of death and a vision of everlasting life.

A short detour off the GR34 near Plougasnou will take you to Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, where there is an impressive enclos paroissial.

Stage 25: Plougasnou to Saint-Samson

A cabanedu douanier (customs officer’s cabin) crowns the hill at Pointe de Primel. According to a nearby sign, this lookout station was built during the Napoleonic era as part of the effort to prevent all trade with the English.

This is a reference to the ‘Continental System’, instituted by Napoleon’s Berlin Decree (1806) and reinforced by his Milan Decree (1807).

Lacking naval forces to challenge Britain at sea after Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon sought to bar trade between Britain and the Continent by closing French ports and those of countries allied with France or controlled by it to British ships and goods.

Britain retaliated by issuing Orders in Council (1807) that tightened its blockade of the Continent.

Neutral countries found themselves caught in the middle: a ship that complied with Napoleon’s Continental System risked seizure by the British pursuant to their Orders in Council, and vice versa. The resulting friction contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States.

Stage 26: Saint-Samson to Morlaix

The great Barnénez Cairn is the largest megalith in Europe (ca. 60m long, 28m wide, 9m high). It was nearly destroyed in the mid-1950s by a contractor who had been given permission to use the large, nondescript mound as a quarry for the construction of a road.

Fortunately, the nature and significance of this mound were discovered before the quarrying had progressed very far, and the cairn was saved. (This was too late, however, for another cairn nearby that the contractor had already levelled.)

The contractor was prosecuted for violating the law governing archaeological excavations and sentenced to pay a fine of 12,000 francs, plus damages. Now restored, the Barnénez Carin stands a short distance from the GR34; it’s well worth the detour to visit.

Stage 27: Morlaix to Carantec

Morlaixs railway viaduct
Morlaix’s railway viaduct, built in 1865.

Morlaix was the site of a Gallic oppidum and later a Roman camp called Mons Relaxus. Located at the furthest point up the estuary that ocean-going ships of pre-modern times could reach at high tide, Morlaix was destined for a maritime, commercial future, prospering in the 15-18th centuries as an entrepôt for trade in linen as well as salt, leather, lead and wine.

In 1452, the Duke of Brittany ordered that all linen cloth woven within 18 leagues of Morlaix be sold and exported from there. An English seaborne force captured and sacked Morlaix in 1522.

However, the English raiders drank too much of the wine that they had seized in the city, leaving them defenceless against a counter-attack the next day. Inspired by these events, Morlaisiens added a punning motto to their coat of arms: ‘S’ils te mordent, mords-les’ (If they bite you, bite them – ‘mords-les’ and ‘Morlaix’ are homonyms).

The Château du Taureau was built in the bay opposite Carantec to defend against raids such as the English descent upon Morlaix. It served as a prison in the 18-19th centuries.

Stage 28: Carantec to Roscoff

Roscoff was long known as the haunt of rapacious privateers (corsaires) and wily smugglers (contrebandiers). In the 19th century, the town adopted more respectable pursuits:

  • Beginning in 1828, amiable Roscovites crossed the Channel to peddle the region’s fine pink onions in Britain. They were well received, and during the 1920s as many as 1400 ‘Johnnie Onions’ sold 9000 tonnes of onions there annually.
  • An important centre for research in marine biology, the Station Biologique de Roscoff, was established here in 1872. Today, it is run jointly by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Sorbonne University.
  • Benefitting from the temperate influence of the Gulf Stream, France’s first thalassotherapy spa was established in Roscoff in 1899.

Alexis Gourvennec, the militant leader of a Breton farmers’ co-operative, founded Brittany Ferries in 1972.

In conjunction with the creation of a deep-water port in Roscoff, Brittany Ferries provided maritime transport for Brittany’s agricultural produce (artichokes, cauliflower, etc.) to Britain. (Trade with Britain was poised to take off with the entry of the UK into the European Common Market.)

The company soon added the transport of passengers to its services, thereby contributing greatly to the development of tourism in Brittany. Today, Brittany Ferries operates from ports in Brittany and Normandy to the UK, Ireland and Spain.

A ferry awaits in Roscoff

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