Château de Brest and the Tanguy tower, from Recouvrance bridge, Brest
By Rebecca Morice
According to my tour guide, it never rains in Brittany – there are only tears of emotion. If that's the case, then the region was certainly upset about something on my visit, and while my Welsh hometown had been enjoying a rather sunny spell, a short hop over to the continent left me at the mercy of Brest's tempestuous feelings. But even the dampest of weather can't extinguish what the town, located in the region of Finistère, has to offer – if anything, it only adds to the city's salty, rugged appeal.
Dylan Thomas once described the Welsh city of Swansea as an 'ugly, lovely town'. This could just as easily be applied to Brest's centre. Ninety per cent of the city was flattened during the Second World War, and it seems Brest decided to rebuild for strength rather than sentimentality. The main shopping area is best described as practical, comprising a concrete slab of a high street lined with sturdy, squat brick buildings that look like they could take heavy artillery with quiet indifference. But it does have a certain charm, and if it's shopping you're after, then you couldn't ask for an easier platform. The main streets, Rue de Siam and Rue Jean Jaures, are loaded with more than enough stores and boutiques to keep your credit card warm – one for each day of the year, I am told. And once you leave the main strip, stringent, bare concrete melts quickly into greenery – Mathon Square at the top of the Rue de Siam is home to one of the few remaining pieces of the old city, a wall from the old town that is surrounded by flowers and plants, while mural-covered side streets lead to tree-lined suburbs, parks and monuments.
The city is fiercely proud of its nautical heritage – indeed, if you make it to and from Brest without boarding some sort of vessel, it's safe to say you haven't truly visited. During the summer months, there are regular sightseeing tours and dinner cruises around the sheltered bay, and you'll share the waters with old-fashioned training ships, yachts and speedboats, with tiny kayaks and windsurfers bravely bobbing around amid the fray. The town is also home to a naval base and training school – I catch a glimpse of the steel grey gunships from the deck of my tour boat. Once every four years the base's doors are flung open to tourists and the ocean is taken over as thousands of boats sail in for the Brest Maritime Festival. The festival lands on July 13-19, 2012, and is one of the biggest events on Brest's calendar – around 8km of quayside are occupied by boat-building contests, cultural displays, food stalls and, of course, more boats than you can shake a baguette at.
Once you've worked up an appetite sailing the seven seas (or at least the Bay of Brest), roaming the side streets will uncover patisseries selling kouign amann, a Breton cake made from pastry, sugar, butter, butter and more butter (I can't stress the butter enough), numerous fish restaurants and crêperies, and a few quirkier eateries, including Le Crabe Marteau (8 Quai Douane, +33 298 333857), where local seafood – with an emphasis on crab, of course – is served up on newspaper-covered tables, and cutlery consists of a mallet and pick. If you're more interested in carbs than crab, stop by Un Amour de Pommes de Terre (23 Rue Halles St Louis, +33 298 434851), where the humble potato is given a starring role and served up in a variety of ways.
One of Brest's biggest draws is Océanopolis (Rue Alain Colas, +33298 344040) – this mammoth-sized aquarium should be the first stop on the list for anyone looking to keep the kids entertained. Only a short drive from the town centre (the No. 3 bus is an option if you don't want to hire a car), it boasts three zones – polar, tropical and temperate waters – with a host of colourful sea life there for the gazing. Océanopolis isn't just for entertaining tourists, though – there is a strong emphasis on conservation, and the centre also showcases the oceanographic research of the area. If, however, your interest in oceanographic research takes a back seat to cooing over penguins, watching seals play or gawping at the weirdest fish in the aquarium (the sawfish, probably), then don't fret – it's all there. There are even a few sharks for those not impressed by anything less than razor-toothed killing machines. If you're more into flora than fauna, then the botanical gardens (Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, 52 Allée du Bot, +33298 418895) are worth a visit. Dedicated to the conservation of endangered plant life from around the globe, it makes for another child-friendly day out, with activities such as educational treasure hunts across the gardens' four zones.
While the city has plenty to offer – and more than enough to fill a weekend trip – to miss out on the surrounding areas would be to do the region (and yourself) a great disservice. A 25km drive past golden sand beaches and through small seaside villages will take you to the town of Plougonvelin. Our plan was to take a boat trip out to Wesson Island – the last point of land before you wash up on American shores. Sadly, a night of heavy storms followed by a morning of boiling oceans and lashing rain meant my planned exploration of the island was out – even the most hardened sailor would probably have preferred to stay at home with a cup of tea.
But even if you have to keep your feet firmly on dry land, you'll find plenty of hidden treasure to keep you entertained, starting with St Mathieu's Lighthouse. One hundred and sixty three steps doesn't sound like a lot, but if you can make it to the top without crying for mercy, then you can give yourself a well-earned pat on the back – and you'll be rewarded with a lofty view of the crashing waves and craggy rocks of the Breton coastline and the islands beyond. Those who prefer to use their sea legs for strolling can join the GR34 here, a walking route that winds its way around the whole of Brittany's coast. A short walk along the coastal path will bring you to a monument to all those who have died at sea. Portraits of hundreds of sailors cover the walls – admirals and fishermen sit namelessly side by side in a moving tribute to those who didn't make it back to port. In here, and in the eyes of the ocean, they are all equals.
The Oceania Centre Hotel (82 rue de Siam, +33298 806666), is, as the name would suggest, smack bang in the city centre. It has a strong nautical theme – think decor that's peppered with life belts and a cruise ship style bar, as well as a very good fish restaurant. Prices starts from around €72 per night. Hotel Vent d'Iroise (Rue du Lavoir-Pointe Saint-Mathieu, +33298 894500) in Plougonvelin offers clean, beach-style rooms and sea views, easy access to the GR34 coastal path and St Mathieu's Lighthouse and an excellent restaurant. Rooms start from around €54 per night.
CityJet flies to Brest four times a week from London City Airport. Fares start from £83 one way, £138 return including all taxes.