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Camping in Finistère, Brittany, France: Huelgoat campsite; places to visit, suggested day out
France, showing Brittany in North West
Finistère is the most western part of Brittany in the north west region of France. It is known for its rugged, dramatic coastline, its winds and rain and its likeness to Cornwall.
The traditional language of Brittany is Breton, a Celtic language akin to Welsh and Gaelic. There are many traditions that link them, notably an annual folk festival.
There are superb beaches here, complete with rockpools and craggy cliffs. Finistère played an important part in the World Wars, having the town of Brest which is its naval port, a place where the Germans built huge submarine hangars still to be seen, a place which has many stories of bravery and the French Resistance.
Finistère has three peninsulars, all of which have tourist attractions a-plenty, both inland and coastal. Lighthouses abound, fishing is of utmost importance and tourism is buzzing from Easter to September.
Caravan or Tent
A wonderful way to enjoy the countryside and feel a part of it is to camp. France is good for camping; their sites are mostly reasonably priced (far better than Britain at least!) and are well organised.
There are plenty of sites to choose from in Brittany, inland or by the sea. We have a caravan and chose to camp inland and explore the surrounding area.
So I'm taking you to Huelgoat, in the centre of Finistère. Huelgoat is a Breton name, derived from two Breton words; 'Huel' meaning high and 'Koat' meaning wood or forest. So Huelgoat is High Forest or Upwood. It is pronounced 'uwell-go-at', being Breton rather than French.
It is indeed an area a little higher than its surroundings, covered in woodland and part of the 'Parc Naturel Régional d'Armorique' which stretches from the Crozon Peninsular (the middle peninsular) up to a line west of Morlaix.
Huelgoat is about 45 to 60 minutes' easy drive from the port of Roscoff (by ferry from Plymouth in Devon). It's a small town with a market on Thursday mornings and it has a charming lake, man made by using La Rivière d'Argent (the Silver River). The Lake is central to the town and provides pleasure boats of varying sizes for budding sailors in the summer months.
There are shops - including the essential 'boulangeries' (oh, the lure of French bread and patisseries!) - and one supermarket. At the east end of the lake is a small three-arched bridge leading to the river valley. It is there that you find a wondrous sight if you look over the farther side of the bridge.
First, though, I'm going to introduce you to an excellent campsite to use as your base. There is one in town, a Municipal, but it has few facilities and best suits one-nighters en route elsewhere. We're going just a short distance from town.
Camping de La Rivière d'Argent
We're leaving the town and travelling east to pick up the Silver River as it meanders downstream. There are parking areas with signs inviting you on various walks through the forest. There is a small raised walk to the right, La Promenade du Canal, following a short, narrow stream (hardly a canal!) for 100 yards or so.
Keep following me for about a mile, sweeping left and right through the valley, until we reach a sign on a bend, heralding the campsite, 'Camping La Rivière d'Argent' and we turn off right.
You are entering a welcoming, restful place, by the river, beneath the trees, offering you all you could want, whether you stay for a night, a few days, a week or more.
Come down to reception and I'll tell you a little more.
Relax by the Silver River!
A Warm, Relaxed Welcome
Reception is manned by the proprietor, his wife, a family member or a holiday-time receptionist. All are welcoming, competent and friendly. You'll have a choice of pitches and will be shown around the site and amenities.
Apart from pitches to the right and left of the reception area, there are holiday statics available, all equipped and with shower and toilet. You bring your own bed sheets and covers. There are also large permanent tents which have bedrooms and living area already laid out.
There is a meadow on the right as you approach reception; this is used for groups, perhaps children or horse-riders or cyclists, all of whom regularly visit the site. A resident donkey surveys the scene and gratefully accepts any fresh grass or other treats.
Most of the site has electricity plug-ins. The shower, wash and toilet facilities are good and cater for disabled customers.
Swimming, Bouncy Castle & Games
On-site facilities include a reception area and bar, a terrace for meals and evening entertainment once a week in high season, a covered swimming pool and a games area. There are barbecues available, an option for ordering crusty white bread for the following morning and you can order chips for the evening to go with your succulent barbie.
The pool is not heated, though that is envisaged for 2015, but it's a good size and is covered so gets warmer the more the sun shines. The area around it offers inside relaxation and outdoor sunbathing.
For the youngsters, try the trampolines, table-tennis and table football in the bar.
You are in the midst of trees and shrubs, you can explore the riverbank, you can enjoy the tranquility and easy walks around the site.
We went on a 'treasure hunt', taking a box for the three-year old to collect loose treasure on the way, such as fallen cones, pieces of moss, leaves and whatever took her fancy. Of course, we emphasised that we don't pick plants or flowers still attached to their roots.
The walk was entirely on site, took about fifteen minutes at a slow pace and was as safe as you could find. The river has floating plant-life, water boatmen and fish. The water dances over stones, swirls round dark pools and chatters as it flows. Birds sing all around and dragonflies dip and flick back and forth, creating deep, vibrant blue acrobatics.
Camping by the River
Where can we go?
You're settled on site and ready to explore. What is there to see and do in this charming area?
Remember I told you there's something wondrous on the other side of the bridge in town?
Let's go back to the lake and walk up the river valley, taking the path to the right, opposite the 'Moulin du Chaos' (Chaos Mill).
You have only to look over the bridge to see where that name comes from. With no warning, your view is surprised by boulders the size of a small house, tumbled together like a giant's garden rubble heap. They obscure the river bed, create deep dark holes where water bubbles beneath, caves above the earth's surface, gulleys through which to walk and a landscape like no other.
It's an environment of fern and moss, such is the humidity and many of the rocks are slippery so beware! It's wise to keep small children on a rein.
Explore every crevice, peer into dark depths, follow the light under and through the rocks!
Take a camera! Make sure, too, that you have plenty of spare batteries; if you're anything like me you'll be snapping like mad.
La Grotte du Diable & La Roche Tremblante
Devil's Cave and the Trembling Rock; names which curiosity cannot ignore.
For the length of this walk, you need sturdy, non-slip shoes; there are stepped slopes and rails to help you but this is not for those unsteady on their feet. It's not difficult or very long but requires common sense.
Between the rocks, a near-vertical metal ladder leads down to a cave. It's created by the boulders leaving gaps where no light enters, where you are left groping the guiding rails until you re-emerge blinking into the sunlight. Take a photo with flash and you'll see the cave which enclosed you.
You then continue past a small amphitheatre, down and up the valley slopes, following the signs for 'La Roche Tremblante'. How can a rock tremble? Well, it does, and what's more it's you who can make it do so. Do you have the strength?
It's possible to move this massive boulder 5 or 6 inches at least on its axis; it is poised in such a position that it will tip but never roll. Astounding!
Devil's Cave - Descend to Hell & Rise Again!
Le Moulin du Chaos & La Roche Champignon
Walk up from here and you'll find the road. Turn left down the road and you are back at the bridge from where you can descend the steps to 'Le Moulin du Chaos'. It's an old water mill and the river jumps the rocks providing excellent insect-catching areas for the local wagtails.
After all that exercise you need an ice-cream. The shop on the corner, La Chouette Bleue (a blue owl!), has wonderful sorbets and ice-creams in a variety of flavours. Yummy! Stroll by the lake as you savour your favourite, then make your way back to the campsite for lunch. Bon appetit! Then time for a well-earned siesta.
If you're boosting supplies at the local supermarket (Intermarché) over the bridge and a few yards down from town, don't miss the Mushroom Rock directly opposite. A short walk takes you up to another massive boulder perched on the hillside. How did it get here? What made it balance like that?
No one really knows. One explanation is that slow erosion of the land after a glacier unearthed these rocks emerging from the earth. I'm more inclined to believe that the glacier just fragmented and tumbled around the river but then I'm no geologist.
For further exploration, choose any of the walkways signposted from the road as you go into town and you won't be disappointed. They lead to other outstanding features of this wooded landscape.
The Mushroom Rock
A Day's Excursion
So you want to have a great day out a little farther afield? There are many focal points to choose from. You can go out to the Crozon Peninsular (the middle branch). There are beautiful sandy beaches about an hour away. There are ancient churches, 'Calvaires' and a strawberry museum - yes, there really is a strawberry museum!
A tour which won't fail to delight encompasses a pleasant drive down to the ancient enclosed town of Concarneau on the south Finistère coast, then west to Guilvinec to see the fishing boats arrive, before following the pretty coast road to Penmarc'h to see the Eckmühl lighthouse (one of three).
Come with me!
The 'Ville Close' of Concarneau is in the harbour of the mainland town. It's reached by walking across two bridges, through the fortified gate and into the main street. Above you are ramparts giving you vantage points over the town, around the harbour and out to sea; plenty of opportunity to spy and prepare for imminent invasion.
It's charming. Look up at the buildings, the overhangs, the roofs. Explore the narrow passageways, go down to 'La Porte aux Vins' where wine was brought in by boat and off-loaded at this specially designated spot, sample the Breton 'Kuing-Aman' (pronounced Kween-ya-man), a speciality made of pastry and oozing butter.
Mediaeval musicians (or should I say musicians playing Mediaeval music?!) play haunting airs for your enchantment. The bustle in the streets mirrors soldiers and workers going about their daily chores of those times. Rain and sewage would run down those gulleys along the middle of the street. Wine traders would bring their wares into the town via the gateway, sheltered from storm and raiders. Step back, take a breath, absorb the history.
La Ville Close
Guilvinec Fishing Port
When you're ready, go west of Concarneau to Guilvinec. Park in town, then walk to the harbour jetty and quay-side.
At 16.00 hours every day, 50 or more palette-splashed fishing boats begin their return to harbour, laden with the day's catches. Arrive early, pick your spot near the harbour entrance, lean on the rails above the quay-side and look out to sea. Who can spot the first boat? They're only small. There's one! Oh and look, there's another! And another! So it goes on, each about half a mile behind the other, the red, green, blue, pink, purple, orange, yellow dots transform into vessels, bobbing and nudging in, vying for room to offload the still-wriggling creatures which grace the plates of many a restaurant and home in Europe by the next day.
The activity is mesmerising. One boat offloads, moves to a berth further round, the next takes it place. Quick, before another needs that space! Prawns, langoustines, lobster, crab, rays, eels, plaice, cod, all have been sorted into trays on their way back to port, all coated in ice, then all stacked onto fork-lifts and conveyed to the vast market hangar behind the quay.
At 18.00 hours the buying and selling will begin, an auction of sorts, depending on the size of catch, the quality of fish, the luck of the weather and chosen fishing ground, upon which depend hundreds of fishermen's livelihoods. If they haven't brought home enough, they go out again, no matter what the weather. It's a hard life and a fickle game. They are strong and brave, these men who shout, banter, argue and stride along the quay as they land their catches.
The end of their day? Don't you believe it! They must mend broken nets, maintain engines and winches, do their accounts. If they're lucky they may have a few hours sleep before they start all over again.
Think of that when you next eat fish!
When the Boats Come In
We're about to begin the last stage of this excursion.
Instead of taking the main road, we're following the coast road to Penmarc'h (penmark) to see three lighthouses, the oldest and largest of which is the Eckmühl Lighthouse.
Follow me along a pretty route edging sandy beaches with rockpools to delight any child from 7 to 70, where the sea offers up craggy rocks, shining reflections and beautiful sunsets when the waves aren't being whipped up by howling gales and shrouded in mists (not frequent in summer). This coastline is associated with war-time invasions, shipwrecked mariners and smuggling. On a summer's day it's all innocence and fun, high times and holidays.
You pass hummocked meadows, sand dunes and marshy vistas towards the sea. Little houses dot the grass, looking homely and wind-washed. Trees bent by the prevailing wind stand steadfast, indicating where the wind tells them.
It takes a mere ten minutes to reach Penmarc'h. Ample car parking sits at the foot of the Eckmühl Lighthouse, a solid grey-brick structure supporting a surprisingly elegant lamp with metal decoration above a platform at the top of 300+ spiralled steps. Though not for the faint-hearted, your climb is amply rewarded; you are kings and queens of all you survey!
A newer lighthouse stands not far from this one, though much smaller. The third, so called, is not in fact a lighthouse but a radar tower. Just visible further out to sea, though, is a third lighthouse. These rocky waters require careful guidance and navigation if sailors wish to get home. This is the entrance to the Bay of Biscay where notorious winds and waters have played with shipping for centuries.
Recent renovations (Spring/Summer 2014) have provided a new walkway and facilities at the foot of the Eckmühl. A modest fee allows you access to the climb. Go on, have a go!
La Phare d'Eckmühl at Penmarc'h
There and Back Again
All that remains is your journey home, completing a round trip of about 4 hours road time, traffic permitting. The journey itself takes you through pretty countryside, both open and wooded, giving you a glimpse of this beautiful area.
If you have time, venture out on another day to see more of what Brittany offers. You'll find all the information you need in Reception at the campsite and I bet the end of your stay leaves you wanting to come back for more.
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© 2014 Ann Carr