Saturday, April 24, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth and Back (Finistère)

Ah for the days when you could subject your friends to hours of vacation pictures via a good, long session with slides on screen. Consider yourself spared, gentle reader, of the 495 pictures that we took during our sojourn in the Finistère. The limits of technology (and of human endurance) call for but a few pictures from these three incredible days. (But really, wouldn't it be nice to settle down to the whir of the slide projector with a nice martini and some olives?).

Monday, April 19 - Pointe de Penhir to Morgat Plage
Things have been a whirlwind around here, but now, in the quiet of a Saturday morning, I can report that, as ever for the past two weeks, the weather is beautiful, and that, amazingly, my mother made it through the international airport confusion - more on that in another post! For now, yes, that is the end of the earth you see before you! The Finistère ends in several long promontories, and we chose to venture down to the edge of the Pointe de Penhir which stretches out not quite as far as the famed Pointe du Raz, but has beautiful megaliths nearby (wouldn't want to miss that!). At what point, I ask you, do children perceive the Sublime? And by Sublime I mean the full-on Romantic rush of Beauty and Fear co-mingled into a moment that you never want to forget and yet feel yourself running from. Mac and I stood open-mouthed between bouts of alarmist calling out to the kids not to get too close to the edge (those cliffs fall quite sheerly below us to the sea). They, meanwhile, skipped and romped and laughed and were blissfully un-awed. In the greatest contrast of Great and Small, Iris adopted a caterpillar and tended to it throughout our excursions along the edge. I loved her for that - maybe it was her way of dealing with the grandeur of it all? I had no coping skills: I could have stood there riveted to the edge for the entire day. You really do look out into an endless ocean, to the reaches of human perception. Even now, sitting in my cozy kitchen, I can feel a little dizzy just thinking about it.

We're not alone here in our awe, as Pointe de Penhir is also the site of a Battle of the Atlantic Museum and this fine Breton Resistance monument, which stands at one of the cliff edges and, on its sea-facing side, has a quote from Charles Baudelaire "Homme libre, toujours tu cheriras la mer" (Man of liberty, you will always cherish the sea.). You can turn your head to the left and sea awesome endless Nature, or turn your head to the right and see a testament to awesome Human events. It's a powerful place. The kids helped us to the task of doing something as mundane as eating, which didn't seem mundane up there. We picnicked almost wordlessly on an open patch of weather-beaten grass, not dropping a single crumb.

About 1 km from the Edge of the World is a truly heroic alignment of megaliths. It's not the quarrying and the carrying (although wrenching megaliths can't have been an easy task), it's the site itself. The ocean is just over the knoll on the open end of the enormous "U" that the stones make (with the bottom of the "U" being flat, so no, not a circle shape), and I wonder if that was practical or intentional. Having seen the sea makes a big difference at this site. Those three enormous rocks that jut out of the water after the edge of the world look themselves like gigantic megaliths (mega-megaliths?) and for the first time I wondered about the mimetic nature of these stones. Are they in resonance with the strange sculptures carved out by the sea?

Eleanor kept calling this stone the "Old One" - as in the grandmother of the clan of stones all around. She may have a really good point: the abstract shape of the stones ("simply" vertical) has the potential for extrapolations both big (the enormous sea mountains) and small (a human form). It's the expansive capacity for meaning that keeps us coming back to these stones. That such a simple shape and straightforward arrangements (there are no mazes here) could produce so many ideas (of community, of time, of science) is endlessly amazing. A guide book snubbed these because of their proximity to a subdivision, and yes, it's hard to achieve the sublime with the sound of a lawn mower in the background, but the stalwart presence of the stones gives them yet another role to play: protector and playsite (tons of kids running around here). To live with megaliths, can you imagine?

So where do you go to recover from the Sublime and Another Set of Musings about megaliths? Why to the beach, of course! A mere 15 minutes away are lovely, undulating coves that have created soft beaches where the water, which crashed dramatically against the cliffs even on this calm day, laps ever so gently against the shore. In honor of monsieur entre-guerre Mac, we stayed in the big 1930s pile Le Grand Hotel de la Mer - it was taken over (clearly in the 1970s) by a vacation club chain which added a bit of a cheesy factor, but you couldn't beat the views from the large terrace (where we actually had apperitifs) and plus, it has its own grotto!

Here's Oliver approaching Tom Sawyer mode, ready to explore the grotto. It's a small one (thus the name "La Baignoire" - the tub), but had the thrill of filling as the tide came in. He had to rush ("rush") back out with his dad to make it back to land. Did I detect a note of relief in the kids' joyous laughter? Probably more from our nagging at the cliffs' edge than from the cliffs' edge itself. The kids ran in and out of the approaching tide and the sea itself decided when it was time for us to head in by filling the beach with said tide. It was time to wash off the sand and soak the sea-soaked clothes (a timeless and bothersome ritual, but one which means that you're at the beach, so hoorah!) and head into the little town of Morgat for dinner.

Check out the look of total concentration on Eleanor's face. She made short work of those mussels, I tell you. You have to love a place, a country, where the kids' menu includes a mussels n' fries option.

Oliver had an exquisite "Gratin de Calamars" which left him room for his new obsession: Profiteroles - these were stuffed with ice cream, not just cream. Wow! A day well spent.

Tuesday, April 20 - Morgat Grottoes, Beach, Locronan to Quimper

The day dawned bright and clear and after a leisurely breakfast in a sun-drenched breakfast room overlooking the sea, we set out for... Grotto Exploration! I love Kids in Boats - little hands gripping the edge, getting salty water splashed onto their face. Iris is always the first to clamber on, feisty girl. About halfway through any boat ride, you get an awesome hug from kids, too - maybe this is their Sublime moment?

I don't know which pictures to show you. These grottoes had it all: limpid pools, embedded amethysts, strange echoes, legends of Vikings (hiding out in them before they attacked), tales of sermons preached within (thus the Grottes de l'Autel - the grotto of the altar), multi-colored algae, grotto-dwelling birds. A geologist's dream come true and truly, I need to think of taking such a course (the Icelandic volcano has stirred many interests!). It was during this boat ride that we saw the first airplane streaks in the sky - absolutely everyone noticed and there were smiles all around.

Mac had quite the adventurous lunch of which there is no visual record. But we don't want to forget the Pierrade. My poor man. It was a lovely little beachside restaurant and of course we wanted fish. So he ordered a Pierrade (what could that mean?) with two kinds of fish and three kinds of sauces. Yum! After a couple of bits Mac looks at me and says "Will you taste this? Is this fish raw?" I did and it was. Strange, we thought - but we know the fish is fresh. Sorry it's not warm, love, but eat up! So he dutifully did and it was good because it was so fresh. When in Rome and all that, we thought. Nonetheless, at the end of the meal Mac claimed it had all been less than satisfying and that he really didn't get the gimmicky serving platter. What? That hot stone they put down when they brought out the fish and sauces. We looked at each other and at the exact same moment said "Pierrade, like Grillade" - the hot stone was not gimmicky! It was what Mac was supposed to cook his fish on!!!!! Who knew??? We laughed until the tears came and yes, the fish was fresh - Mac was fine and dandy all afternoon. Good grief. The afternoon was rambunctious all around, though. In what is now known as The Incident, we lost track of Oliver for about 20 minutes. Doesn't sound like much and really, what safer place to lose track of a kid than on a flat, secure beach? But ooof, that beach looked empty. Mac went one way and the girls and I went the other (wow can Iris below out a name!) and we looked and looked and he was nowhere to be found. Turns out he had taken off on his own to go dig a hole and he just didn't hear us calling out for him. We were totally addled and so grateful to find him - plenty mad, too, at his taking off without telling us. So he and I did a Reality Check in the car while Mac and the girls played on the beach. The Incident and Reality Check are now part of our parlance. Nothing like Living and Learning on vacation. My little guy - we must balance out the dreamer and the kid who lives in the world.

So it was in Locronan that we felt ourselves back in step as a family. How does a little town know to stay medieval? Locronan did it - somehow made it through the 18th century without the usual "adjustments" and now today is a rare and resplendent place. Everyone gathers in the old central square, today surrounded by quaint shops (see here), but as ever crowned by the beautiful 15th century church of saint Ronan. So smitten was he by the city that Roman Polanskky filmed Tess here, making Locronan the backdrop for the incredible sufferings of Hardy's heroine. The legend goes that he did his own adjustments (window frames and the like) to gently morph Locronan into a Victorian village. No traces of Polanski today, but we all remember the strawberry scene with a frisson.

One of the more whimsical street signs in Locronan. Yes, for a soapmaker!

And then it was off to Quimper! The heart of the region of Cornouialle, host of an incredible festival, and frequented city of Bécassine, the early 20th century Breton heroine whom you can still find today, but only in souvenir shops. More needs to be said about Bécassine, but for now, let me recommend Hotel Dupleix where we stayed (great location, never mind the early 80s everything of the hotel), and sing the praises of Mac's very cooked fish for dinner. Glorious isn't it?

We ate at the Brasserie de l'Epée, a famed old spot of Quimper (and right across the canal from our hotel) whose outrageous website doesn't do justice to its actual comfort and fun. I ordered a cotriade, classic Breton fish soup, but mine came with the additional flair of this, as we came to call it, "langoustine en supplice" (martyred crayfish) - look at that poor guy! "Take the lemon, please!" We would go on to have an huge, wonderful family laugh about this little seafood martyr at home the next time. Thanks, little guy. And he was delicious.

Wednesday, April 21 - Quimper, Pont-Aven, Le Pouldu
This day was our Footsteps of Gauguin Day. "No megaliths?" asked Eleanor (how do they know stuff like that?). Nope - all modern all the time. Another day dawned bright and clear and Mac made it to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper where he was to commune with many great works of art. I have to figure out a way to get back there myself. This painting alone, The Pardon at Kergoat by Jules Breton from 1891, would get me there. Pardons continue to mark time here: the coiffeuse told me just the other day that after the Pardon in Josselin (in September), the city completely quiets down. What exactly Jules Breton was marking remains to be discussed. I have become wary of dubbing events "nostalgic" in Brittany, because there is such tremendous continuity, despite the best efforts to centralize the region to the rest of France (even the resurgence of Breton has this lively pace to it, as witnessed by the kids' TV show in Breton!). So I wouldn't say the Jules Breton is here painting a scene of a by-gone era (and of course, the Pardon at Kergoat goes on). Is this painting then speaking rather within the discourse of Realism and Post-Impressionism? by 1891, van Gogh was dead and Gauguin was on the prowl in Brittany. And here is Jules Breton painting a painting with exacting detail, restraining emotions and tempering his palette. Mac should probably weigh in on this. He emerges oh so happy from his museum time.

And now wonder - check it out! It's the Combat des Trente by Octave Penguilly l'Haridon, a detail of which adorns the box for our most excellent board game, Le Combat des Trente. It's from 1857, quite a bit after the 1819 monument that weirdly commemorates the site of the combat. Great grip on the imagination that painting. For this one alone, too, I would trek to Quimper. Pilgrimage to consider.

There were so many others. I've chosen this one from Mac's fine assembly because it's relatively unknown, but speaks volumes. All of this guys (of Gaugin's generation) were looking for something far far away, one feels. This is a self-portrait by Emile Bernard, from 1894, with his Egyptian wife, Hanenah Saati. He'd been to Constantinople and Jerusalem before settling down in Cairo. There's a neo-Catholic motivation here, but also a tremendous yearning for authenticity - not just place and costume (the yellow turban stands out), but all the way to choice of spouse (let alone her representation as meek and mild, a Virgin Mary of sorts). We often discuss the birth of ideas around the post-impressionists, the new concepts they were consciously or unconsciously playing with. The primitive, for example (no such idea in the Middle Ages, I assure you - you really do need to wait for the modern period to even think about ideas of primitivism). And then an idea more closely related to Bernard here, authenticity. The really real, really there. As though one weren't unless one tried. We have thick layers of irony to cut through today, and even thicker layers of mediation (one need only pause for one second to think of all the human interactions that are mediated by one technology or another, this blog, for example, replacing our face-to-face martini and olives plus endless slide show evening). I'm not interested in the better-worst nostalgia game here, but rather, keen to feel the similarities and differences with Bernard. He and Gauguin had a falling out in 1891 - was it over authenticity and how to achieve it? The idea is that this is what he and van Gogh quarreled over, among other things.

While Mac communed, the kids and I had a lazy morning and made it out into the city by 11 a.m. (!). The museum is only open from 10-noon before July, thus our arrangement. We took the little tourist train (choo choo!) all around the old city (no pictures, since Mac had the camera, but it was great - we crossed Quimper's three rivers several times, made our way through the city's hub-bub (always exciting for Iris), and thoroughly enjoyed the ride). We met up again with Mac in front of the cathedral (across from the museum, across the canal from our great hotel) and the kids rode the carousel (Iris is in the nautilus to the left of the picture) while Mac and I caught up. Sandwiches on the square, bit of running around, visit to the cathedral (with its most excellent tilted eastern axis) and it was off to Pont-Aven, second pilgrimage stop.

It was actually the little church site of Tremalo, just above Pont-Aven that was the pilgrimage site. Surrounded by the Bois d'Amour, it was a place where Gauguin came quite often, not to pray, but to paint the 17th century wooden crucifix painted bright yellow housed inside. It's still there today. (There was construction going on while we were there, so we could only poke our heads in, but there it was!). Pont-Aven itself is a lovely little town, but all the paintings and even hotspots of Gauguin are gone or have been transformed. I found myself thinking very fondly of an incredible woman I met about ten years ago who brought me here. I realize now that she's the one who planted the seeds for our current discovery and love of Brittany and I mourn that I'll never have a chance to thank her. She died very unexpectedly in 2004. This site has a beautiful picture of her (not sure what the rest of the site is about, but she was awesome in everything she did, clearly). My dean had arranged for me to meet up with her during a summer research trip so that I could learn about Brenguelven, a pig farm that she'd converted into a gorgeous home and art studios. She was so much fun: we tooled around the region, talked of everything under the sun, ate beautifully, visited Pont-Aven and generally celebrated All Things Brittany. Thanks, Carol - it's all come true.

Here's a not-so-good picture of the Yellow Christ itself. Ever since seeing Saint Armel church in Plöermel, I've started to notice what goes on in that space between the vault and the wall - here, in this oh so humble church, the faces and animals are painted (no elaborate wood sculptures here). I'm so happy that the church is being maintained. Just while we were there, four carloads of people came to see the site. Funny to think of Gauguin coming here to get away from the bourgeois crowds in Pont-Aven below.

Cranky looking guy, isn't he?

Thus why he left the "hub-bub" of Pont-Aven (and its dreaded bourgeoisie) and came to teeny-tiny Le Pouldu, a fishing and seaweed gathering village of 30 souls. Who knew that, after all we'd seen, the best was yet to come? We were to find out that La Maison Musée du Pouldu had opened a scant ten (10!) days before our arrival. Gauguin and Post-Impressionism pilgrims take note: this is a treasured and wondrous place. The Buvette de la Plage is where Gauguin stayed between 1891 and 1893 when he was eager to get away from Pont-Aven - when he wanted to go deeper into the wilds. The Buvette makes it big in art history classes because during the winter, Gauguin and pals painted the entire dining room (walls, windows, ceiling) - but we all thought that it was gone forever! Instead, it's been lovingly restored, top to bottom, and now you can go there and have a great conversation with Virginie Gorrec, the director, who is a fount of information.

Here is Mac's excellent shot of the dining room leading to the buvette (the little drinking place, where an absinthe glass has been set up in meticulous historical detail). As I walked the rooms, I started to wonder about this Marie Henry - what kind of woman would house three Paris artists, each more bohemian and crankier than the last? I pictured one of the hardy Breton grandmothers whom you see in 19th century photographs smoking a corncob pipe. Boy was I in for a surprise.

Look for yourself (wow!):

Here is Gauguin's bedroom (côté cour, of course). As much of a jerk as I tend to think that Gauguin was (looking down on Breton peasants as primitive, sleeping with various "wenches" hither and yon, bringing his financier (and fellow bohemian artist) with him on his escapades, never paying Marie-Henry and then suing her to get the paintings he left in lieu of payment back (she won the suit), I did feel the stirrings of an admiration for the man. I've always admired the art and despised the man, but looking at this tiny bedroom, with its lack of a fireplace for heat, imagining a cold Breton winter morning, and thinking of him loading up his palette and going out again and again to paint, alone and determined, I did feel admiration and even a pang for the loneliness of his existence. He had no idea he'd go on to be vilified and admired (well, maybe he did, actually), but dying penniless and miserable in Tahiti, he had to wonder what it had all been for. He never did stop, and if anything is going to test your mettle and your determination, a Breton winter would do it.

So think of Gauguin looking out upon Breton women bringing the seaweed in, of turning against the wind, of painting nonetheless, and of trudging home to a warm evening at the Buvette before sleeping in his cold room. I'm mad at myself for romanticizing the guy, but at the Ends of the Earth, what is one to do? Bravo, Gauguin.

And so while Mac and I alternated our visits to the wondrous Maison Musée du Pouldu, the kids played on the rocky sandy beach below. There were sea snails to discover (torment) one last time, and holes to dig (well within sight of mom and dad), and water to splash about. We left the region close to six o'clock in the evening and wound our way home talking talking talking about it all.

Merci, oh merci, beau Finistère.

1 comment:

  1. It was cool. No seriously, it was REALLY cool.