Sean Thomas

Sick of Cornwall? Visit Cornouaille

An adventure around France’s peculiarly British coast

  • From Spectator Life
The village of Pont Aven in Brittany, France (iStock)

I am Cornish. Indeed I am so Cornish my sister lives about three miles from where my echt Cornish ancestors lived in the 13th century (near Falmouth), and my mum makes working-class Cornish recipes so obscurely Cornish most of the Cornish have barely heard of them (‘date and lemon pie’). As such, I am pretty fond of the place, and I like to go back as much as I can. Except in summer, when it’s crowded. And increasingly May. Or September. Or October. Or the rest of autumn. And Christmas, And Easter. And New Year. And any weekend at any time, ever.

The impressively craggy Breton church is weirdly boring inside – like all French churches

Let’s face it, Cornwall is too popular for its own good, and often too pricey, and that’s why I’ve come here, to the French version, a green and coastal chunk of Brittany literally called Cornwall but in French: Cornouaille (for the jolly good reason that it was settled by Cornish people around the 5th century). I want to see how the French Cornwall compares to the British original – maybe it is even nicer? Better value? I also want to see if I can escape the crowds.

And… I’m not off to a great start. I’m in Pont Aven, which, if it has a Cornish equivalent, is surely St Ives – because Pont Aven is delicate, pretty, arty, stone built, with burbling and twining rivers rushing past sweetly renovated watermills-cum-art galleries. The town is also full of quaint, handsome villas, built for rich Parisians in the 19th century; it is likewise replete with artistic history – you can visit the room where Paul Gauguin painted famous still lifes and portraits (and see the mantel in the room in the paintings). However, picturesque little Pont Aven is also absolutely rammed with tourists, apparently year-round – exactly like St Ives.  

My next stop, if it was in Cornwall, would be Truro, the county town. In Cornouaille the county town is Quimper – and they both sit on winsome rivers and boast twin-spired cathedrals – and that is where the comparisons stop. Because whereas Truro is pleasant and dainty, Quimper is one of the finest small cities in Europe, full of Tudor-gabled streets and handsome riverside boulevards and castellated towers overlooking trilling rills and leats, and its cathedral is a neglected masterpiece of 13th century rayonnant Breton Gothic, shining white and resplendent. It is probably lovelier than any single town in the Americas. 

How come I’ve never heard of it?! I dunno, but Qumper is also where I have the third most French conversation of my life. I am keen to try Brittany’s revered crepes and ciders, and I am doing it in Quimper’s exquisite 16th century ‘Butter Square’, which is surrounded by renowned creperies that apparently also sell cider. My conversation with the creperie dude goes like this:

Me: ‘Do you sell cider, as well as crepes?’
Creperie waiter, with towel draped over arm, ‘Yes…. But only one.’
Me: ‘Only one kind of cider?’
Crepe dude: ‘Yes.’ Offers a huge Gallic shrug, ‘It is the best.’

And so I sit down and I eat my crepe with blackberry jam (nice) and then I sip from my ceramic bowl of cider (I’ve no idea why they serve it like this, but it’s fun) and my eyes widen in appreciation. I generally dislike cider – yet this is delicious. And, oui, it is the best cider I’ve ever had. 

Fuelled with the jouissance and cidres of Quimper, I race on in my little rented Peugeot. I pull over at Locronon, because it is one of the plus belles villages de France. That is to say, it is one of those zealously primped, manicured, stone-hewn, flower-decked, delicately toothsome French villages, restored within an inch of its life. On a sunny day, Locronon can hit twee factor ten, as all the many tourists wander between the seven creperies, the three artisanal biscotteries, the bijou shops dedicated to the ‘Celtic Arts of Wellness’, and the impressively craggy Breton church which is weirdly boring inside – like all French churches. 

So my advice is: don’t linger too long, instead head down the hills to nearby, gritty, super Breton-Gallic Douarnanez, an old sardine fishing port with an old sardine fishing factory and lots of old sardine fishermen eating sardines in old sardine wharves turned into sardine restaurants. Try the sardines.

And if you want to know how the sardines are caught then you must go to Haliotika, down the mildly dramatic coast (Cornwall wins this one), which is a genuinely busy fishing port turned into a superb interactive museum: where you can stand on a windy terrace and watch the daily return of the local fishing fleet (around 4-5 p.m.), laden with langoustine, squid, gurnards. You can also watch the hauls being unloaded, then follow the fish inside to see it being auctioned, packed, and iced, and sent to Paris, London, Singapore. When all that is done you can lark about in an entire fake trawler upstairs, pretending to drive the ship – and then have a spiffing langoustine dinner. This is a great place for families. They make sure the adults have a nice choice of booze.

Where next? Well, just down the road there’s the brilliantly steampunk lighthouse of Phare d’Eckmuhl (16th highest lighthouse in the world). Or maybe head around the bay to the beautiful peninsula of Crozon, with its noble megalithic alignments, eerie ruins of surrealist mansions, superb beaches with greeny-blue waters, and excellent oysters at alluringly remote Camaret-sur-Mer (neatly twinned with St Ives). Note that you can easily get oysters for €2 a pop. Brittany is not ‘cheap’, but it is sometimes much better value than its British cousin.

Me, I spend my final night by the lapping waters of ‘France’s prettiest river’ – the languid and cressy Odet – in the lovely Pension du Bac in tiny, cute Sainte Marine. This is very Cornish, like somewhere on the Helford, only slightly warmer, slightly sunnier, not quite as magical. 

After that I head as far west as I can. This takes me to right down to Pointe du Nez, a kind of spectacular Breton Land’s End, where the lighthouses march one by one, deeper into the sea, like soldiers under orders to drown; beyond them, the glimmering, druidic island of Le Sein lies temptingly on the hazy horizon. Here you must simply stand. Breathe in that lovely ozone, listen to the skylarks above the seapinks.

So what’s my verdict on the Cornwall of France? If you aim to escape the Cornish crowds, you might be out of luck: Cornouaille is almost as popular with French and foreign visitors as Cornwall is with Brits. But that is for a reason: it’s often gorgeous. And whereas the French Cornwall sometimes lacks the mystical vibe of the British Cornwall – those Celtic wells, pagan shrines and tortured Satanic minescapes, which give Cornwall its truly unique numinosity – the French job makes up for that with towns and villages as dazzling as anywhere in Europe. In short, Cournouaille is completely itself, and vive la difference. And the cider really is fantastique. 

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