An Autumn in Western France V. Côtes du Nord

1 See Esprit de la Gaule, by Jean Reynaud.

2 Curious Myths of the Middle Ages.

 
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An Autumn in Western France V. Côtes du Nord

from: Fraser's Magazine (Pp. 514 - 522)  April 1876

It was the 1st of November when I left St. Pol de Léon, that is to say, the Fête of Toussaint, and a holiday. The cathedral bells were ringing for mass; the open place in front was crowded with country folk in Sunday dress; itinerant vendors were doing a considerable amount of business in toys, cakes, and coffee; and long strings of fine-looking Breton lads were being marshalled to church by their Jesuit schoolmasters and tutors. Many wore the various costumes of Morbihan and Finistère, and evidently belonged to the the peasant-farming class, whilst all had a cheery, healthful, out-of-door-look which reminded me of English boys; some were tall youths of sixteen and seventeen, and it was a painful sight to see them watched and guarded by priests on each side with more surveillance than is accorded to juvenile thieves and vagabonds in England. To see a séminaire turn out on the days accorded for recreation beyond the college walls is a sadder sight still. The seminarists or youths preparing for the priesthood, like the schoolboys, are never permitted to go out un-accompanied by a priest, and on certain days you see strings of these young men, marshalled like little workhouse boys, with priests keeping guard on either side. And this is considered the way to fortify weak human nature for that awful conflict between flesh and spirit that must await every conscientious priest of the Romish Church! Treated like a child till he is a man and quits the seminary walls to enter the world of temptation, what wonder that the French newspapers have so often to record crimes committed by priests, the only probable issue of so unnatural a training!

Toussaint is a day devoted to holiday-making, church-going, and more especially to churchyards. The Breton lives in close familiarity with death: witness the ossuaries or bone-houses in country churchyards; the death's-heads and crossbones painted on the parish bier, which is conspicuously placed in the churches; and other funereal suggestions with which he loves to surround himself. This trait, characteristic of the Breton of to-day as of the esprit Gaulois of his ancient predecessors, has been commented upon by many writers. The esprit Gaulois was eminently sociable, sympathetic, and demonstrative, and the Léon peasant believes that he confers a friendly service in 'talking to the dead,' who, like himself, were fond of company in life, and do not wish to be deserted in the grave. Thus I saw old women knitting in the churchyard, children playing, and men gossiping, as if it were an ordinary place of resort.1

A railway is now projected between Plouaret and Lannion, but at present the journey has to be made in the diligence—a vehicle trundling along at a snail's pace, and which is divided into two compartments, which ought to be called Paradis et Enfer. If the former epithet seems an exaggeration applied to the coupé, at least no one will deny that the latter is appropriate to the fonds with its filthy floors, the inveterate smoking and spitting that goes on, the uncomfortable seats and spare accommodation. The diligence coupé; is, on the whole, a much less uncomfortable seat than that of the hired carriage, so called by courtesy, and much more economical. Carriages are the one exorbitant item in travelling expenses here. For the most part, they are as bad as they are dear. Carriages indeed and carriage hire form the traveller's only grievance in Brittany.

I was certainly not prepared for the luxury I found in the Hôtel de l'Europe at Lannion. My bedroom had wall papers fit for a London drawing room, polished floors, soft rugs, mirrors, marble-topped washstand, candelabra, respectable prints on the wall, &c. Nor were the usual pretty waiting-maid and agreeable landlady wanting; but I found here, as in other places, the order of things changed, the menservants doing the inferior work, the women waiting at table. In fact, the head waiter in this part of Brittany is generally a woman, and, I must say, does her work admirably.

Next morning was dull and misty, but warm, the precursor of a bright unclouded afternoon. Opposite to my window were some beautiful old houses, with gables, dark stained framework and carved cornices, and in the market-place are the most picturesque relics of old Breton domestic architecture I have yet seen. One is stained saffron colour, which sets off its dark framework and mouldings to the best advantage, and both—alas! only two now remain to tell what Lannion was three hundred years back—are highly ornamental and characteristic. The quaint dormers and turrets of these old houses I only saw equalled in Pontivy, to be described by-and-by, and the elaboration and oddness of the carving are indescribable. The market place is animated; and though the men wear no costume here—which one misses sadly—the women retain a becoming coiffure and form picturesque groups, as they stand, surrounded by their stone jars of cream and butter, or behind the stalls of vegetables.

Lannion is worthy of its name, surely as soft and poetic as any in Brittany. The town itself, like Hennebout and Pontivy, is so ill paved that a shower is enough to fill the streets with pools and rivulets of water through which you wade ankle-deep, but the site is charming. It lies between a wild bit of scenery leading to the sea, and a delicious valley widening out toward Plouaret, with woods and winding river and feudal ruins to tempt the traveller into many an excursion. Parts of the cultivated soil between Plouaret and Lannion remind me of my native Suffolk, so advanced is agriculture here. The land is clean, the farm buildings substantial, and even a few flowers are planted for grace before the houses here and there. Lannion is one link in the long chain of Arthurian romance. On his way here, between Morlaix and Plouaret, the traveller passes a dreary waste beside the sea called St. Michel-sur-Gréve, where according to legend King Arthur (Artus in Breton chronicle) fought the dragon; and off Lannion lies the mysterious island of Aval or Avalon, where he desired to be buried, 'the island valley of Avilion.'

 

Where falls not hail or rain or any snow,
Nor every wind blows loudly but it lies,
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair, with orchard lawns,
And bowery hollows crowned with summer seas.

I think I went to Lannion more for Tennyson's sake than anything else, though when I got there no one could tell me which of the many islands lying off the coast was Aval or Avalon. Most likely Mr. Baring-Gould is right when he classes this mysterious island with the numerous class of myths referring to the Terrestrial Paradise, such as the Fortunate Isles of Pindar, the Garden of the Hesperides, &c. He says: 'This fair Avalon is the Isle of the Blessed of the Kelts. Isetze and Procopius attempt to localise it, and suppose that the land of souls is Britain, but in this they are mistaken, as also are those who think to find Avalon at Glastonbury. Avalon is the Isle of Apples, a name reminding one of the Garden of the Hesperides, in the far Western seas, with its tree of golden apples in the midst. When we are told that in the remote Ogygia sleeps Kronos, gently watched by Briareus, till the time comes for his awaking, we have a Gallicised form of the myth of Arthur in Avalon being cured of his grievous wound.'2 Full of vague expectation, therefore, and having made up my mind that I was to see, if not the real Avalon, at least the place where Avalon was supposed to be, I set off for the coast. The day was now exquisite with pearly clouds floating across a pale blue sky, and lovely lights and shadows in the mellowing woods and hedges through which we drove. The smiling landscapes of Lannion were soon left behind, and nothing could be in greater contrast than the wild scenery beyond as we approached the sea and village of Ploumanach. The little fishing village of Ploumanach is a collection of hovels built pêle-mêle among the masses of red granite which are here flung about the shore as if the Titans had been playing nine-pins and had suddenly left off the game. The view from the hill overlooking the village and sea is magnificent; intense blue water smooth as a lake, pale purple islands beyond, and nearer, lying close under our feet, houses and rocks huddled confusedly together, huge fragments here piled one on the top of the other like a child's tower of bricks, there so closely wedged together as if even an earthquake could not separate them. Sometimes an enormous slab would be perched dolmen-like on the narrowest point of columnar supports, looking as if you could tip it over with your finger; at others, you might see a grand monolith standing alone like some solitary menhir, whilst all around, near and afar, the ground was covered with blocks, cones, pyramids, every fantastic form that granite can take, making up an indescribably strange and fantastic scene. The village, if village it can be called, is very dirty, and to reach the coast you have to go through a succession of filthy little alleys, wading ankle-deep through pools of liquid manure. These fisher folk might, without any trouble worth mentioning, and no expense, have the best thresholds and stepping-stones in the world, not to speak of pavements; but no, they do not even lay down a few blocks in front of their habitation so as to bridge over the invariable black stream through which they must wade whenever going out or coming in.

But what matters all this? We are soon far too enraptured at the prospect before us to think of the slough of despond through which we have passed in order to reach it. A little way off lay the seven islands or islet-rocks, amesthystine between a turquoise sky and lapis lazuli sea. Not a breath is stirring this soft summer day (it is in reality the 3rd of November!); yet the waves here are never at rest, and dark with perpetual murmur against the glowing sea-walls. As we wander along the edge of the cliffs, the full splendour and weirdness of the scene become apparent, the scattered fishing village looking like a collection of pigmy dwellings amid the gigantic rocks scattered about; seaward, the piled-up masses of fiery red granite forming ramparts, chasms, precipices innumerable, the purple white-crested waves breaking below. Wild geese, sea-ducks, and sea-gulls were flying overhead. A few fishing boats were out at sea; whilst looking landward the only living things in sight were odd little black sheep, mere tufts of wool as it seemed, browsing on the hills above Ploumanach. Which of all those lovely islands is Avalon,

Where I would heal me of my grievous wound?

My guide does not know, but thinks it is Tomé; and the old keeper of the lighthouse, when I made him understand what I wanted, for he was very deaf, shook his head and said, 'Le roi Arthur—il n'est pas de ce pays.' The French guide-books and the English (for I have both Murray and Joanne) do not indicate it, the maps do not designate it; and a most intelligent, nay, cultivated native of Lannion, with whom I had a good deal of conversation, said he thought it was not to be identified. An old traveller in Finistère, writing forty years ago, says: 'King Arthur was buried in the isle of Aval or Avalon lying off the coast of Lannion, not far off from his family residence of Kerduel, or Carduel, so famous in the legends of the Round Table. The English have endeavoured erroneously to appropriate to themselves these localities.' But neither from books nor hearsay could I satisfy my curiosity as to which of the dreamy-looking islands before me was Avalon, and time did not admit of a journey to any, tempting though the sea looked on that exquisite autumn day. Had it been real instead of apparent summer, I should have taken up my abode at Lannion for several weeks instead of days, in order not only to explore the coast, but the Seven Islands, especially one, noted for its colonies of sea-ducks or black divers, in French macreuse or perroquets de mer, and in the dialect of the county calcoulo, and which is in its way as curious as Puffin Island. Ploumanach is on no account to be missed whether or no; visited, as in my case, for Tennyson's and King Arthur's sake. It is quite as remarkable as Penmarch; and the one place differs from the other as Pont l' Abbé from Plougastel.

How Arthurian and Cornish are the names of places here! The Tre and the Pen, if not the Pol, by which you know the Cornish men abroad, and such names as Tregastel, Trevenec, Tregarvan, recall Cornwall as much as Kerduel, Tonquédec, and Coatfrec savour of the Table Round. Those who have travelled in Cornwall will sometimes feel in Cornwall here. Next day I drove to Tonquédec, one of the few feudal castles that have as yet escaped destruction. The beautiful sight of Lannion is fully realised as you drive towards Tonquédec—its entourage being characterised by that gracious, winning beauty seen at Quimper.

When we leave the high road, we pass into Devonshire-like lanes with well-tilled fields or pastures on either side. The cottages have a cheerier look than any I have yet seen, with little side gardens full of dahlias and chrysanthemums, and even roses here and there. At the open door sit old women spinning at the wheel, whilst children play around, darting across the road at the approach of our vehicle, with a moth-like attraction towards danger. This odd propensity of these wild little Breton children I had noticed before: whenever the diligence was going quicker than usual, some urchin would make a rush to get under the wheels, and often would barely escape being killed. 'C'est toujours comme ça,' my driver said when pulling up just in time to save a youngster's neck. 'If I killed one of these little wretches by running over it, I should be punished, yet I am sure it would not be my fault.' And without any impartiality I must say that it would not. I can only account for such behaviour in the fact of the occasional diligence or carriage being the single excitement that breaks the monotony of daily life, and having such an effect upon their brains as to occasion a temporary aberration. There were rude stone crosses planted by the wayside, and quaint churches with pagoda-like towers here and there. Once a wedding party passed us, two or three old-fashioned carts, in the first of which sat the bride with a huge bunch of artificial orange flowers on her breast and the large horn-shaped lace head-dress or superstructure called here la coiffure de noce. Plodding through the mud on foot were the remainder of the wedding guests, the men wearing [an] odd kind of swallow-tail coats, which gave them a nondescript shabby appearance.

As we drew near Tonquédec, we dipped into a richly wooded valley, its precipitate sides clothed with yellowing woods, and deep down in the heart of it, a rushing turbulent river. By-and-by, we perceive the grey towers of Tonquédec rising majestically above all; and leaving the carriage, we ascend a narrow road that winds upward amid the woods to the summit on which it stands. I have seen, perhaps, as fine feudal ruins, but none so superbly situated as these, if indeed ruins they can be called, seeing how much remains. Arrived at the top of the hill and wandering leisurely around the undulating ground which now surrounds the castle instead of a moat, I revelled in the sight of the glorious landscape and splendid towers crowning it so proudly. The solitude was unbroken. There was no sound but the soft autumn wind soughing through the branches, the dropping of ripe chestnuts, and the rushing of the river far below. On either side stretched sweeps of autumn woods, richest gold and purple mingled with sombre green, beyond isolated hills crested with pine and stunted oak, whilst at my feet, amid fern-clad banks and mossy rocks, clothed with fern and gorse, wended the dark foaming river. Here the gracious, the wild, and the savage, all came into the picture, the stately melancholy towers of Tonquédec standing out in bold and picturesque relief. I dare say an artist would prefer Ploumanach as a subject, but a good pedestrian might spend many days in exploring these woods and valleys, and would doubtless, if able to use his pencil, find charming bits. To-day alike woods and valleys were inaccessible, late rains having turned the side paths into rivulets; but the sky was bright, the air soft and the sunshine warm, so I was well content. As we drove home the weather changed, and we had warm April-like showers with fitful gleams of sunshine and delicious rainbows spanning the mellow woods. On our way we met a priest and a nun jogging along in a rude kind of gig, the former driving, and both chatting amicably together. There was surely nothing unaccountable in such an arrangement, but it strikes one as odd. Most likely the good-natured village cureé had overtaken this Sœur Blanche—for she belonged to the order of white-robed nuns—and given her a lift. Côtes du Nord, like Finistère, abounds in churches, nunneries and religious institutes. Priests and nuns are met at every corner, and whenever you enter a church you find something going on there; the amount of time people of all ranks spend in church-going is something tremendous. It did my heart good to see the cloth market here on a dull day. The pedlers had displayed their goods to best advantage, the stalls being piled with that warm, solid Normandy cloth the peasants wear so much of. There were here delicious shades of bright blue and purple, also green, almost Oriental in its soft dye, and browns, and greys of various shades. Here too the farming women displayed their flour and meal in sacks; and toys, cutlery and sabots had a market to themselves. The country people, who poured in with their pigs, vegetables, and other goods, might be seen returning home with parcels of the cloth and groceries they had bought. The women's short cloth dresses were admirably adapted for the long walk home, and all were provided with excellent red, blue, or plum-coloured umbrellas.

Lannion would be a good starting-point for many excursions, and, as I have already stated, possesses a very nice hotel, with extremely low charges and excellent rooms, food and attendance. The town itself—though in comparison with St. Pol de Léon a gay and busy metropolis—is very quiet. There is no noise, except the clattering of sabots on the pavements, or rather streets without pavements, and no excitement except the daily arrival of the diligence. The only newspaper that finds its way here is Le Petit Journal, and that, I believe, you have to order in advance. The railway now projected between Lannion and Plouaret will doubtless make a considerable difference; but one thing is certain, it will not make this charming little town more attractive to the lover of the picturesque. In some respects hotels in Brittany are behindhand; but they are improving, and the people are uniformly pleasant to deal with. Railways will doubtless introduce improvements—bells in the rooms, washing basins larger than tea-cups, &c.—but they will also infallibly introduce high prices.

Much as I had set my heart upon proceeding by diligence to Tréguier and Paimpol, I was obliged at the eleventh hour to give it up. The rain had come at last. The diligence—for I inspected it—was a sorry affair, and I was assured that the hotels were not to be relied on. So somewhat reluctantly I went by rail to St. Brieuc instead. Every other house in St. Brieuc is a nunnery or monastic institution; and the churches, of which there are enough to supply all Brittany, are always full. For themselves they are not worth seeing, but the church-goers are, and here they consist of rich as well as poor. I went into one, and saw a lady and gentleman, after purchasing two long wax lights at the door, light them, and sitting down before the image of a saint, quietly perform their devotions, candle in hand. They evidently intended to sit there till they burned out, which, on a nice calculation, must have taken three hours. I went into another, and saw a sight as pathetic as the first was grotesque. It was a large church, and service was going on in one part, but in a quiet corner, where only a couple of beggarwomen knelt mumbling over their beads, I saw a large pair of sabots projecting from under the curtain of the confessional. Soon after a sweet, pious-looking peasant woman came out, whose tear-stained, troubled face showed that with her confession had been a solemn thing. She stood for a moment before the image of the Virgin lost in melancholy thought, then sighing took up her basket of butter and eggs, and went away. As to the priest, he bustled out with a look of inexpressible relief, drew on his frock, and hurried away, evidently glad to get the duty over. When a man goes to confessional all the women wishing to confess also have to wait, no matter whether they are peasants or fine ladies; so much rarer is the former occurrence that he is regarded as the lost sheep that is found. These churches are full of ex-votos and marble tablets commemorating the protecting grace of this saint or that; in some cases the inscription was merely, 'Merci à St. Joseph,' or 'A St. Anne—merci.' In one church a long placard was hung near a collection of these ex-votos setting forth that plenary and partial indulgence would be given to the associés of St. Joseph on various conditions, one of which was the saying an Ave or Pater Noster and other prayers when the Ave sounded at night. In another chapel was an emblazoned memorial inscription setting forth that it was built to commemorate the miraculous appearance of a certain saint, whose name I forget, two or three years ago. The guide-books dismiss St. Bruieuc summarily, but there are many curious old houses here, as characteristic as any I have seen, some with the quaintest little pointed windows rising from the penthouse roof, supported by beams, others with carved wooden frame-work, representing allegorical and historical figures. It is a clean, cheerful town, with pleasant suburban gardens, and a look of comfort and prosperity everywhere. The peasant women with their snowy coiffures, good solid cloth dresses reaching to the ankles, and displaying home-knitted stockings of warmest wool, and pleasant ruddy faces, are good to see. As a rule the country folk are good-looking, and there is a prevailing appearance of well-being among all classes. Some of the men wore capital, comfortable-looking coats of goat-skin, but nothing that can be called costume. My hotel (L'Univers) had a pleasant garden full of flowers still, and was handsomely furnished with a commendable liberality as to the size of wash-basins and water-jugs, whilst the room, for which three francs were charged only, was not only comfortable but elegant. It is edifying to see here, as was the case at Lannion, the men turned into scullery-maids and the women into head waiters. Instead of that obsequious, often conceited person, the head waiter, who bullies all the rest of the servants and does little himself, here it is a woman at the head of affairs, and the men who are sent flying hither and thither. It is wonderful how well things are managed here with a small staff of servants; as far as I could make out, one woman, two men and a boy, besides the cook, doing all the work of this large hotel. St. Brieuc, after the romantic and old-world towns I had lately seen, was a sudden disenchantment, yet it was a pleasure after the silence and sleepiness of St. Pol de Léon and Lannion to be once more within the sound of a railway whistle and within reach of a newspaper.

There was a tremendous storm of wind and rain on the night of my arrival, and next morning winter seemed to have come all at once, as it often does here, in torrents of rain, precursors of the terrible inundations that followed later in the month. The country was sodden; yet whenever a gleam of sunshine broke through the clouds, it was pleasant and mild.

The rain accompanied me to Pontivy, but every now and then the dark clouds would roll away, showing the blue, and a rainbow would span the landscape with beautiful effect. The bit of railway through the forests of Loudéac and Lorges, is very striking, and a great change after the so-called 'Landes' I had lately passed through, those wide sweeps of heath and brushwood, as yet uncultivated, so characteristic of North Brittany. Hundreds, nay thousands, of miles of forest lay around us, the mingled blue-green and reddish-yellow of pine and beech and oak, now lighted up by a brilliant gleam of sunshine, now irradiated by a rainbow, now blotted and blurred by the rain. These forests abound with wolves, which, in spite of the rewards offered per head by the Government, seem as far from being exterminated as ever.

Pontivy must be quite charming on a fine day. It used to be called Napoléonville, in honour of the new quarter added by the First Napoleon, but since the overthrow of the Empire it has lost its later appellative and is called Pontivy only, even on the railway tickets. A French author is said greatly to have affronted the Pontiviens by the following innocent pleasantry concerning the twin towns. He writes:

These two towns, Napoléonville and Pontivy, have their raison d'être, for they are two towns in juxtaposition— Pontivy northwards, with its narrow streets and ancient houses, on which the birds build and the cock-crow gives the signal for the trumpets in the barracks; Napoléonville, southwards, with its large open streets, consists only of barracks and public offices. Now and then may be seen a soldier wandering across the grass-green Place de Napoléon, which, to be animated, should be turned into a pasture for the cavalry horses. They would even find fodder in the streets, for this year, 1864, the Quai Arcole was planted with clover, the rue Lunéville with potatoes, and the rue Marengo with green peas! Pontivy is being gradually transformed, but it will be long before it deserves the name of Napoléonville.

The modern town is uninteresting enough, and is exactly like those brand new French towns built under the Imperial régime in Algeria; but the old is very picturesque, and both are framed in by a lovely landscape. The wooded hills, the winding river Blavet, the quaint old château with its pointed turrets, lastly, but not least, the beautiful old streets of Pontivy itself, might in fine weather occupy the artistic traveller weeks instead of days. A well-kept path leads round the château, which lies in a hollow, formerly a moat, and nothing but a small chapel at the back indicates its present use, namely, a convent school. Almost all the finest old buildings in Brittany have been monopolised by the Church for educational and ecclesiastical purposes, and thus it happens that so few are accessible to tourists. Beyond, and following the winding river, is a very pretty walk, where I met a party of nuns enjoying a gossip and a brisk run previous to afternoon service. The scenery is quiet, pastoral, abounding in natural beauties and what the French call riant. Returning to the town, I strolled back the old town with its quaint mediæval houses, here not isolated as at St. Brieuc and Lannion, but forming whole streets, the saffron and yellow stucco and black panelling showing recent renovation. Some are in black and white with a great deal of ornamentation, and every device both of architect and decorator seems to have been used in order to obtain variety. It is to be hoped that these unique streets of Pontivy will escape destruction, for in no other town is so much of the ancient domestic architecture of Brittany left intact. In Pontivy a good shower makes rivers in the streets, but in Napoléonville you walk on macadamised pavements worthy of Paris. But nothing can be quieter than the twin towns; no life or movement except in the direction of the church and the barracks, no sound except the bell calling to prayer and the trumpet to parade.

It was Sunday morning when I arrived; and as I approached the church, from which an enormous congregation had just issued, the puffs of hot air drove me back into the streets. It was like the hottest conservatory at Kew, and no wonder seeing the multitudes that were dispersing—a detachment of hussars with their band, who played as they marched back to barracks, large girls' schools marshalled by nuns, boys' schools marshalled by priests, a few ladies and gentlemen, and crowds of peasants, the men with broad beaver hats and long hair, white serge jackets ornamented with gay braid and buttons, and vests cut square like ladies' dinner dresses, showing a snowy shirt front—the women in comfortable-looking black stuff hoods turned back with red, and long cloth cloaks. Opposite the church, under a covered market place, the usual Sunday fair was going on, and a brisk trade was being done in hot chestnuts, haberdashery, and cakes. By degrees the people dispersed to reassemble at vespers in the afternoon, when the congregation was as large as before. In fact, there was no longer standing room left when service began, and a large school of little girls under conduct of nuns presented a pitiable sight, being so closely wedged together that they could hardly stir.

Pontivy is a chef-lieu d'arrondissement of Morbihan, and ought not therefore to be included in a chapter headed Côtes du Nord, but it is a place that most travellers who reach St. Brieuc will visit. It is a centre, moreover, from which many interesting excursions may be made; and judging from the look of the hotel Gressel I visited, creature comforts are by no means wanting. There was a pleasant garden at the back, with pigeons fluttering about, and turkey-cocks strutting and hens cackling. A homely place is this, farmhouse more than hotel, and a place in which people might make themselves at home and be perfectly happy as long as the fine weather lasted, but woe betide them in days of rain!

The rain had come in earnest at last, and the next day I returned to Nantes, which a week later was threatened with an inundation. The remainder of my projected journeys in Western France had therefore to be deferred to the spring—which at this present writing is, or ought to be, at hand.