Home to some seventy per cent of the island bodies of metropolitan France, the 800 islands and islets that surround the coast of Brittany offer something for everyone. Some support vibrant communities while others are home to only seabirds and the occasional visitor. Here is a brief sketch of some of the main inhabited islands that were not looked at in an earlier post, starting with those off the south coast and moving counter-clockwise along Brittany’s northern coast.
Île aux Moines
On Brittany’s southern coast, the beautiful inland sea known as the Gulf of Morbihan is peppered with 42 small islands; fifteen of which are permanently inhabited. There are many choices available for those wanting to cruise around the Gulf during the summer months, with regular boats departing from the ports of Arzon, Auray, Locmariaquer, Port Blanc and Vannes.
The largest island in the Gulf, the Île aux Moines, is most easily reached with a five minute ferry crossing from Port Blanc, about 8km south of Vannes. The island is almost 6km long and over 3km wide and you are never more than half a kilometre from the sea at any point. Several marked trails offer some wonderful walks and these are also two well-established cycle paths; the coastal path is about 17km long and bikes are readily available for rent.
Whichever way you choose to explore the island, you will discover life lived at a leisurely pace, roadside calvaries, ancient fountains, little chapels and small whitewashed cottages. The island’s mild climate allows fruit, palm and eucalyptus trees to flourish. Walking around the island is a treat for the senses and, if the breeze is in the right direction, you will catch the smell of the sea along with the fragrance of the mimosas and camellias that seem to dominate the island. There are half a dozen small beaches to enjoy; the charming beach at Anse du Guéric being perhaps the least visited.
The island has several prehistoric monuments, the most well-preserved of which are the cromlech at Kergonan, the largest stone circle in France, located in the north of the island and the dolmen of Pen Hap in the south of the island. This latter megalith is thought to be all that remains of a much larger structure; the massive stones having been taken away and re-purposed by the island’s builders over time.
One local custom recorded here in the late 19th century would not merit a mention nowadays. It was noted that after Vespers on a certain Sunday, young mariners would gather on the parapet in the port and watch the unmarried girls who, dressed in their most beautiful clothes, passed and re-passed with their downcast eyes. When a young man saw a lady that he liked, he dropped down and approached her!
One tradition that does still retain an exotic air today tells that, in the 19th century, local fishermen claimed to have sighted, between the island and the western coast, a shepherd dressed in a black cassock, walking on the crests of the waves and leading a large herd; he was said to be the old rector of Baden, whose soul was in pain for want of masses and prayer.
Almost 1,800 inhabitants were noted in the mid-19th century. Today, the island boasts the highest house prices in Brittany and is home to about 600 permanent residents.
A local legend tells that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave their lands under the relentless march of Christianity. Upon this new sea, the ancient fairies threw their garlands of flowers, which turned into beautiful islands.
Although the Île d’Arz lies under 700m away to the east of the Île aux Moines, there are no direct connections between the two isles. However, there is a tale that tells the two islands were once connected by a causeway. A young sailor from the Île aux Moines fell in love with a girl from Arz, to the great despair of his parents who had him confined with the monks. Every day, the lovesick girl crossed the causeway in order to sing under the walls of the monastery. The exasperated prior appealed to the korrigans who submerged the road, drowning the young girl and separating the two islands forever.
Today, the island can be reached in about twenty minutes by ferry from Vannes or Séné. It typically sees fewer visitors than its larger neighbour but it certainly has as much to offer. A permanent community of over 225 people live on the island, a significant reduction from the 1,250 recorded in the 1880s.
The highest point on the island is just 13m above sea level which means that even occasional walkers will find no difficulties admiring the island on foot. There are two marked hiking trails as well as a decent cycle path around the island and, given the nature of the landscape, at certain points you could be forgiven for imagining yourself floating on the sea. The 17km long coastal path takes you through a surprisingly varied landscape of small creeks, vast mudflats and sandy beaches; the best of which is possibly the Plage de Brouël on the island’s southern coast.
For those interested in the built heritage, two sites are well worth seeking out; the 12th century church known as the Church of the Nativity and the restored 16th century tidal mill of Berno which milled the island’s grain right up to the years preceding the First World War. Arz also has its share of megalithic monuments, the best examples being the dolmen of Pen Raz and the three Neolithic dolmens of Pen Lious, one of which retains traces of ancient carvings. The many scattered stones nearby are likely the ruins of other megalithic structures, long since destroyed.
On the Île d’Arz, it was once believed that husbands’ shipwrecks were announced to their wives by the sound of water falling near their beds. During stormy nights, the noises that were heard on the wind blowing in from the ocean were said to belong to the Ankou; harbinger of death, walking on the waves in his quest for fresh souls or crossing the island on a chariot of fire. Other island legends talk of ghostly women who, at night, left the island and crossed the sea as if it were dry land.
Île de Houat
Lying just 14km off the south coast town of Quiberon, the island of Houat stands proud from the clear turquoise sea with its granite cliffs and sweeping sandy bays. Stretching almost 4km long by 1km wide, this delightful island offers some 17km of coastal paths for you to explore. The main settlement with its blue shuttered whitewashed houses is a mix of new and old buildings and a good spot to dine before heading off to visit Tal ar Han beach and its impressive panorama. The nearby fine sandy beach of Treac’h ar Goured with its crystal clear water is worth visiting; stretching as it does for almost two kilometres and backing onto grassy sand dunes.
To the south and west, a more rugged coastline is revealed, concealing pretty sandy coves between the folds of the cliffs. On the southern promontory, you can see several of Houat’s larger islets with the Île aux Chevaux in the distance; this large islet once served as a common pasture for the people of Houat and neighbouring Hoëdic. One islet to the east, Er-Yoc’h, renowned for the prehistoric finds uncovered there, contains a feature known as the Devil’s Hole. Legend tells that the Devil chased Saint Gildas to Houat but while the Saint’s horse safely made the leap from the mainland, the Devil fell short and smashed his head into Er-Yoc’h.
To the west, the lovely beach known as Treac’h ar Vénigued enjoys a wonderful view of the Sènis and Guric islets, both accessible at low tide. The northern part of the island contains the best preserved of the island’s three defensive forts and the best of its megalithic monuments, the Menhir de Bar-Kreiz. Visit the headland of Beg Run ar Vilaine for a great view along the north coast of the island and out over Quiberon Bay.
The island is currently home to some 240 permanent residents; about half the number recorded in the mid-1960s when the island was electrified. Fishing and tourism form the backbone to the island’s livelihood but even in high season, the island never feels busy. For those interested in more than a day-trip, a range of accommodation options are available as well as a number of bars and restaurants.
There are daily ferry crossings from the mainland at Quiberon although other services also operate between April and September. Depending on the boat, the journey from the mainland takes about 40 minutes before continuing on to Hoëdic; the duckling to Houat’s duck, according to their Breton names.
The 8km of blue waves separating Houat from Hoëdic is covered in about twenty minutes and if you are not soon charmed by this island, please have someone check your pulse immediately – you might be dead. Lying just 16km off the Breton coast, this small island is only about 2.5km long and 1km wide but its diminutive size belies its massive appeal. The island is a pleasure to wander around, particularly when tracing the 8km of coastal paths which allow you to discover so many picturesque coves laced with soft white sand. The views off the southern coast being wonderfully fringed by the half a dozen islets lying off the coast.
The island contains many Neolithic monuments including dolmens, stone alignments and menhirs, such as the Dolmen of the Cross and the Menhir of the Virgin which was once venerated by those women seeking to bear a child. Hoëdic also boasts one of the very few known Mesolithic sites in Brittany; shell mounds having preserved ten graves containing the bones of some fourteen people who lived about 8000 years ago. The dead were buried with flint and bone tools, shell necklaces and with deer antlers framing the heads of some bodies. Similar burials have also been discovered on nearby Téviec, a small island off Quiberon.
Given its strategic position in Quiberon Bay, the island was the scene of several confrontations between the forces of Great Britain and France; having been captured, re-fortified and re-captured on many occasions between the mid-16th and late-18th centuries. Reminders of these turbulent times can still be seen in the landscape today and while little remains of the English Fort at Beg Lagat on the north of the island, the impressive Vauban-style fort in the centre of the isle is in good order; built in 1853 to house 200 men, the fort was never commissioned.
A population of 425 was noted in 1920 but no more than a hundred permanent residents remain today. The dynamics of the island never really recovered from the aftershocks following the sinking of the passenger ship Saint-Philibert, about 40km to the south-east. This small coastal steamer, over-loaded with some 500 day-trippers from Nantes, capsized in rough seas during its return approach to the mouth of the Loire in the late afternoon of 14 June 1931. A lack of life-jackets and insufficient life-boats saw only eight survivors, yet the official inquest into the sinking subsequently absolved the ship-owners of any responsibility.
The tragedy was turned into a drama by the press with sensational and unfounded allegations of drinking and violence amongst the passengers. The morbid reporting also stoked an atmosphere of mistrust among the population of Nantes towards the region’s seafood; suspected by them of having been contaminated by the bodies of the drowned. Demand for seafood, the islanders’ primary livelihood, slumped and in a few months, a third of the islanders were forced to flee to the mainland to escape destitution.
Today, there are just a few settlements on the island but you will be able to find all you need for the day or even a short stay and several accommodation options are available. The island is served by daily ferry crossings that take about an hour from the mainland at Quiberon, with other connections also available between April and September.
Brittany’s largest island is located about 13km south of the Quiberon Peninsula and is a veritable magnet for tourists drawn by its mild climate, magnificent coastline, gorgeous beaches and internationally renowned opera festival. The island has always attracted artists, including Courbet, Matisse, Maufra, Vasarely, Russell and most famously, Claude Monet, who painted over three dozen works here. The celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt also loved the island and its “wild, harsh and soft lands of granite and moor”.
Bernhardt kept house in a converted fort at the Pointe des Poulains, on the island’s northern tip, for almost thirty years. It was near this point that a merman was sighted in the 17th century, described as possessing a body the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with rather white hair. The creature was captured with a net but managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places, before disappearing.
The island has a turbulent past, which included occupations by the Vikings, Dutch, Spanish, British and Germans. The British held the island for two years before it was returned to France in exchange for Menorca and the lands abandoned due to this upheaval were subsequently offered to the deported Acadians; about 300 were initially resettled here but only about a quarter of them stayed to put down roots on the island.
Unlike other Breton islands, it is possible to rent a car on Belle-Île but I would not recommend doing so. Instead, hire a bike or use the public bus service which runs throughout the island between April and November. With about 90km of marked hiking trails, this is not an island that you will be able to explore in a day or two. If time is at a premium, you might want to consider hiring a bike in the main town of La Palais and traversing the island to view the striking coastline that so captivated Monet at Port Coton before returning via either of the pretty beaches of Plage de Kérel or Plage du Donnant. This part of the island’s coast was once said to be populated by the ghosts of the drowned.
Those who prefer walking might want to head to the island’s wild southern coast and follow the clifftop trails from the town of Locmaria; now famous for its association with the death of Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask. Starting at the beautiful sandy cove of Port Maria, the trails to the east will allow you to discover the fine beach of Port Blanc and the striking views from the Pointe d’Arzic, the Pointe du Skeul and the Pointe de Pouldon, before cooling down in the clear water of the little sandy cove of Grand Cosquet. This is about a 10km hike, so, worth considering if you want to experience the island but are pressed for time to do so.
Belle-Île’s permanent population is now about 5,300; over half that recorded in the 1870s. There are many accommodation options available and plenty of activities to help keep you amused on the island. A regular 45-minute ferry service connects the island to the mainland at Quiberon and other connections are available from April to September.
Lying off Brittany’s northern Pink Granite Coast, Île Grande is just 1km long by 2km wide and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is during periods of high tide, when the mudflats are covered, that the island with its sandy beaches and numerous islets is displayed at its finest. Despite being home to almost 800 people, the island retains a wild and natural atmosphere. The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), stayed on Île Grande on the occasion of his extended honeymoon between April and August 1896.
A 7km long coastal path offers you the opportunity to go around the island in about two hours but part of the joy of this island is stopping to explore the sandy beaches of Pors Gwenn, Pors Gelin and Toul Gwenn or hiking to the very tip of the island at the exposed Pointe de Castel Erek. A short climb to the granite outcrop near the Neolithic dolmen provides a wonderful panorama of ocean and islets.
Two of the largest islets, Île Aganton off the east coast and Île Aval off the west, can be reached on foot at low tide. In the grounds of the old monastic cemetery on Île Aval stands an ancient menhir and it is under this megalith that local legend attests that King Arthur lies awaiting his re-awakening which will restore peace to the Celtic lands. It was here, in 1878, that a local farmer is reported to have discovered three dozen skeletons with markedly elongated skulls. Be aware that today, the islet is private property.
Two other sites worth visiting include the Saint Sauveur fountain which was once visited by couples about to be married. According to tradition, the couple knelt opposite each other and each cast a piece of bread onto the surface of the water; if the two pieces met, it was a good omen and they could face marriage without fear, otherwise it was thought best to cancel the wedding. The fountain was also visited by mothers concerned that their children were slow to walk; the recommended ritual involved immersing the child three times into the waters of the spring. Inside the Church of Saint-Marc, you can see one of the very few extant old statues of the Ankou, the Breton personification of death and gatherer of souls.
Only accessible by road at low tide, Île Callot in the Bay of Morlaix barely extends over 3km in length and, at its widest point, is just 500m wide. Non-residents must leave their cars on the mainland in Carantec and cross to the island on foot or bike. The island is a delight with a few scattered farmhouses and fields full of cabbages and artichokes; a green finger pointing out into the turquoise sea. This is certainly the effect noted from the highest point on the island, the Notre-Dame chapel. Thought to date back to the 6th century, the present building mainly dates from the 17th century when its steeple provided a navigational aid to mariners in the Bay of Morlaix. Local legend insists that the chapel protects the hiding place of a great treasure stored on the island by marauding Danes in the 5th century.
The island boasts about a dozen sandy beaches where one might happily pass the time between tides; those on the eastern side of the island look out over the many islands that guard the approaches to the Morlaix Bay. Wandering the island today, reminders of the island’s economic past can still be glimpsed in the remnants of old seaweed ovens. Like many other coastal and island communities, gathering seaweed was once an important activity on Île Callot; families would collect seaweed which was then dried in the open air and burned in one of the island’s fifteen kilns to make soda, which was used as a fertilizer or else sent to factories where iodine was extracted.
As recently as the end of the 19th century, the islands of Brittany inspired only indifference and aversion. The travel guides of the period are punctuated with remarks announcing that the islands have no attraction and are not worth the effort of visiting; a position that began to change at the turn of the 20th century and one that seems positively ridiculous to us today.