Whilst everywhere else in Europe (even the UK!) seemed to be wilting under a heatwave of rare intensity this summer, northern Brittany remained pleasant and sunny, always with a nice fresh sea breeze and even a few days that blew a little harder and drizzled a fine shower or two. Far more attractive from my point of view!
Probably tired of having to sell off their summery goods at a loss for years, I noticed that the shops have fewer sandals and less hot-weather clothing for sale than usual – they’ve even started getting their autumn stock in and any sales are pretty much over, which is quite unlike our experience of the last 20 years. And of course, they have learnt their lesson in a year when the customers are actively looking for seasonal summer items as they escape the unexpectedly hot inland areas – Murphy’s Law, I suppose.
Another thing that’s struck me this summer is that there are a higher proportion of houses being used than in previous years; since I feel I’m seeing fewer foreign cars, I’m wondering if the recession (or a feel for tradition?!) is seeping through and keeping people in their own country, perhaps reminded of Mémé or Tante Marie’s property here in Brittany, where a holiday can be just as nice and far less stressful than jetting off to distant shores?
Tourism began here in the late 19th century, when painters discovered the coastal light of northern Brittany was just the thing – around the time that the impressionists were desperately trying to find ways of capturing light in their art. Artists brought families, friends and servants and the tourist industry was born. Since travel in those days involved a good deal more effort (believe it or not…!) and one remained at one’s destination for a period of several months, it soon made sense both to build comfortable hotels and homes that could be opened up for the summer season – naturally on the steepest parts of the coast with the best of the rugged views…
This particular area still has a reputation for being popular with Parisians, with a large number of the holiday homes belonging to them, and where they can escape from the cloying heat and smells of the metropolis to fresh, healthy sea air, sunshine, sandy beaches and so on, bringing their typical French (as opposed to Breton) ways of life with them and also fuelling the need for beauty treatments (sea water therapy, “thalassothérapie”, being a big pull) and such so that at the “rentrée” (“back to school”, but also back to work in September) they can show off their toned, tanned and tickled bodies. Like many city dwellers, they find anything countrified to be rather quaint, and ironically, this has probably saved many traditions in the very independent Brittany – the art, culture, music and even the Celtic language are kept alive by being attractive to tourists. In addition, the landscape of pink granite rocks and bird islands, with the opportunities for water sports, especially the prestigious one of sailing, increases the attraction. The Parisian summer guest sails, plays tennis, partakes of “wellness”, cycles and walks the coastline, sending the children off to learn how to sail, play tennis, ride or climb, and then dines at relatively expensive restaurants off the spoils of the area – mussels, lobsters, crab, pâté, artichokes, butter, butter, butter, crèpes, salted caramel, and so on.
Having said all that, a new trend seems to have emerged over recent years, and these days, there are many French “homes-from-home” seen everywhere – what I would call a dormobile but which apparently is also known as a campervan, or as the Americans might call it, a recreational vehicle: something like a small house on wheels, the size of a bus (of course!). As camping has become less and less popular, or else the equipment has become more and more sophisticated, it seems that it has become easier to just pack up once and take the lot with you. Camping sites are full of them, the narrow village roads are full of them, and they clog every carpark along the entire coastline – it is thereby that I judge their popularity! Perhaps I ought to go around surveying them and asking if they are here because they came here as children when Mémé still had her summer residence that has meanwhile been sold off, or whether they are following some other pull or trend?! You certainly do still see multi-generational families, where the children and grandchildren are visiting for the summer and all the cousins get to play or go to sports lessons together…
Whatever, it seems clear that while a “normal” summer sees about half of the houses being used (and about 2/3 of the total number of houses here are holiday homes), this summer, at least ¾ of these secondary residences are in use, which pleases me inordinately – I hate to see a neglected house! Gardeners and tradesmen are buzzing around doing maintenance, renovating and rebuilding and there’s a real sense of life in an area that sometimes felt as if it was dying a long, slow death. Due to the pleasant weather, the beaches are busy and the businesses along the seafront will do a good season’s trade and for once, we may see the same ones again next summer season; so often trade has been so bad that shops, restaurants and activities have only lasted very briefly and then changed hands – yet again. One type of shop that tends to do well here is the type that offers home decoration, as all these home-owners are keen that their interiors reflect their coastal location and so appear to spend a lot of time and money on anything with “marine” flair and style!
And it is, truly, a lovely place to spend as many weeks of the summer as you can afford – spare as many as you can! With the Atlantic in arm’s reach and ever present in the air, sleep late in the quiet breeze, wander into a village for a baguette and a coffee, put on your hiking boots and climb some rocks or else grab your bucket and spade and head down to a sandy beach and don’t forget to stop into a crêpérie for your afternoon snack… Identify rare sea birds, admire the hydrangeas that grow like weeds, the lush vegetation, the tall coastal pine trees, the moonlike landscapes at low tide and the sparkling water at high tide, the enormous variety of boats large and small, modern and old-fashioned, the stone-built towns and villages and the lively Celtic culture – have a holiday in Brittany!!