The Saint-Mathieu lighthouse, built in 1835, is part of a 16th-century abbey in Brittany.
MARTA ZARASKA • Special to the Washington Post,
At the "end of the Earth” in western Brittany
- Article by: Marta Zaraska Washington Post
- November 9, 2013 - 2:00 PM
Do you know where the world ends?
According to the French, it ends somewhere near Ruscumunoc, a fishing village in Brittany. Just follow the road up the hill, the locals tell me, then straight, then to the left. As I drive up the narrow potholed road that deteriorates more with every passing minute, the radio that has been blasting Breton Celtic music goes quiet. After a mile, the road ends.
I park my rental car and walk up an overgrown path to the crest of a hill. There the ground suddenly drops in a dramatic cliff toward the Atlantic Ocean, and France is no more. A sign points to the west: New York 5080 km, it says; 3,156 miles.
At the base of the cliff is a small sandy beach. It’s so postcard-pretty that I scramble down for a short suntanning break at the “end of the world.” There’s no one in sight.
I’ve wanted to go to the westernmost French department of Finistere (from the Latin “finis terrae,” or the end of the Earth) since the day I first heard about it. I wanted to see this edge of Brittany — the wild, empty beaches and tiny villages.
But what lured me most to Finistere and to Brittany were the lighthouses, promising remote beauty, relaxing solitude — and sweeping views.
There are 148 lighthouses in Brittany, one of them so old that it dates back to the time of Louis XIV. Some are perched on rocky islets lashed by waves; others sit safely on the coast, looking toward the ocean. Once, their lights guided sailors to safety. Today, 80 are still working, but many others are just majestic ghosts of the past.
To get a good view of Brittany’s stunning coast, I decide to climb to the top of the 19th-century Eckmuhl lighthouse (named for a Napoleonic general), one of the tallest in the world. After walking up its 307 steps, my legs rubbery, I emerge into the vast panorama of the Atlantic, the wind bringing up the scent of salt and algae and wet sand.
The village of Penmarc’h spreads out below, with its small white houses set against green pastures. If the name Penmarc’h doesn’t sound very French to you, that’s because it isn’t. The word means “head of a horse” in the local Breton, a Celtic language brought to this region in the Middle Ages by Britons migrating to the continent.
The lighthouse of Saint- Mathieu is easier on my knees: It’s only 163 steps up. The semi- modern lighthouse, built in 1835, is part of a crumbling 16th-century abbey, picturesquely set at the edge of the ocean and built on the site of an even older, sixth-century monastery, where beginning in the 1250s, monks would light fires to guide mariners through dangerous waters.
Today, Saint-Mathieu is a calm place, yet its history is far from peaceful. Taking a short walk along the coast, I stumble upon an unexpected reminder of Brittany’s turbulent past. Hidden in a carpet of wild grasses are German bunkers: concrete installations built during World War II to guard the coast against the Allies during the German occupation of France.
This area, now so serene, was once the site of raging battles, including the Battle of Brest, one of the most violent of the war. It may not have the famed D-Day sites of Normandy, but I find exploring the war mementos of Brittany even more compelling. Here, I can sit in a bunker on the edge of the ocean and reflect on the past with no crowds of tourists to interrupt my thoughts.
For me, though, there’s nothing better in Brittany than walking. Countless trails run along the cliffs, starting at lighthouses or leading to them, and though I have a few favorites, it’s hard to decide which is the most spectacular.
Would it be the path in Côte Sauvage (the Wild Coast) with its tall grasses rolling in the wind, as if mimicking the ocean? Or would it be the one around Cap du Raz, where sharp rocks run into the sea and fields of gorse flowers smell of vanilla? Or maybe the one along the pink cliffs of Cap Frehel that surround its sturdy modern lighthouse?
If I could, I’d hike all these trails in every season, every year. Next time I come, though, I’ll add another lighthouse experience to my travels at the end of the world — and for that I’ll head to Riantec. There, in a whitewashed village on the edge of the white-capped sea, stands a slim white lighthouse, about 82 feet high, with a modern kitchen and a bathroom. It’s available for rent, along with a guesthouse in the former keeper’s house. That’s where I’ll stay.
If you go
The Riantec lighthouse, Phare de Kerbel, sleeps six and rents for about $3,000 per week (www.pharedekerbel.com).
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