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Articles Blog

Brest, France

Karyn Planett

So You Think You’re in France?

Welcome to Brittany. Some may think of this as the northwestern most administrative region of France. Bretons, however, are not so sure. And with a name like Brittany, others could be excused for being a bit confused as well.

The problem is not a new one. Once upon a time, Brittany was referred to as Lesser Britain to distinguish it from Great Britain. In fact, many of the place references in the mythical history of Britain starring King Arthur, are actually in this part of France. The forest of Brocéliande in Arthur’s legend is nowadays believed to be Paimpont forest near the Breton city of Rennes. Conveniently there are some castle ruins there surrounded by a lake, which just might be associated with the Lady of the Lake, and a nearby dolmen that bears a striking resemblance to Merlin’s tomb.

The Romans considered this region part of Britannia, the Latin word meaning “Britons’ land”. And to top things off, Brittany is considered one of the six Celtic nations along with Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. These are territories where Celtic languages and cultural identities survive today. The Breton anthem is even taken from those of Wales and Cornwall.

Bagpipes and Buckwheat

Formal cooperation between the Celtic nations (“nations” in this context refers to people sharing a common heritage) is active in politics, languages, culture, sports and music. The Festival Interceltique of Lorient (in southern Brittany) is just one such event where the unmistakable sound of skirling bagpipes can be heard along with Celtic harps accompanying vocals and dances. In the past several years, Brittany has experienced a significant revival of its folk music. Bands composed of bagpipes, bombards (a reed instrument similar to an oboe) and drums are a modern creation inspired by the Scottish pipe bands.

Also of Celtic origin are crêpes and galettes, two iconic Breton dishes. Galettes are most often made of buckwheat and are usually served with cheese, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and eggs as a basic meal. Not so basic, but just as rewarding, is to finish off that meal by enjoying a buttery crêpe dusted with sugar and a squeeze of lemon.

Liberté, Égalité, and a Good Smoke

A distinct cultural identity isn’t the only thing coursing through the veins of many Bretons. Politics is another contentious area that sets them apart from the rest of their French brethren. In fact, surveys have shown that half the population considers themselves as much Breton as French. They aspire, as do their Scottish “cousins”, to self-rule either as an independent country or within the political structure of France. They seek equality between Breton and French as the two official languages of the region. And they lobby consistently for more influence within the European Union, the United Nations and other international organizations.

Bretons are not without sympathizers in the rest of the country. Those who describe themselves as “Gallic” and identify with the ancient Gauls are aware that their forebears spoke Celtic languages. The term Gaulois means Gaulish people and refers to the original French people, to differentiate them from the descendents of “foreigners”. Gauloises is also a cigarette brand introduced in 1910 that features strong, knock-your-socks-off tobacco flavor. During World War II, smoking Gauloises came to symbolize patriotism and “heartland” values.

Making the Best of Brest

Besides being quintessentially Breton, Brest represents a proud French naval heritage and, as one of the finest ports on Europe’s Atlantic coast, was a center of conflict during many of Europe’s continental wars.

In 1631, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XVIII’s chief minster, constructed the first military facilities around a castle that had stood watch over the harbor since the early Middle Ages. The French Naval Academy was established in Brest in 1752. During the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II, Brest was a key military strongpoint, and target. The Battle for Brest in 1944 destroyed much of the city center.

As it turns out, the Battle for Brest was almost completely unnecessary, though military planners in the war’s early stages could not have known that. Knowing that the invasion of Europe was inevitable and that major port facilities would be needed to supply the armies attempting to defeat Germany, Allied brass saw Brest as a target that could be isolated and overcome in relatively short order. But what seemed easy in 1942 became nearly impossible after the Germans reinforced and refortified the port by 1944. Long before Allied bombers and German sappers destroyed the city and the port facilities, the rapid advance of the Allied armies had bypassed Brittany entirely.

The good news? The city was subsequently rebuilt and “deindustrialized” to the point that Brest today is a thriving, service oriented university town that you can now enjoy as you discover the delightful charms of this very un-French locale.