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ARMORICA REGIONAL NATURE PARK
A rural retreat, Armorica has the best of both worlds: the marine beauty of cliffs and beaches blends quietly into a hilly inland countryside.
There is a story in Brittany that when Christ was born, God asked the trees of the Monts d’Arrée to go to Bethlehem to greet him. All except the humble pine, gorse and heather refused point blank to cross the sea, and were shrivelled to the ground by heaven’s wrath. This little tale is a handy introduction to the Armorica Regional Nature Park, where the Monts d’Arrée lie: it explains the general barrenness of the inland countryside; it reminds people of the sea’s dominant influence; and it shows the curious mix of Christianity and folk tradition that is everywhere present in Breton culture.
Landscape and climate
Established in 1969, the Armorica Regional Nature Park comprises thirty nine communes in the département of Finistère, the most westerly region of Brittany. The park extends over 1,720 sq km from the Monts d’Arrée to the Crozon peninsula, and seawards to the islands of Sein, Molène and Ouessant. Incorporating both inland and marine environments, the countryside is immensely varied, from the river estuaries and splendid cliffs of the shoreline to the mysterious moors, bogs and heathland of the mountains. While the omnipresence of the Atlantic gives the land a temperate climate, the sea breezes keep the atmosphere fresh.
Created 600 million years ago, the Arrée mountains are some of the oldest geological features in Europe. A high ridge of land stretching into Finistère, the hills peak at Roc’h Trédudon (387m), and are characterised by a craggy profile. The moorland heather and gorse, interspersed by rivers, ponds and lakes, softens the rock somewhat, but apparently has its own perils. In the Yeun-Elez valley, the peatland used to include a shifting mire, said to be the Gate of Hell, and in the Huelgoat forest, moss-covered boulders seem to be the entrance to a fairytale land.
Despite the proximity to the underworld, people still settled here, and various museums run by the park authorities display the region’s heritage. La Maison Cornec, made from local slate, is the 18th century home of a well-to-do peasant, and with restored period furniture gives an authentic insight into everyday life of the time. The Country Priest’s House helps explain the role of the clergy in society, while the Moulins de Kerouat (Kerouat mills) are a complex of some fifteen buildings. Built between the 17th and 20th centuries, the group includes houses, mills, bread ovens, springs, washing pools and common land.
From the top of the Menez-Hom, a hill situated at the beginning of the Crozon peninsula, there is a magnificent panoramic view over Dournanez Bay to the south. To the north, the outlook is over the River Aulne, and the almost fjord-like estuary where it flows into the Brest Channel. For about 20km inland from the sea, the river is lined with creeks, marshes, mudflats and reedbeds; the rich wetlands are home to herons and cormorants.
At the mouth of the Aulne lie the remains of the ancient Landévennec abbey, within easy reach of the gentle town of the same name. Founded in 485 by St Gwennolé, the abbey was built in a clearing open to the rising sun. Destroyed by the Normans in 913, a later abbey was built, but the ruins of the original have been excavated by archaeologists.
On this headland, expanses of gorse-covered open moorland end at sheer cliffs falling away to the sea below, or gently slope down to sandy beaches. The capes of Roscanvel, Toulinguet, Pen-Hir and La Chèvre (the Goat) all offer splendid ocean views, particularly in the evening when the sunset turns the water into a mass of rippling oranges and reds. The villages that crouch on the promontory have low rows of houses, built with their gables aimed into the prevailing wind.
The Vauban tower at Camaret, built between 1680 and 1695, played a vital role in defending Brittany in the Battle of Camaret in 1694. Open to the public, the building is known as ‘the gilded tower’, its slated roof having a pinkish coating. For history of a different kind, the aligned standing stones at Lagatjar just west of Camaret are a mysterious reminder of ancient tribes. Over 143 menhirs dating from about 2,500 bc are representative of the vast wealth of megaliths found in Brittany.
The islands of the park
The islands of Sein, Ouessant and Molène all come under the park’s jurisdiction. Home to lesser and great black-backed gulls, puffins and storm petrels, the Molène archipelago also offers shelter to dolphins, European otters and grey seals. In 1988 the chain of islands was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Accessible by boat from Brest or Le Conquet, Ouessant rests 20km offshore at the meeting between the Atlantic and the English Channel. The museum in the Créac’h lighthouse tells the history of maritime signalling, with special attention given to the beaconing of the French coast, begun by Augustin Fresnel. A final site is the Maison du Niou, a 19th century cottage. Its simplicity calls to mind the hard life of the islanders, when the women tilled the land whilst the fishermen braved the cruel sea.
© National Parks Europe
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