Finistère means ‘end of the earth’, and is a very under-visited department in Brittany. Visitors tend to sidestep Finistère but it is quite a lovable, quirky, unpretentious department. Despite been off the beaten track tourism wise there are lots of things to do in Finistère and some wonderful places to visit.
What Finistère is famous for
Celtic in its deep origins and, if you believe what you are told, with simmering undercurrents that would declare UDI from France given half the chance. It has always been apart from French, even Breton, influences, and was the last stronghold of resistance by Druids against insipient Christianity.
Much of the department remains only lightly brushed by tourism, and Breton survives as an everyday language here – check out the bilingual road signs.
Tourism is growing, but not at an alarming rate, and the pace of life still befits the out-of-the-way-ness of the region.
Finistère has a fabulous, raggedy coastline, like dragon’s teeth, with numerous tiny coves and estuaries set against the craggy headlands of westernmost France. And, in spite of its full-frontal aspect to Atlantic south-westerlies, the climate is nowhere near as bad as might be expected…usually.
Places to visit in Finistère
There are two main towns, Brest and Quimper, the first hastily rebuilt following the Second World War; the second very much a clear demonstration that less is more.
Elsewhere, the village of Locronan is something of an oddity, but it takes a moment to notice why. Those who love the sea wind in their hair will enjoy the Crozon Peninsula, a fabulous place of gentle hills, coastal cliffs and wide sandy beaches.
And, if you like the standing stones of Carnac in Morbihan, then you’ll want to see what Finistère has to offer at Lagatjar.
Things to do in Finistère
Visit Quimper the capital of Finistère
Quimper, sited on the north bank of the Odet estuary, is the capital of the ancient kingdom of Cornouaille, but the contemporary city has a very relaxed air about it, with bars and eateries aplenty, especially in the streets radiating from the cathedral.
The town has a distinctly Breton atmosphere, and books about the Breton language and music are available in many shops. The town gets its name from ‘kemper’, a Breton word that describes the confluence of two rivers., the other being the Steir, although there is a third river, the Jet.
The cathedral itself is dedicated to Saint Corentin, one of the figures responsible for founding Brittany after the fall of the Roman Empire. Much of the cathedral is Gothic, although the magnificent twin spires, which soar over the town, were added only in the 19th century.
Much of the interior decoration – furnishings, reliquaries and statues – was stripped away during the Revolution and the Reign of Terror (1793), and while the lime-washed interior that remains may not suit some tastes, it does leave the cathedral with a bright and appealing atmosphere.
Unusual, perhaps – unless it was as a result of my consuming too much rosé at lunchtime – the central nave and choir are not in a straight line; actually they are intentionally out of line, so someone else’s lunchtime rosé is to blame.
But what intrigues even more is the beautiful stained glass window in the south transept which depicts the Last Supper with a figure, for all the world that of a woman (Mary Magdalene, perhaps), leaning on the shoulder of Christ, as suggested in Da Vinci’s painting of the scene. Cathedral literature, however, is adamant that the figure is that of John.
West of the cathedral lies the old town, a place full of shops, crêperies and half-timbered houses. The town is renowned for its pottery (faience), which has been produced here since 1690.
Museums in Quimper
The Musée des Beaux-Arts houses a collection of ancient paintings. These are divided between northern schools (Van Haarlem, Rubens, Van Mol, Grebber, etc …), the Italian school, but less consistent high quality (Bartolo di Fredi, dell’Abate, Reni , Solimena, etc …), and the French school, especially rich for the 18th and 19th centuries (Boucher, Fragonard, Robert, Meynier Chassériau, Corot, Boudin, etc …).
The Musée Départemental Breton presents a collection of Breton costumes, furniture and pottery.
Things to do in Finistère – visit Roscoff
Although accessible from the ferry port at Caen (Ouistreham), many visitors from Britain come to Brittany via Plymouth to Roscoff. Alas, the ferry terminal is a little away from the centre so there is a temptation to skip the town and head on east into the meat of Finistère.
Now, Roscoff is never going to become one of the top 10 places to visit in France, but it deserves better than that, and does have an attractive centre of granite buildings, not least its impressive church, all of which relate the town’s long links with the sea.
There are narrow streets and plenty of restaurants and bars in which to get that first taste of France, a taste very much centred on the produce of the sea on which the local economy has long been heavily based. It’s hard to resist the appeal of Roscoff.
Roscoff has long been a key port, especially for trade with Britain, and it is hard to resist its appeal. It was from Roscoff that the iconoclastic ‘Johnnies’ with their black berets, bicycles and strings of onions set off from England, a business plan first put into action by Henri Ollivier in 1828, and which flourished for over a hundred years.
Much earlier than this, Mary, Queen of Scots, landed here in 1548, enroute to Paris to be engaged to the son of Henry II. So, too, did Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1746, following his defeat at Culloden.
As we’ve noted there are two principal towns to Finistère: Brest and Quimper.
Brest, one of the finest natural harbours in Europe, is the larger of the two, and hastily (i.e. without architectural taste) rebuilt following devastation during the Second World War, which was intended to prevent the town from being used by Germans as a submarine base.
Quimper, by contrast, amply demonstrates that less is more, for while there really is nothing wrong with Brest, it is among the cobbled streets of central Quimper, around the cathedral, that something of the old provincial way of life can still be sensed.
Half-timbered houses (colombages) bring an air of antiquity to this town in a lovely little valley at the junction (kemper in the Breton language) of the rivers Steir and Odet.
Locronan in Finistère
Not far from Quimper, you encounter the village of Locronan, a community somewhat set in aspic, or at least firmly rooted in granite and times past.
This used to be a major centre for woven linen, of the type required for sails by the French, Spanish and English navies.
Locronan is in our guide to the: Best 18 Villages to Visit in France
Beyond Locronan lies the Crozon Peninsula, part of the 420,000-acre Parc Régional d’Armorique, a splendid, protected, natural landscape, stretching from the coast to the gentle hills inland. But before you get there it is worth diverting ever so slightly up to the top of a hill, Menez-Hom.
You can drive to the top, and at a mere 330m, this rounded summit gives an extensive panorama across Finistère. To the north-west you can pick out the new bridge, the Pont de Térénez.
Across the bridge lies Le Faou, a tiny medieval port with some 16th-century architecture still remaining, and its own estuary. For anyone heading for the Crozon Peninsula from Roscoff, then Le Faou is very much a gateway.
The peninsula is a place of craggy cliffs and golden sand beaches, windswept moorland and tiny coves, not least at Morgat a little to the south of the main town Crozon.
The beach here is a gentle arc, backed by a scattering of brightly painted shops and bars, which provide everything you need for a short break or an uncomplicated, encore le pastis, life style.
Finistère headland of goats
Continue down the peninsula and you come eventually to Cap de la Chèvre, the headland of the goats, a rather magnificent un-interfered-with setting overlooking the Bay of Douarnez, and around the very edge of which runs a superb coastal path that will delight even the most rudimentary of walkers.
Head off in a slightly different direction, and you run out of land at Camaret-sur-Mer, a dizzy little place favoured by artists, and with brightly coloured shop and restaurant fronts that would do Scotland’s Tobermory proud.
All the restaurants specialise in seafood, which neatly satisfies the advice never to eat seafood more than five miles from the sea; in this case five strides are nearer the mark.
Follow the harbour round and you come to the splendid Tour Vauban, a slightly plump, red-orange tower with no apparent purpose other than to occupy the end of the jetty, and built by the renowned master builder and military engineer of that name.
Close by, the Chapelle-Notre-Dame de Rocamadour is a low-slung Breton church admirable as a piece of architecture, but like the adjacent tower seemingly in completely the wrong place.
Alignements Mégalithiques de Lagatjar, Crozon’s answer to the question that is Carnac.
Just before reaching Camaret, a little diversion takes you to the Alignements Mégalithiques de Lagatjar, Crozon’s answer to the question that is Carnac in Morbihan, though much less spectacular. There are no multiple rows of standing stones here, just two parallel lines joined by another, and with a few larger stones off at a respectable distance.
In 1776, there were over 600 stones here, believed to have been erected 4,500 years ago. By 1883, there were fewer than a hundred remaining. General consensus is that the alignments are to do with astronomy, which seems to be the default explanation for anything prehistoric that no one really understands.
Personally, I can’t help feeling that they resemble a large parking bay for an alien spaceship. Whatever; but their rough, lichenous surfaces are a fascination for school groups and the curious alike. There doesn’t have to be an answer to every question.
But you must see the Carnac standing stones for yourself. It’s an amazing experience.