Tréguier, a pretty ville de caractère, or city of character, is the capital of the Trégor, in the west of the Côtes d’Armor (22). It is famous for its beautiful cathedral, and its 15th and 16th colombages houses, with picturesque wooden beams. Thanks to its river port with easy access to the Channel, the city grew rich trading in flax and hemp.
It rains when I arrive, and the restaurants are still closed, so I use every open building for shelter, namely the cathedral, book shops (classed as “essential” during the third lockdown, after much campaigning), and a bureau de tabac. My visit is a few days before St Yves’s annual pardon, on 19th May; the city, and in particular the central square and along the procession’s path, are adorned with yellow and black buntings.
Inside the cathedral, the relic – a browned skull – of Saint Yves is exposed. Around the reliquary, three women are busy arranging a stunning display of arums. Their white and yellow are the Saint’s colours. People drop by to hand over offerings from their own gardens. Usually thousands of people attend or take part in the procession; this year the limit is set at 3000 people (?).
The people in Tréguier are either fervent catholics, ardent left-wing free-thinkers, or both – it is no contradiction here. If Saint Yves is the city’s patron, its most famous child was the rationalist Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892). His birthplace is one of the most beautiful colombages houses.
Renan’s statue is on the cathedral square, and all can read his quote on freedom of thought: “On ne fait de grandes choses qu’avec la science et la vertu – la foi qu’on a eue ne doit jamais être une chaîne – l’homme fait la beauté de ce qu’il aime et la sainteté de ce qu’il croit” “You only do great things with science and virtue; the faith you have had must never be a chain – man makes beauty out of what he loves, and sainthood out of what he believes”. Take that, Saint Yves…
The city is, understandably, a beacon for artists and thinkers. There are art centers, galleries and independent book shops everywhere in the city centre. In book shops, the selections speak of pride in local identity, and fondness for nature and the arts.
The current crisis of trust in central government, rather typical in Brittany, is plain to see. Writers and readers question the international consensus on neo-liberalism. The global ecological and climatic crises, the channeling of wealth towards the super-rich, and the seemingly never-ending encroachments of liberty under the claims of security: these seem more threatening, more urgent, than the current health crisis.
The line between conspiracy theories, free thinking, and healthy challenge to the establishment’s narrative is more blurred than ever. The disconnect between politicians on the one hand, and the poor and the classes moyennes on the other is written loud and clear everywhere in the town. Les classes moyennes is another false friend; it is the professional working class. “Middle-class” would be bourgeoisie.
I think French people on the whole are anarchists, in the philosophical sense. They support free enterprise, independent shops and businesses, small local producers. They want to live in peace, free to make the choices that affect them, their family and their local area. They want connexions with their family, friends, neighbours, and with nature.
If court-circuit means short-circuit, circuit court means a short, ideally direct link between producer and consumer, without intermediaries like brands, supermarkets and international chains. People still depend on the convenience those offer, but resent this dependence. Everywhere in France people give their friends and acquaintances, or the local saint for that matter, the produce of their gardens and orchards, or produce from a renown local farm. This informal economy based on sharing, giving, and the appreciation of good produce, is, I would argue, the French key to a happy life.
I have enjoyed my visit to Tréguier enormously. The city draws its energy from both God and Nature, faith and science. Its people stand tall and free, dare to think for themselves, and work hard to achieve a better tomorrow. Inspiring.