History along the Brittany Coast Path (GR34): Part 1

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. In Part 1 of a 2-part article, he goes through the historical highlights of Stages 1-14.

In my guidebook, Walking the Brittany Coast Path – The GR34 from Mont-Saint-Michel to Roscoff, I summarised its history in a conventional, chronological narrative.

Here, I take a different approach: I imagine myself walking along the GR34 with friends who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) my penchant for recounting historical anecdotes. The result is a random, kaleidoscopic narrative of Breton history along the GR34 which, it is hoped, will enrich the trekker’s experience.

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.

The Couesnon River winds its way to the sea beside Mont-Saint-Michel. Mind the sand!

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. T

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.

Oyster racks
Oyster racks offshore from Cancale

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.

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.

Château 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.

Pointe du Roselier
The four à boulets at Pointe du Roselier

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 in peacetime

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’.

Paimpol’s inner harbour

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