Occitanie

We are back in Céret in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, having visited last October for a few days with friends. Now we are ensconced for just under one month. Like the Auvergne and Creuse regions we passed through on our road trip south from Brittany, Occitanie has a lost world ambiance which we love. The bourgeoise in me couldn’t last here forever, but the part of me that disdains superficiality, consumerism and hyperactivity gets a massive lift.

In the Auvergne

Auvergne cow

Like an aged wine with loads of character, these parts of France are an evocative blend of peculiar environments and history. Here in Occitanie, the architecture is pre-Gothic, the towns are built through mountains on ancient pilgrimage paths, the many fortresses recall constant war between rival dynasties, and impressive Cathar strongholds such as Carcassonne tell the story of the violent persecution of Christian heretics.

The southern accent is decidedly a fading relic, but its coarseness still a reminder that we are far from the large and culturally sophisticated cities.

in Carcassonne

View from Carcassonne

Céret is a relatively large town in this area, with 7,705 people at last count. Occitanie means “the west” in Catalan, the dominant culture of the area, encompassing the former regions of Langedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées (France made changes to the official categories of regions in 2016). Languedoc itself was derived from the terms “langue d’occitanie” or “the lingo of the west.” To further complicate matters, the administrative département is Pyrénées Orientales.

From its immediate appearance, Cèret would not be the most important attraction in the area. But it doesn’t take much of a stroll through town to feel yourself relax, unwind, pick up the laid back vibe, note the many small artist ateliers and want to join the locals in a glass of  Catalan red at a café under the leaf canopy of mottled plane trees.

If you are a fan of Romanesque cathedrals and abbeys, you’re in luck. You could visit one a day and not run out. The medieval art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called The Cloisters (and one of my favorite hangouts when I was in college), obtained its Cuxa cloister in this area. If hiking gorges and forested mountain trails are what you live for, welcome. If 20th century art is a passion, you can follow the footsteps of the Fauves and others at the Cèret Musée d’ Art Moderne. There are several fine options for a thermal bath cure nearby. Mediterranean beaches? Collioure and others are a 40 minute drive or bus ride away.

These are just a few of the attractions. Soon, I’ll also be testing out the Catalan restaurants, for example. Stay tuned.

 

Posted in Céret, Collioure, expat, expat life, France, Occitanie, Pays Catalan, Pyrénées Orientales | 5 Comments

Le Départ

Cap Fréhel

It is the eve of September 1st and we are madly packing for our departure from Brittany and the Atlantic Ocean. This morning we took one last walk on the coastal path, I went to the fish restaurant a block away from our apartment for one more “choucroute de la mer” for the road, and we organized the car for the drive back towards the Mediterranean Sea and  Céret. Over the next week our road trip will take us to Angers, Guéret, Clermont-Ferrand and Toulouse in five of the 95 different Departments of France (the Maine-et-Loire, Creuse, Puy de Dôme, Tarn and Pyrénées Orientales).

We will miss this area. We’ve had more than a respite from a hot, humid and tourist-laden city. We’ve had experiences of nature and folklore that would have been difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Will Brittany remain this kind of throw-back, rural and peaceful haven? Probably not. We’ve noticed fields turned over to repetitive housing developments, and newly built glass-walled contemporary architecture tucked in-between the granite houses. Rennes, Saint Malo and Nantes are expanding their suburbs at a fast clip. It’s probably got a few good years left, however. We’ll be back.

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Breton costume, Brittany, Céret, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France | 9 Comments

Cap Fréhel et le Côte d’Armor

We are in Cap Fréhel, the last of our stops in Brittany for this season. We’d first made a visit here last year on a day trip from Rennes, seeking relief from a heat wave. What a glorious escape that was. The bracing morning mist had hovered over the heathery hills, the ocean barely perceptible below, to lift with clear sunshine and a refreshing breeze by noon. Inland, the hamlets of granite Breton houses with blue shutters and hollyhocks growing madly in every crevice emanated cool calm.
So we had to return. And it turns out last August was exceptionally hot, and this year it has been exceptionally cloudy and rainy.
Nevertheless, we’ve had enough lovely weather to spend a lot of time walking on those heathery hills. On the inclement days, we’ve visited historic towns like Lamballe and Moncontour. We drove to Rennes, our old haunt from last summer, and saw our friends  Ruth and John. And now the weather forecast is in the 70s F and sunny for days on end.

 

This part of Brittany, the Cote d’Armor, is significantly more popular than the more remote Crozon Peninsula and southern Finistere regions. Parisians occupy the Belle Epoque resort towns of St. Lunaire and Saint Briac sur Mer (you can tell they are Parisians because unlike the Bretons they don’t greet you with a civil “bonjour”). August is also peak season, which accounts for local beach parking lots being full by mid-morning. We don’t find the tourist presence overwhelming, however. Compared to even Cannon Beach in Oregon, it’s pretty quiet around here.
Mornings I am often on the Sentier des Douaniers, part of the afore-mentioned GR34 path along the entire Breton coast. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk from our rental, and it takes me to the remnants of one of the old quarries that hauled out the Grès Rose stone, responsible for the pinkish hue of the area houses.
Grès Rose stone house in Equy
Generally speaking, we daily visit a point of interest then stop by a market and a café before coming home for a late lunch and down time before our late afternoon picturesque walk. Yesterday was hot — 76F — enough for a long day at the beach in my wetsuit getting tossed by the waves.
If that’s not enough, there’s always the option of an evening drive down back roads and a  stop at the local microbrewery.
back road in Fréhel
It’s difficult to imagine having had a more perfect summer in France.
Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Côte d'Armor, expat, expat life, France, Travel | 9 Comments

Les Fêtes Bretonnes

Within the extensive summer programming in Brittany, there is an important sub-category: the Breton culture festivals. From what I’ve been able to deduce, there are several main types of Breton festival including these: the religious Pardons honoring specific saints, the regional celebrations such as the Festival de Cornouaille, Fest Noz and other principally musical events, and those honoring traditional crafts. These appear to be quite popular events in Finistère Sud, a hot bed of traditional Breton culture.

Traditional Breton culture almost died out until undergoing a massive revival in the 1970s. It’s taken very seriously now, as these bumper stickers seen everywhere attest. “Breizh” is Breton for “Breton.” The headdress seen here, known as the “coiffe,” is one associated with the women of a certain area of Finistére, a “Bigoudène.” Every region, sometimes different villages within a region, has its own coiffe design.

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I attended the Festival des Brodeuses in Pont l’Abbé, at the end of its three-days’ run showcasing the intricate stitching and embroidery of the Breton costume. Participants wore costumes they or their mothers or grandmothers had made, and paraded through the small town before retreating to a public park where multiple stages held musical acts and festival goers sat at long tables under the trees with their cider and beer. The rousing Fireman’s bagpipe band was at my back as I waited in a long line for my buckwheat crepe. Good thing I like a good drone sound! Off on another stage, I could see a large band accompanying a dozen or so dancers. I was delighted to see these famous musicians in one of the parade bands.

Now, bear in mind that since I first saw Gauguin’s Pont-Aven paintings when I was in high school, I’ve been in thrall to them. However, until recently, it didn’t occur to me that one could still catch glimpses of what those Pont-Aven painters saw. As I mingled with the men, women and children before the start of the parade, I felt at times that I had crossed into the past, right into their paintings.

At the stands where individual “brodeueses” showed their craft, I chatted briefly with this expert. It turns out she is quite famous.

She is the last woman to wear the coiffe as part of her every day dress, and as such, a living symbol of the “Bigoudéne” culture. No doubt, it will live on as long as there are Bretons.

 

Posted in Bretagne, Breton costume, Breton music, Brittany, culture, Finistère, France | 9 Comments

Les Fêtes de l’été

There’s a general perception that the French have more leisure time than Americans. This is true. Having more practice with it, they also perform it better, in my opinion. Holidays are not so scarce that citizens go hysterical (read: wasted) when they finally get them. Many are designed to be community, family-friendly events.

This season is a time of traditional outdoor festivities, often referred to as “animations,” starting with the June 21st Fête de la Musique. Every city and village in France celebrates the arrival of summer with music-making of some kind (“faites musique” means “make music” but it sounds like “Fête”, get it?).

Although the Fête was launched in 1982 nationwide as a way to recognize amateur musicians (of which there are very many across France), in large cities like Paris the programming largely involves professional bands and symphonies.

Here in western Finistère, in the days preceding the Fête, we drove past many handmade signs outside villages announcing their own music fest. You could have Fête-hopped the solstice all night long within a very confined geographical area. No one would have judged you, though, because at that time of year the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight and bonfires bring the dusk to a blaze as the musicians play their last. Why go inside?

“Les Bretons sont chauvins,” a local told me. Proud of their heritage, they are indeed. The Bretons use the fine seasonal weather to trot out their local sonneurs (players of cornemuses, binioux and bombards) at Celtic-themed musical fests called “Fest Noz.” I go mad for this folk life stuff, and finding fests nearby is one of my constant preoccupations.

Pig Roasts (cochon grillé) are also popular. They serve the same purpose as a Lions Club pancake breakfast, raising funds for a community. These don’t appeal to me personally, but they are traditionally Breton. In fact, let’s just say that vegans should really stay away from fish, cow, sheep, goat and bee product-based rural Brittany.

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Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” is one of my favorite films of all time. Until coming to Brittany this summer, I had no idea such events still took place anywhere. You can find quite a few “Bal des Pompiers” during the week prior to Bastille Day, where bands play and people sit along river quais or in public parks dancing and eating the local staple, Moules et Frites.

If folk life isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d go for the classical music concerts several times a week, in one medieval church or another. Or, Celtic rock concerts closer to the cities (no thank you).

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The Inter-Celtic extravaganza takes place every August in Lorient, too far for us to reach this time. But maybe next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, culture, expat, Finistère, France | 9 Comments

Les Langoustines, le Blé Noir, le Brebis et le Cidre

It’s Langoustine season in Finistère Sud, the southwestern part of Brittany. Known in English as the “Norway Lobster,” they are available in abundance at all the markets. We’re indulging several times a week. And why not? At an affordable $7 a pound at the Poissonnerie (fishmonger’s), they are irresistible. Some fishmongers even boil them up for you in a special machine in a quick four minutes.

They remind me of Vancouver, B.C.’s famous spot prawns, a delicate crustacean I have known,  loved and missed.

Local restaurants serve huge plates of boiled langoustines with mayonnaise, but I prefer them at home with just a little olive oil, lemon and garlic, with those lovely small Breton potatoes on the side. There is nothing better!

The rest of Breton cooking is not much to my liking. The region is famous for its salted butter, and it tends to find its way into everything in copious amounts. Old style French cuisine is the norm, which means rich sauces. I will admit, they are tasty in small measure (a teaspoon), but inevitably the steamed fish with vegetables restaurant order arrives sitting in a bath of cream. Give me a good boiled Icelandic fish dinner!

The weekly markets in this part of Brittany, which is sparsely populated and lacks big cities, are small affairs of a dozen or so vendors. They are the only places I have found a few decent vegetables, as the supermarket fare isn’t impressive at all. Lots of buttery Breton galettes and sablés (sugar cookies) are available, though.

So beyond the frequent langoustine meals, I console myself daily with two other widely available Breton products, such as crackers and crepes made with Blé Noir (buckwheat) and fresh Brebis, sheep’s milk cheese.

And of course, there’s the cider. I have never seen a vineyard in Brittany, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say there aren’t any. However, great apple cider is available everywhere and you can buy bottles direct from the producers by taking the turn at the sign for the “Cidrerie” off the road. I like the extra dry, with fine bubbles, low alcohol and a slightly tangy aftertaste. You have to drink it right away, or it becomes too bitter, but that’s not a problem.

Not bad for a summer experience.

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, expat, expat life, Finistère, food, France, Travel | 11 Comments

Le Retour en Bretagne

Ah, here we are again, nestled into the lushly green landscape and utter calm of rural Brittany. No big hotels, no tourist buses, no high rises. This summer we are exploring the west, in Finistère Sud, of rugged coastline and pristine Atlantic waters, somber granite villages and Celtic legends. Menhirs, dolmens, cairns and sacred Druid places are scattered seemingly helter-skelter (they were actually integrated into a vast ancient system of religious spaces) and our holiday rental is across from the Menez Hom so important to Breton myth.

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Finistère Sud is also known as the wettest part of the region. We’ve had sun, but every day has started with rain, or, like this morning, a tempest.

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Nevertheless, Brittany is suffering from a three-year drought. That explains why last summer was hot and dry. Maybe we’ll have some more of that in the next couple of months.

This part of Brittany encompasses the famously beautiful Crozon Peninsula, which attracts beach going families, wet-suited surfers and hikers taking on the GR 34 (Grande Randonnée or “big hike”) stretching along the coast for 120 kilometers/75 miles. Months of sunny days wouldn’t be enough to adequately explore its countless breathtaking views and wide expanses of sandy beaches.

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Weather permitting, we’ll do the GR 34 justice. The temperature is currently 16C/61F, so bathing is out of the question. However, not for some locals.

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Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Crozon, expat life, Finistère, France | 8 Comments