Eventually I tired of the wind along the coast. I was near Roscoff,and it was blowing from dawn to dusk, kicking up the dust and driving off trains of thoughts. I headed both inland and inwards, to Huelgoat.
Huelgoat, “the upper wood” in Breton, is pronounced “U-èl-go-a-t”. It is a quaint village in the center of Finistère (29), and a great starting point for walks in Argoat and the dark and mysterious Monts d’Arrées.
Its river, the rivière d’Argent (“the silver river”) finds it way around and under enormous granite boulders. Their formidable size and rounded shape give them an increddible presence; it is as if these gentle giants have only fallen asleep for a moment, in the shade of the oak and beech trees. One boulder, called La Roche Tremblante, “the shaking rock”, weighs 137 tons. It can indeed be tipped even by a child, if only they can the exact spot to push.
The river creates pools and water falls, but is at times only a discreet gurgle. Its red tint has been attributed to legendary and dissolute princess Dahut, who pushed her one-night lovers to their death into an abyss (le Gouffre).
Quite a mix-and-match of legends have sprung up here in the woods of Brocéliande (I thought Brocéliande wasnear Paimpont? Discover here. King Arthur, the giant Gargantua,as well as fairies all feature in the names of particular rocks or spots. In the Ménage de la Vierge, “the Virgin Household”, you can see in the chaos of boulders, a giant ladle, a cooking pot, a butter churn and a bellows. If you have enough imagination.
The granite boulders owe their survival to tourism, developed by the locals in the 19th century to protect them from being quarried. Huelgoat had fallen off the beaten track since, but a recent documentary on France 3, has raised its profile again. There aren’t exactly hordes of tourists, but the locals feel a little invaded nonetheless.
Interestingly, the American writer Jack Kerouac’s family was originally from Huelgoat. Nicknamed Ti-Jean, he only spoke French until he was 6, and went to Brittany in 1935 to explore his ancestral roots. His book On the road, famous the world over, relates self-exploration through his sex, drugs and rock n’ roll travels.
Huelagoat is also linked to another Breton d’ailleurs, Victor Segalen. “D’ailleurs” can be translated as of or from elsewhere, or, standing on its own as an adverb, as by the way. Above the river, on a mound somewhere in Huelgoat’s woods, a stele marks where Segalen was found dead in May 1919, aged 41; almost 101 years ago to the day.
Victor Segalen was a marine doctor, traveller, writer (certainly no travel writer, if you had asked him), poet, ethnographer, photographer and archaeologist, and specialist of China. Huelgoat had been his first trip out, and where he went to die. His tentacular, labyrinthic works, mixing reality and imagination, were mostly unpublished, unfinished and unknown in his lifetime.
Victor Segalen grew up in a city, Brest, open to the ships of the entire world (bar England, I presume… Discover why here). As a teenager, he rode out on his bike to Huelgoat to escape the misery of his sickly childhood: his predicted early death by consumption meant his mother confined him, almost to the point of suffocation.
As a marine doctor, Segalen first travelled to Tahiti, missing Paul Gauguin (remember him from Pont-Aven?) by only a few days, as the painter just died. He looked after the artist’s paintings, documents, and legacy. Poignantly, one of the paintaings was a small snowy Breton landscape that Gauguin had taken with him to the other side of the globe.
Posted in Djibouti next, Victor Segalen tried to follow in Rimbaud’s footsteps, another genius artist who had taken a abit of detour, smuggling arms in the deserts. But it is in China that Victor Segalen, discovering the utter other, found who he was in return.
His major archaeological discovery, a mix of on-the-ground exploration, documentary research and intuition, was the artificial hill, still unopened to this day, that contains the remains of Qin Shi Huan, the first Emperor of China. The one with the terracotta army.
Victor Segalen’s death is suspicious to say the least. His frail, opium-starved body was found in a serene attitude. It was down river from Huelgoat, in the woods, on a mound above the boulders, and away from tourists. He had bled from his foot, his officer uniform rolled under his head, his copy of Hamlet nearby, and a letter to his wife in his chest pocket. The boulders of Huelgoat are his Terracotta Warriors Army.
His body lies now in the Pantheon, in Paris, and his complete works are now published in La Pleïade, the ultimate recognition. In him, and in Jack Kerouac, I think I found my adoptive ancestors. I too am a Bretonne d’ailleurs, travelling to find who I am through the eyes of others.