Thursday, December 06, 2012
Brest developed relatively late. A fortified site on the mouth of the Penfeld river defended by Celts and Romans, it became the chateau stronghold of the lords of Léon until they fell on hard times and let the duchy of Brittany get their hands on it. During the 14th century Wars of Succession (part of the Hundred Years' War), the English - over here in numbers to support Jean de Montfort's claim to the duchy, as Edward III was eager to get into France by this back door - managed to grab and hold onto the castle for nearly fifty years. Even that archetypal medieval warrior du Guesclin baulked at a full siege to oust them and supplies finally came in via the magnificent Rade to secure their position.
But it was not until the 17th century, when Brittany was firmly part of France, that a larger centre grew up here, thanks to the decision of Richlieu in 1631 to make Brest the main base of the French navy on the Atlantic coast. The creation of the Arsenal, a vast worksite of ship-building, rope-making, barrel-turning, hinge-forging enterprise led to an upturn in the city's fortunes, as everything that was needed to construct, equip and supply the ships was made on the spot. Add to that all the sailors, officers and administrators and the simmering pot of nautical life illustrated in many painting and engravings springs to life.
Not surprisingly, Brest flourished in times of war when these activities were in high demand and there was work for many thousands of hands. England was happy to keep it all going in serial exchanges during the 18th and 19th centuries, but when there was peace, hardship soon followed for the Brestois labour force.
It was all the other way about in WWII, when German occupation and in particular the submarine base, a crucial factor in the Battle of the Atlantic, made Brest an essential target for allied bombing. Much of the city lay in ruins when it was all over and a brand new structre had to be thrown up in a hurry to house more than a million displaced people.
The grid-plan lay-out between the hideous concrete Place de la Liberté and the Chateau along the axis of the rue du Siam contrasts with much older pockets to be found across the bridge in Recouvrance. The Maison de la Fontaine retains its Renaissance doorway, and the rue St-Malo has preserved a row of houses dating back perhaps to the 17th century. But the large space for rebuilding and rethinking a city (a bit like Rennes after the great fire of 1720) has led to some interesting modern structures, none more so than the Eglise St-Louis, rebuilt on a vast scale in the 1950s. The interior is stunning, with a bleak wall of lamentation in direct contrast with slashes of light outlining the coloured chess-piece figures of Breton saints and biblical luminaries. The windows recalling the life of St-Louis himself - pictured - are pretty damn fine.