Correction to This Article
The Travel article misstated the location of France's island abbey Le Mont-St.-Michel. It is in Normandy, not Brittany. The article also referred to Brittany's megaliths, or menhirs, as being Celtic; the standing stones were erected 6,000 or 7,000 years ago, before the Celtic Gauls arrived in the area.

Traveling Through France: Exploring Nature and Ancient Times on Brittany's Coast

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 29, 2009

There are only 50 seats on the daily Air France flight from Nice to Brest -- a sign, maybe, that these coastal capitals aren't just opposite corners of France but entirely different universes.

My wife and 13-year-old son and I boarded the flight at Nice's bustling, sleek glass and steel airport on a warm, bright day of Mediterranean sunshine in the southeast corner of the country. Less than two hours later we arrived at Brest in the far northwestern reaches of Brittany, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean across the channel from southern England.

The sky was deep gray. And as we stepped onto the tarmac -- to walk toward an airport about as basic as a bus terminal -- we zipped up our parkas against a damp chill.

Everything was going according to plan.

That plan was to spend a week getting to know the other, lesser known, coastal France -- as far as you can get from the flashy, sunny, high-rolling Cote d'Azur and still be in the country. That place was the Finistere (literally "land's end") departement, or district, at the tip of Brittany, a sparsely populated land of wild nature with a moody climate, oceanfront cliffs, dramatic tides and small fishing villages. We planned to walk the coastal footpaths that go on forever, soak up a few thousand years of history and fill our bellies on the best seafood and crepes France has to offer.

We piled into a small rental car and set out toward our first destination, about 15 miles west of Brest, on the Atlantic coast.

The drive went fine for a minute. But at the first traffic circle, the signs seemed to be written in a tongue I'd never encountered. Which they were. Town names -- Guavapas (where the airport is located), Trebabu, Toulbroc'h, Kerzeveon -- didn't look so much like French villages as planets invented by George Lucas. To make matters worse, many town names were slightly different in French and in Breton, Brittany's Celtic-based language resembling Cornish and Welsh. Sometimes one was listed, sometimes both, along with arrows and bilingual road directions, making for some surreal split-second traffic moments.

I followed the arrow pointing to the ubiquitous Toutes Directions ("all directions") in French, translated on the same sign as Da Bep Lec'h.

Good thing I'd bought a map.

We passed the urban sprawl of Brest, a modern port city reconstructed after World War II, and were soon in a rolling countryside of cauliflower and corn fields and groups of Holstein cows, villages of white houses with slate roofs and gray medieval churches.

Then, as we found the coast, a panorama opened up that was every bit as powerful as we'd expected: green plateaus perched on sheer cliffs, islands off in the mist, white waves crashing against rugged rocky inlets and boulders squatting offshore.

Our stopping point, and our base for the next two days, was the Pointe Saint-Mathieu, a dramatic cliff at a jutting point of land. Here a tall white-and-red lighthouse towers over the half-ruins of an 11th-century abbey. The roof of the abbey long gone, the remaining high granite walls and arches form a sort of ghostly sculpture covered by centuries of patina and moss.

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