beyondtheduero

Belle-Île-en-Mer

Taxi to Waterloo Station, Eurotunnel to Paris, TGV to Rennes, hired car to the chateau outside Vannes, courtesy bus to the port, ferry from Quiberon to Belle-Île-en-Mer
Hired bicycles around the island

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The owners of the Chateau de Castellan, in a bucolic idyll near Vannes, were Grant Wood’s American Gothic; lacking a pitchfork he was taciturn, she was sanguine
Nonetheless, the chateau, nearby Rochefort-en-Terre and Vannes were an hors d’oeuvre well served before Belle-Île-en-Mer

A cassoulet lapin was on the menu in the spacious barn, almost as big as the chateau itself, and would have been worthy for any passing aristocrat
It seemed embued with years of savoir faire cooked by the hostess Marie, possibly a recipe of her arrière-grand-mère

Marie‘s family are the original aristocracy of the chateau
I’m not sure if Marie told me this or I’d inferred it from something else she’d said
I wasn’t sure why Marie and Patrick had opened their doors to guests and speculated that despite having a wealth of surrounding farmland, the modest chateau was a drain on resources
Like many impecunious aristocracy with stately mill stones around their necks

But Marie had also speculated that I was an English footballer, probably Teddy Sheringham, so maybe we were both wrong

What has been left to time, at her chateau, has a weathered beauty: the barn has lost its softly textured render in a sublime composition with the slate walls behind
But what needs maintaining is scrupulously conserved: the honeyed stone, casement windows, slate roof, lawns, planters and Marie‘s recipes

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The Celtic Empire is a very modern conception
There was no formal entity or central power
A collection of tribes, initially from Central Europe, that had cultural, artistic and linguistic similarities

The collective tribe spread to the British Isles and Biscay where you’ll find what are recognised as the six Celtic nations: Scotland, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany
From the Middle Ages they’ve retained the Celtic culture and from 1961 it’s been protected by The Celtic League

And so the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer is a part of this theoretical Empire, born not from Celtic warriors but historiographers
Similarities are obvious: inclemency, rain, fishing, granite, letter forms, language, music, cuisine and fleeting moments of fugitive light

Belle-Île-en-Mer has four principal towns: Le Palais, Sauzon, Bangor and Locmaria
Bangor is named after a monestary in Wales
And more Bangors abound in the Celtic Empire: the Northern Irish seaside town, university city in Wales, the village of Bangor Erris in County Down, Bangors in Cornwall and not forgetting Bangor-on-Dee with Saint Dunawd’s monestary

Le Palais is the largest town; has a big harbour, two lighthouses guarding the walls, a star fortification and many shops selling tinned mackerel, sardines and tuna as holiday souvenirs

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The Conserverie la Belle-Iloise, in Le Palais, has tastefully canned mackerel fillets in: herbs and lemon, curry and almonds, white wine, tomato, mustard, herbs of Provence and harissa or chillie

The sardines offer more variations: sardines aux olives de Nice,sardines à l’huile d’olive et au citron, sardines à l’huile d’olive et à la tomatesardines à l’huile de tournesol et à la tomatesardines à la tapenadesardines à l’huile, sauce Pitomaïl, sardines aux deux piments et sa note de citron, sardines à la Luzienne, sardines Royans à la sauce ravigote, sardines à l’huile d’olive aux épices et aux aromates, sardines à l’huile d’olive et aux poivres verts, sardines marinées au muscadet et aux aromates

The packaging is so enticing I could have bought them all, but in the end bought a secondhand book on Bretonne architecture from a very good shop in the Rue des Remparts

Of the two towns Sauzon is prettier, though it only has one lighthouse
The ria of Sauzon forms a natural harbour, sheltering a vast fishing fleet
The flooded valley continues to rise either side of the ria and gives Sauzon an agreeably warm microclimate

They say the houses are painted with left-over paint, that’s been used to paint their boats, affording an agreeable sense of ownership to their important possessions
And Sauzon does seem to have more brightly painted boats and therefore houses than anywhere else on Belle-Île-en-Mer, so maybe it’s true

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In Paris, Hélène had told me of idyllic holidays, Mitterand, mistresses and les beaux mondes
It was true, Mitterrand was a great lover of the island and brought his lovers there; he admired the islands discretion

Always popular with artists, amongst many others, Australian John Peter Russell introduced Matisse to the island to experience the luminosity
Matisse was influenced by the flux of the weather
Light and shade scudding over wet sand
Luminous clouds momentarily backlighting Le Palais
Glistening golden bands and sparkling white horses on the horizon of Sauzon

It wasn’t only Mitterrand and Matisse: Charles Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet were habitués too
These days Belle-Île-en-Mer has seen enough of French Presidents, poets, actresses and artists, it seems the new Brittany island a la moda is the Île de Ré

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Quiberon, the ferry port serving the island, seems more distant than fourteen kilometers
Belle-Île-en-Mer is an Elysian isle, but mysteriously independent
Its calm rhythm is discordant with the normality of the mainland
Baudelaire said of Belle-Île-en-Mer that the rocks made, a portal open to infinity
Small islands magically create their own worlds

The cottage was enigmatic with themes of voodoo: animal skulls, bones, feathers and beads hung on the walls
The Caribbean owner, the cottage’s bright colours, simple sophistication and a scorching week during summer, lent an air of Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin or Guadeloupe to the island

It seemed that a sense of reality had been left behind in Quiberon
The moment more important than the consequences of the past or the necessities of the future
Little things become absorbing, given the time to explore them: flotsam on the sand, starfish in a pool, discarded oyster shells, the behaviour of insects I’d never had time to notice before
The luxury for idle thought and strange speculations

photography and text by Tim Harris

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This entry was published on May 4, 2016 at 6:30 pm. It’s filed under France, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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