Wendy Mewes writing about Brittany
Douarnenez – sardines, communists and butter-
‘…le Naples Breton…’
The wide Bay of Douarnenez on the Atlantic coast is the most favoured location for one of Brittany’s seminal stories, the destruction of the city of Ys. It was also the scene of the arrival of St-
He picked a good spot, however. This shallow bay stretches for over 20kms, between the more rugged arms of the Crozon peninsula and Cap Sizun, softly edged by rounded hills and low cliffs. The height of Menez Hom looms to the north, marking the end of the Montagnes Noires. This adds to the rich religious mythology of the area: the height was once a pagan pinnacle. King Marc’h, who had horse’s ears, was said to be buried there and an apparently Celticised statue of Minerva, transformed into the goddess Brigitte and dating from the 1st century AD was unearthed in 1913.
By contrast one of the haut lieu of Breton Catholicism in Brittany also borders this bay. The shrine of Ste-
Mirit tud an Arvor
War zouar ha war vor
Protect your Breton people
On sea and on land
The town of Douarnenez, folded unobtrusively into the southern rim of the bay, was an important fishing settlement at least as long ago as the Roman period. At the northern tip of the town lies the green strip of idyllic calm known as the Plomarc’h which retains the rather fine (restored) remains of a Roman fish-
Douarnenez, like Concarneau on the south coast, was highly dependent on its annual sardine catch. The shoals arrived in early summer to feast on the rich plankton of the bay, the shallowness of the water compacting the fish in a mass which boosted the volume of the catch. When the sardine suddenly deserted the Breton coast in 1902, it was a social and economic catastrophe, bringing incredible hardship to all those whose living was directly or indirectly linked to the trade. In Concarneau, which suffered a similar trauma, the first Filets bleus festival in 1905 was set up with the aim of raising funds and support for the fishermen and their families. In Douarnenez social support was also forthcoming, but the fishermen were forced to adapt to survive, chasing mackerel and deep-
Douarnenez has a history of radical socio-
The rise of socialism in the early 20th century highlighting inequalities and injustices in the workplace sprang from just such situations. In Douarnenez a socialist triumph at the polls in 1919 was followed by the first communist municipal success for the party of Sébastien Velley two years later. When he died soon after Daniel Le Flanchec took over the mantle and his support was invaluable to the women at the Carnaud factory who took strike action in 1924, soon followed by other factory-
The mounting tension in the port was followed all over France, publicity stirred by the communist press, and the enforced new perception of a traditional rural society like western Brittany now immersed in ‘Zola-
There is even a genre of tales -
Today Douarnenez comprises three ports: the fishing harbour of Rosmeur, Port Rhu where an important boat museum is located, and Tréboul, once a quiet coastal, village, now the mecca for pleasure craft. Just off-
In 1595 the island was the stronghold of the notorious young noble brigand Guy Eder de la Fontenelle. With his ruthless band of about 400 men, he was the scourge of many areas of western Brittany during the Wars of the League, taking advantage of the unsettled times for personal mayhem, renowned for his swift, savage raids – such as at Penmarc’h (see page xx) and Pont-
In many ways La Fontenelle personified the bold and violent times, cutting a colourful figure in oral tradition in later years, especially courtesy of what passes for the ‘romantic’ side of his life. La Villemarqué and Luzel both record songs relating to the snatching of a young noble-
The coastal scenery and activity around Douarnenez inspired many artists. Eugène Boudin described the landscape as ‘the object of my dreams’ and wished he had discovered the area earlier. Max Jacob (see page xxx) and his friend the young British painter Kit Wood spent two summers here just before the latter’s death back in England in 1930. Wood had entered the Parisian scene and the world of opium through a meeting with Jean Cocteau, which led to other influential figures like Jacob and Picasso. In his works inspired by those Breton visits he manages to get beyond the romanticised cliché to a natural appreciation of the slow, rhythmic scenes of life on the littoral, even if the heaviness of portrayal hints at a certain sadness behind the observation. In Douarnenez his subjects reflect those self-
Douarnenez was also a place of less direct inspiration for the surrealist painter, the mad-
Tanguy never explained or offered an analysis of his own work and even asked friends to come up with titles for his paintings, a strange obfuscation. It is clear, however, that the tidal shore inspired many canvases, that expandable boundary between land and sea. Shadowy beaches peopled by bizarre objects recede into the murky horizon. One or two scenes also seem to suggest tidal waves and a sense of lingering menace on these fantasised shores, relevant to the local mythology of Douarnenez, but to look for coherence or ‘meaning’ is perhaps a futile game.
Tanguy’s second marriage was to the American artist Kay Sage, and he took dual American nationality in 1948. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1955, and after organising and cataloguing the collection of her husband’s work, his wife shot herself. In 1964 lifelong friend Pierre Matisse scattered their ashes – according to their wishes – in the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez.
Douarnenez is not all sardines and surrealism. The Breton butter-
Here’s a recipe:
400gr flour 10g yeast
400gr butter 25cl warm water
Develop yeast in the water for 10 minutes. Then mix into flour to form dough. Rest it for 30mins.
Roll out into rectangle. Spread with softened butter almost up to edges and cover with sugar.
Fold over four times, then rest it for 20mins.
Turn I/4 and fold three times. Rest 20 mins.
Repeat. Rest 20mins.
Bake in buttered cake tin for 40 mins at 200°.
© Wendy Mewes -