A week in the shadows of Gauguin and God

If artistic atmospheres are your thing, try Brittany - and you can add class to your tea-towel collection. By Claire Gervat
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The Independent Travel
God is all around in Brittany. Or rather religion is. And I am not talking about cardigan-clad vicars and cosy folk hymns: this is something altogether more sombre and disquieting. An old-school Catholicism of suffering and penitence, laid thickly over an ancient paganism, with roadside crucifixes and weathered standing stones that look as if they ought to loom out of a permanent mist. Modern Brittany might be more of a holiday destination than a place of pilgrimage, but the past is hard to ignore.

The long-standing Breton fascination with the gloomy side of life is not so surprising given Brittany's position at the westernmost point of France. The sea is misleadingly calm and clear in the warmer months, but in winter it can be a dangerous place for the fishermen. Even on a fine day, at the Pointe de Penmarc'h I could understand why this part of Brittany is called Finistere, which means land's end. It is hard to escape the feeling that if you sailed far enough west, you would fall off the edge.

The little fishing communities now make as much of a living from tourists as they do from their declining catches. The narrow lanes of Le Conquet, for instance, west of Brest, teem with visitors, and the pale stone, slate- roofed cottages have been turned into seafood restaurants, small hotels and quaint home-decoration shops in which you can stock up on driftwood mirrors and shell-printed pillow cases.

Quite what the fishermen make of this notion of reducing the sea to a designer concept is hard to fathom, but if pressed they admit that what they most dislike is the idea of local holiday homes being owned by "foreigners", by which they mean French people. Brittany may not have been an independent duchy since the early 16th century but its people still consider themselves more Celtic than Gallic. The Breton language is not widely spoken, though it is taught in schools again these days, but many of the place names -Treboul, L'Aber-Wrac'h, Penmarc'h, for instance - are recognisably Celtic, and nearly every town and village in Finistere seems to be twinned with somewhere in Wales, Ireland or Cornwall.

It was this exoticism and the varied scenery that drew so many artists west from Paris in the late 19th century - that along with the more prosaic reason that this was a cheap place to live. Pont-Aven, in the part of Finistere that was once the ancient duchy of Cornouaille, was particularly popular. Gauguin lived and worked here in the 1880s before he left for the South Seas and a whole school of art formed about him.

Pont-Aven was then, and still is, a peaceful town in a beautiful setting along the river Aven. There were once 14 watermills in a short stretch along its tree-lined bank, but only a couple are still in use. Still I found it a relaxing place to wander. The local tourist office sells a brochure of various walks around the town and along the river, and it is hard to resist the sound of water tumbling through gates and channels. As I stood on one of the narrow stone bridges listening to the river, a woman who was taking her dachshund for a walk spoke to me. "It's a little paradise," she said, and I had to agree with her.

The main street is awash with tiny galleries - the area still attracts artists, both amateur and professional. But if an original work of art is out of your league, you can always console yourself with a Gauguin biscuit tin full of buttery galettes or a tea-towel. In fact, you could probably find almost any item you could possibly want with a Gauguin painting on it. The artist was, by all accounts, a haughty and disagreeable man, so there's a pleasant irony to the fact that you can now dry the dishes with his masterpieces.

Pont-Aven isn't the only town or village in Cornouaille to have attracted artists. There's a Painters' Trail - or, rather, five of them - that you can follow, which take in Quimper, Douarnenez, Concarneau and more. At first sight, it is hard to see how Concarneau could have been such an important artistic centre that a whole colony of painters from Paris, Boston and Philadelphia settled here at the turn of the century. It is, after all, one of the main fishing ports in France, and the view as you approach is dominated by canneries, cranes and a busy working harbour.

Further into the town, though, everything suddenly becomes clear. The oldest part of Concarneau, the walled Ville Close, is built on an island just off shore, and you have to cross a small bridge to reach it. Inside the walls it's ridiculously pretty; the narrow main lane is lined with two-storey stone or half-timbered buildings, and festooned with old-fashioned street lamps. Most of the houses have been turned into either restaurants or shops, so if you really really want you can buy a gonk in one of the various Breton costumes, as well as faience (earthenware) and enough nautical gear to sink a ship.

The Friday market, back on the mainland, is stuffed full of wonderful fresh food - artichokes, oysters, whole cooked chickens, local cider, and crepes made from buckwheat. This particular Friday, a couple of wild- looking buskers on violin and guitar were turning US standards such as "Hotel California" into remarkably Celtic-sounding tunes.

But before my visit to Quimper, I had a pilgrimage to make. A few weeks earlier, I had read a book called Three Fatal Englishmen by Sebastian Faulks, one of whose doomed youths was Christopher Wood who began to achieve success as a painter in the 1920s, but killed himself in 1930. What interested me was that he spent the last two years of his life in a small fishing village, Treboul, near Douarnenez, where he did his best work.

The Hotel Ty-Mad in Treboul, where Christopher Wood stayed along with such illustrious friends as Max Jacob, is still open for business. Near by is the tiny fisherman's church that features in several of Wood's works, and beyond that the path along the seashore. This is dotted with small white sandy beaches washed by clean seawater and enjoys enough of a breeze to keep windsurfers happy. There is also a thalassotherapy centre for the rich and jaded. All a far cry from the peasant community that Wood depicted.

Technically, Treboul is now part of Douarnenez, on the other side of the estuary. Part of the port has been turned into an open-air fishing museum, with boats to scramble about on and quayside huts with displays on sea-faring. If such kitschy relics do not appeal, then move along the Painters' Trial to Quimper, the capital of Cornouaile and the oldest city in Brittany.

The cobbled streets in the old centre of Quimper are mainly pedestrianised, so it is delightfully peaceful to potter round the lanes amid shops and half-timbered buildings. The Musee des Beaux Arts has two rooms devoted to paintings both of Brittany and by Bretons; I liked the picture of potato gatherers working in the shadow of the ironically named Notre-Dame de la Joie, which still stands on the bleakest part of the coastline north of the Pointe de Penmarc'h. Gloomy and religious, but very atmospheric.

fact file

Claire Gervat was a guest at the Manoir de Menec, Bannalec (not far from Pont Aven) of Cresta (0990 561814), which organises fly-drive and self-drive holidays throughout France. Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) operates crossings out of Plymouth to St Malo and Roscoff. The fare to St Malo for a car with two adults and all children under 14 ranges from pounds 276 to pounds 300 for a standard return. The guidebook to the Painters' Trail costs FF180 (pounds 20), and is available from main tourist offices in Cornouailles.

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