Thursday, October 30, 2014

WWII Shelter in Brest

I recently visited the Abri Sadi-Carnot, a tunnel running for more than half a kilometre from the arsenal at the port to the centre of Brest, the only city in France to construct massive capacity shelters during WWII. This one was built between 1941 and 1942 as a refuge against allied air raids for the Germans and civilian population alike. The lower end is accessed directly from the Boulevard de la Marine, but 154 internal steps were needed to reach the exit at the other extreme, the end assigned to the local population. Despite successfully saving many lives during bombing raids aimed at the submarine base, it suffered the historic irony in September 1944 of causing hundreds of deaths thanks to a horrendous accident  - one waiting to happen considering the German practice of stocking munitions and petrol in their lower end of the shelter. The resulting fireball and asphixiating gases sped through the tunnel, leaving mounds of corpses on the staircases to witness a stampede for safety.
During the Cold War, the Abri Sadi Carnot was adapted to a nuclear shelter, the radiation-proof doors still in situ today.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ile Tristan

Today was one of the occasions when very low tides enable a crossing on foot to Ile Tristan, just off Douarnenez. The two and a half hour window allows plenty of time to explore the island, although only certain parts are accessible to the public - the Maison de Maitre and another large house used as a temporary cinema for the day, orchards and the exteriors of a 1930s chapel and a 19th century fort. As is often the case in Brittany, culture has priority over history: short films (fiction and documentary) were showing, there was an exhibition of photographs and various miserable-looking musicians were performing in selected spots. There was no information about the island's chequered past, and no sign on the island itself of occupation in the 16th century by one of the most intriguing characters of Breton history.
My own personal research interest is the bloodthirsty career of Guy Eder de la Fontenelle, a young nobleman who held the island from 1595, and used the Wars of Religion to spread mayhem throughout western Brittany, from his native Cotes d'Armor to this western edge of Finistere, where his most notorious achievements were the destruction of Penmarc'h - burning the population in the church and taking control of 300 ships in the port -  and the sacking of Pont Croix. He was pardoned for his crimes or acknowledged for his acts of war, depending on your point of view, and actually officially made governor of Ile Tristan at the end of the war. Accusations of intrigue with the Spaniards made this a short tenure, however, and he was executed in Paris at the ripe old age of 29.
His persona has lived on in the oral tradition, but aside from a short profile published in the 1920s, little serious and un-romantic work appears to have been done on the historical evidence of the life of this extraordinary, excessive personality. Sociopath or product of his times, able to get away with more than most in this far flung corner of France? I've made some effort to go further with research, with little result as yet. On the island today I wanted to get an idea of the strategic positions and the defensibility, as all efforts to dislodge La Fontenelle during his reign of terror proved fruitless. Not sure I made a lot of progress, but it's certainly true to say that the less I can find out about him, the more interesting he becomes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Eglise de St Trémeur
Carhaix presents something of a challenge for a guided tour. It's a town of exceptional pedigree, having been a major centre in Roman Brittany, a thriving focus for medieval commerce and the hub of transport networks in the 19th century, but with some sorry slumps in between. A Welsh visitor in the 1870s described it as 'a primitive place', and it was indeed forced into a depressing isolation by the re-arrangements of the Revolution which separated Carhaix from its natural territory of the Poher in central Brittany, leaving it a border town without administrative status on the eastern edge of Finistère. These days it is enjoying something of a revival, with a lively cultural scene and new economic initiatives to keep employment in the town.
The problem for a heritage tour is that whilst some arresting visual evidence of a significant past remains, these scattered nuggets are overwhelmed by the low-rise, dull white modern development that swamps the town even into the central areas. Some fine houses still stand in the rue Brieux and Place de la Mairie, odd traces of aqueduct linger in modern industrial areas and religious architecture offers a few beauties worth walking for, but getting around is generally not easy on the eye and physically constrained by cars everywhere and narrow pavements - many with cars parked on them to obstruct individuals, let alone a meandering group. Today I tried to devise a workable route and wasn't entirely satisifed, but will persevere. I'm going to give it a go with Brittany Walks next month, and the town will figure in a new book I'm probably going to do next year.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tour of the Marches of Brittany

Just back from taking a small group to eastern Brittany for a four day visit to some famous and a few secret places in the area. We stayed in my favourite gites at Combourg, where the chateau was a highlight of our tour, spent a day at Fougères including the fabulous castle and the beautiful beech forest there which contains some remarkable antiquities, and explored Vitré with its unusual chateau.
Then we went north for the cathedral at Dol-de-Bretagne and the oldest houses in Brittany in the rue des Stuarts. A nobleman from Dol was the original 'steward' (or management executive as we'd probably say today) in Scotland and so the founder of the Stuart dynasty. Final moments were on the top of Mont Dol, looking over the polders to Mont St Michel.