The fabulously named Côte des Légendes, Coast of Legends, sits on the North-West tip of Brittany. From Pointe Saint-Mathieu to Roscoff, sea and land wrestle with each other and create an incredible mosaic of landscapes. The Brittany monster (see here) has been in a lot of fights; its ancient nose is full of scars, wounds, and wrinkles. The coast is so jagged (déchiquetée) and treacherous that it seems to create its own folklore.
People used to tell epic stories here, in the rich but remote and mysterious Pays de Léon. Stories of saints and miracles, lost cities, queens, shipwrecks and resurrections. Historical facts, cold and hard as granite, are difficult to believe. And legends are so present in the landscape that they may as well have have been true.
The Pointe St Matthieu, the upper lip of the Brittany monster, is the dramatic start to Côte des Légendes. The view from the promontory encompasses the Crozon peninsula, the Pointe du Raz, the île de Sein, the islands of Modène, and Ouessant, “Ushant” in English.
“Ouessant” contains all the letters of Ouest, and in my mind it is no chance; the island is the last one to see the sun rise in France. In calm weather, you can see its only village, turning its back to the ocean, and its long beach. The long, desolate northern promontory has a tall lighthouse overlooking an impressive cliff. The sea is dotted with isolated rocks and islets, too numerous to name or count.
The headland itself displays a strange accumulation of buildings. The huge semaphore, bright white with a red tip, is almost too stereotypical to be true. Its ray of light is visible up to 50 kilometres away at night. Sweeping across the landscape, it is both eerie and reassuring. This is the first of an array of lighthouses, turrets and buoys that help navigation along this treacherous, jagged coast.
The high-tech tower of the Marine Nationale complements the lighthouse in its vigil over the sea. Of course, there is also a memorial, to the sailors of the Marine Nationale this time. I can imagine the new recruits in Brest being taken for a trip out here.
And, in between the lighthouse and the modern tower, stand the grandiose, but incongruous, ruins of an abbey. This is a rare sight in France, and it reminded me of the many English abbeys, victims of Henry VIII. Interestingly enough, the English did destroy this abbey too, as part of a raid in 1558.
The abbey’s main mission on Pointe St Mathieu was to save lives at sea, by keeping a fire on at the top of a beacon. The abbey was founded in the 6th century by St Tanguy. Tanguy believed the slanders of their stepmother on his sister Haude’s virtue, and decapitated her. She came back to life to forgive him, and Tanguy became a monk and lived a life of penance.
The two are important saints throughout Brittany, but presumably not enough to make the abbey stand out. From the 11th century at least, the abbey claimed to host the skull of St Matthew. The story went that Breton sailors, bringing Saint Matthew’s relics back from Ethiopia, or Egypt, were caught up in a storm just off the headland. They invoked the apostle’s protection, and he split a rock in two, ensuring the boat’s safe passage between the two halves.
The abbey became the starting point in Brittany for the pilgrimage of Compostela. Its presence had turned what could have been a desolate edge of the world into an active village community, as the large square wash-house still attests. An important source of income was the salvaging of goods from shipwrecks, which put a dent in the abbey’s claimed raison d’être.
In this treeless, ever-windy landscape, another important industry here was the exploitation of wrack…