Thursday, March 06, 2014

the point is to walk

It is, hands down, one of my favorite things to do when traveling. To walk, to move, to see something new around the bend. City walks are great -- there's so much to see! -- but a good country walk has the benefit of quiet and of good air. I was raised believing that a hefty inhale-exhale of fresh air would clean the lungs and put you in good stead to face the future. It's almost automatic for me: when I step on a rural path and the breezes blow in from the ocean or the mountains, or the forest -- I take in a deep breath. Inhale, exhale.

And so when the skies dawned blue, with just a wisp of cloud at the horizon, I was in a hurry to walk. Rather than going into town for breakfast, I brewed my flower and propolis tea, cut into my honey spice cake (with figs!) and called it breakfast.


The most obvious hike from St Pol de Leon is the one along the coast: northwards, toward Roscoff. By road, it's an hour's walk. Along the coast -- at least double that.

You'd think that you don't need a trail marking for a walk along the coast -- I mean, how can you go wrong if the sea is to be your constant companion! But Ed and I did a five day hike along a different segment of the Brittany coast and losing the trail was a frequent and frustrating event, leading to retraced steps and lengthy delays.

Here, it's not quite so dramatic. You may lose the trail, but you'll pick up a road and eventually it all leads to Roscoff.

So, off I go, first on the road, to the sea.


And looking back, over my shoulder, I see where the fishing boats are kept.


Once I find the trail, I'm almost sorry to be off road. All those winter rains? They have made slushy mud out of the dirt here. Within minutes, I am splashed to my ankles (and beyond) in mud.

Must go on, must go on. I get a break when the trail goes down to the sea.


Yes, here are the grandparents, putting up with their grandkids on school break, while the parents work.


But the trai quickly veers up into the fields again -- artichoke and cabbage, everywhere the two Brittany cousins stand side by side. I am surprised how much human labor still goes into agricultural production here.The guy below is tidying up the artichoke bed by hand.


And now, finally, I come across the stone homes with the slate roofs and sure enough --  I am in Roscoff.

What can I tell you about this town: well, it's half the size of St Pol de Leon (so about 3500 inhabitants), but it feels busier. It's a more popular tourist destination (it's cute) and, too, it has a ferry link to the UK. Both for people and for agricultural produce. And if you asked Roscovites what the town is known for, probably they would unanimously proclaim -- onion johnnies! Not too long ago, French farmers would harvest and ship their very uniquely special pink onions (to a French person, every product grown in every region is uniquely special) to England, where they would go door to door, riding bicycles, selling bunches of these French gems to the bedazzled (so they say) English people.

Roscoff, is, of course, a fishing port as well. Here's a view of the old harbor, walking in.


And I happen to be here on market day. Half of the stands are the same as those in yesterday's St Pol de Leon market. Here are some mighty crabs though that just came in...


And, too, there is another prepared foods person, selling not paella and not chicken stew, but this:


But I'm not buying today. I walk briskly on, through town...


...until I come across a small card store. I look inside. There are racks of postcards, but they aren't the usual glossies. There are funky scenes of Breton country life and of colorful fishing boats and I'm quite taken by all of them. So I pick out a handful and I take them to Monsieur Louis who is sitting there, behind the counter.
He tells me -- you know, I painted the ones you chose. He shows me his originals.


I'm delighted. I tell him -- I like the joy in them!
I clearly said the right thing, because he smiles and digs out an article in the local press. It's about him and he shows me the title -- artist paints joie de vivre.
He says some niceties about my French and then mumbles -- I know English but I refuse to speak it.
Too difficult to communicate? -- I ask.  Oh, I guessed wrong on that one!
He is agitated now: No! I detest the domination of the English language! He is full of percentages and statistics about who speaks what and I am feeling apologetic about humanity out there even as, after all, this whole discussion started with a nod toward my French so that it's not clear why I should apologize for the anglification of the world at large. But I do. Because he seems so upset.

As always, when passions soar, it's best to change the subject: do you know of a good sea food place where the locals eat?
But I can't win. He tells me the name of one and asks me if I know what that stands for and I'm thinking -- it's probably the name of a local poet and I am going to show my ignorance of French-Breton culture if I say that I don't recognize it. After all, there are so many streets named after poets around here... let me guess that it's a poet. So -- is it a poet?

Another wrong calculation. It is actually a pirate who steels for his king and I get a lesson on this as well and before I make any more wrong guesses, I best be off, in search of his favorite seafood place. Which turns out to be closed for the day.

Never mind. There is an immensely popular spot (called La Bonne Etoile) just up the street and they have a good deal on a set lunch menu and so I eat a salmon salad, a fish of the day and I finally finally I have my morning coffee, even as it is now past 1.


On another day, I'll come to Roscoff to take the boat out to the islands, but for now I just want to keep on walking and since Roscoff is at the tip of a tongue that juts out to sea, I can stay on the trail along the coast and then eventually turn inland to return toward St Pol de Leon.

And I remember this about the northern Brittany coast: the tides here are tremendous. Your entire view changes, depending on when you look out toward the sea. We're at low tide now. Can you tell?


Here, the coastal walk is easy and mostly along a quiet road. But when I turn inland, I get lost on the many many rural roads and paths that cut through the landscape. (And in Roscoff, it is a slightly different landscape. Remember? They're all about onions here. Planted, of course, by hand.)


And as we get closer to Saint Pol de Leon, we're back with the chou. For this farmer, it's in the form of cauliflower.


I completely mess up with the trail home. It's hard to understand how I manage to do this, but after an hour or two of walking, I am nearly back in Roscoff again. It's time to get off the paths and stick to rural roads. Walking in circles is only fun if you don't have a destination in mind. I have a destination in mind: home.

On a quiet country lane, I come across three Breton lads. They have slingshots and they're practicing firing them but they pause as I approach them. They see my camera and ask for a photo. I oblige.


And they're curious boys so they ask where I'm from, and I tell them, and of course, they are surprised. You just don't expect to find someone from "north of Chicago" on your path through the chou and onion fields in early March. So they ask me how I like Roscoff and I shower the superlatives and here's the thing -- they say thank you! Instinctively. Thank you for saying nice things about our town. How many spunky kids out for a good time would think to say that? I wanted to find their parents and tell them what a good job they're doing in the rearing department, but thought better of it. The boys seemed concerned that I noticed their slingshots. Maybe they would not have liked parental notification on that score.

And now I am almost home. I can see the towers of St Pol de Leon churches. The last hill, the last farmstead...


Home. And it is almost evening, though you can hardly tell. Even though they don't do daylight savings until the end of March, they are at the western most edge of a time zone (Poland, on the other hand is on the east of it) and so the sun even now does not set until close to 7.

I eat a supper of bread and cheese and then I go out again. Just to take in the warm evening colors. And here, I can show you my little white house at the edge of the chou fields. Mine is the one with the rounded roof, next to a neighbor who has an even more modern structure.


I'll leave you with a photo of that flowering cabbage -- the Breton cauliflower. Because every day should have flowers in it, right?