But the Crozon peninsula is not cut off from the rest of the world. Sadly, and surprisingly perhaps, war has imprinted its mark widely on it, and still holds it in its grip. You have to go to Pointe des Espagnols, its northern tip, to understand why. As you emerge from the walls and bushes, onto the top of its 65-metres-high cliff, the view takes your breath away (Elle est époustouflante!).
Brest is just a kilometre and a half away across the water, and the deep blue sea of the Rade de Brest is covered with a multitude of bright sailing boats. Their white sails are like daisies in a field. Brest, from the breton bri “coast, side”, shares an etymological root with Bretagne. Its huge natural harbour, at the westernmost point of Brittany, is linked to the ocean by a narrow and dangerous straight, le Goulet de Brest, in the shadow of Pointe des Espagnols. On the tumultuous, fast and deep waters of the Goulet, a small fishing trawler battles the current to pull up its catch. A few shags do the same, sticking close to the cliff. Only the kelp’s manes unfurl serenely in the flow, the deep blue is not far. A passenger ferry from the island of Ouessant glides in with the rising tide.
Since Antiquity, people have seen Brest as strategic. The Romans fortified it. The English held it several times during the Middle Ages. During the Religious Wars at the end of Renaissance, the city sided with the king, Henry IV, open to more tolerance of Protestants. So in 1594, a contingent of 400 Spaniards, in support of the ultra-Catholic side, landed on Crozon. They occupied its northern tip, to put Brest to siege. For six months they were besieged, until the French soldiers killed them all. Their memory remain in the name of this dramatic Pointe des Espagnols.
In 1631, Richelieu, Louis XIII’s éminence grise, makes Brest one of the three harbours of the kingdom of France on the Atlantic coast. In 1669, Colbert, Louis XIV ‘s right-hand-man, makes it the headquarter of the Marine Royale. In 1682, the king’s military architect Vauban is charged with fortifying the Goulet de Brest. He adds his fortifications to the Pointe des Espagnols and elsewhere along the coast of the presqu’île de Crozon, to avoid the enemy taking Brest from behind (the French prendre à revers is so much more elegant…). He installs several low batteries, on the north and northeastern coast.
In the anse of Camaret, further south, Vauban has a tower built to install his cannons. In 1694, it has its baptism of fire (“l’épreuve du feu“). An Anglo-Dutch fleet of 8000 soldiers lands on the beach of Trez-Rouz, but is repelled (Confident Linguists can read more about the battle, in French, here). It is the last time Brest is attacked from the sea. The Golden Tower (“Tour Dorée“), now an elegant but quaint addition to the pretty fishing harbour of Camaret-sur-Mer, is considered World Heritage by UNESCO. And the beach of Trez-Rouz, with its soft ochre cliffs and golden sand facing West, and its lovely view on Camaret and its tower, is popular with families during the day, and couples at sunset.
As the same strategic imperatives remained, military technology advanced. Over the ages, men added to all the presqu’île’s highpoints their new, cutting-edge, fortifications and batteries. Napoleon I and III added their marks, of course. So did the Germans during World War II: as Brest was the base for their submarines fighting the battle of the Atlantic, the Allies constantly bombarded the city for four years. The Pointe des Espagnols became a German anti-aircraft battery and bunker. The burnt-out carcasses of tanks are still here for all to witness; archaeology in the making.
To this day, the Marine Nationale holds extensive terrains on the north of the Crozon peninsula. Tourists are not allowed, and can only imagine the warren of tunnels that warrant the main French submarine land base. Brest on the other hand, was rebuilt after the war in the post-war, brutalist style suited to a military city…