History along the Brittany Coast Path (GR34): Part 2

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 2 of his article, he goes through of historical highlights of Stages 15-28.

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 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.


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. Was there some mistake?...

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.

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.

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).

Prajou Menhir
Prajou Menhir

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.

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.

Pointe de Primel
The cabane du douanier (customs officer’s cabin) on the summit of Pointe de Primel

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.

Barnénez Cairn
Barnénez Cairn

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

Morlaix’s 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 you in Roscoff…

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