Sailing Further in Brittany
Between Brest and Lorient, Brittany has some of the best harbors in France. While Brest’s Naval presence remains strong, Lorient’s commercial shipping has always thrived while its military influence has waned over the years. Nevertheless, Lorient takes pride in this legacy and has adopted interesting methods to present this past, present, and future in the Keroman district, south of the city. The establishment of the French East India Company in the Lorient area during the mid-1660s and then the arrival of the Royal Navy some thirty years later solidified the port’s significance. In 1941, following Germany’s occupation of France in June 1940, it began to establish coastal defenses and bases. In Lorient, among seral other places, U-boat strongholds were constructed. The Germans started the imposing Lorient Keroman U-Boat Base in 1941 and by 1943, it was the largest on the Atlantic. Built in a concrete Brutalist style, this is an underwater base of the early James Bond-era. Overhanging Lorient Harbor, its seven docking bays are covered, making this a protected and mysterious homeport for U-boat operations. Following the war, the French Navy utilized the facilities until closing them for good in 1997. The area has been re-developed to illustrate the city’s navigable history. The sub base is now home to the Cold War-era French submarine Flore, as well as the beautiful and hands-on Cité de la Voile Éric Tabarly. Named after the legendary French sailor, this museum is a relatively new addition to the site and is the only museum dedicated to off-shore sailing. Spend enough time around here and you’ll want to charter your own vessel to explore the vast coastal environs of Brittany.
Brushing up on Your Impressionism
Pont-Aven is one of those timeless locales that you might expect to see in a movie or painting. Indeed, the town is an artist’s haven and has been for almost 150 years thanks to its pristine beauty and rustic charm. Surprisingly, it all started when Massachusetts-born Henry Bacon literally stumbled upon Pont-Aven along his travels after serving in the American Civil War. Studying art in Paris, he was struck by the Pont-Aven’s immense beauty and famously exaggerated its “fourteen mills and fifteen houses.” The feeling, though, was quite accurate. This combination of agrarian and light industry set on a scenic stream would come to be Pont-Aven’s visual claim to fame, albeit a not altogether unique in Brittany. This was a small flour and cider port well before Bacon arrived. Bacon told others about his find and by 1870, only six years later, artists flocked to a growing fifty-member enclave. They were an international bunch, representing America, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and of course France, among others. Soon, Pont-Aven became synonymous with a school of impressionistic art called synthesis. In 1886, two relatively unknown artists named Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard arrived and the Pont-Aven School exploded with creativity. For Gauguin particularly, Tahiti may have been his final calling, but Pont-Aven always held a special place in his heart and work. Today, this communal arts community thrives in Pot-Aven, and the town remains a major tourist draw among artists and art-lovers.
Ancient Traditions, New Approaches
Locronan literally means “the place of Ronan.” Who’s Ronan? Ronan is both saint and legend that exemplifies Brittany’s connection with Celtic culture and heritage in a physical form. An Irish priest by birth, Ronan voluntarily left the Emerald Isle late in life to commune with God. He settled in what would become known as Locronan and thus, the beginnings of one of France’s greatest and oldest religious pilgrimages originated. Every six years in July, residents in the area gather for the twelve-kilometer march around and up Montagne de Locronan for an event known as the Grande Troménie. The procession marks the symbolism and legend of Ronan, who is believed to have lived in the sixth century, a peer of St. Patrick. Further investigations into this event, place it in the even older tradition of Celtic Lughnasa festivals. Throughout the Celtic world, Lughnasa marked the beginning of the harvest season, a time to give thanks and come together to ask for fertility in life and crop. Over time the Catholic Church sanctioned retaining such holidays and so both the Grande Troménie and Irish Croagh Patrick, both in July, retain important elements of paganism that center around significant land masses, all while incorporating elements of Catholicism. Led by the community’s youth, the procession still takes place in traditional Breton dress and with relics of the Saint. Along the way, food is served, prayers are said, and alms are given. The next Grande Troménie won’t be for another year, in 2019, but a smaller Troménie is held each second Sunday in July, only a few days before the Tour makes its pilgrimage through the area.