On an Island - The Ride Bike Rides in Bretagne, Pt. 6
06/08 19:33 In front of Lampaul’s Chapel
This piece centers on two main questions. The larger: why does one go to an island? The more specific: What would one find on l’île d’Ouessant, or what happens if one goes there?
One goes to an island to escape. To vacate, hence an island vacation. The visitor seeks to escape the daily rigors and horrors of mainland life, and to step off of those well-worn ruts that continentals dig for ourselves. As if by leaving the actual ground where one has dug those rooted ruts in a physical sense, one can find a way to escape. And so it is.
The Île d’Ouessant, “Isle of terror” in Breizh, sort of the word for “Western Isle” in French, and Ushant in English, sits just off continental France’s westernmost tip. Two hours by ferry from maritime capital Brest (home to France’s nuclear submarine arsenal) and one hour from Le Conquet, the town on that westernmost tip, l’île is an attractive, quiet, and impressive destination. The island offers everything one can ask for on an island.
As mentioned, one takes the ferry to arrive (or a 15-minute plane ride if one is a philistine, or one’s own boat if extravagant). Imagine leaving from Le Conquet, the westernmost tip of France and of the Finisterre department. Finisterre means end of the world, though the region’s propaganda reminds that in Breizh, “Penn Ar Bed” also means beginning of the world, one sign so bold as to make the Promethean claim that man first had fire in his hands here. One wonders what the Breizh words for “3rd degree burns” are.
From this far-flung jumping point, the ferry ride is rather calm. A half hour to a smaller island of Molene, another half hour to Ouessant. If one is worried that French children are much better behaved than American children or any other brand of children, this ride furnishes much evidence to disprove that notion, but the ride is calm and easy all the same.
The ferry arrives in Port du Stiff, on the eastern side of the island. Most visitors stay in or near Lampaul, the one “bourg” on the island, a little past the center, three or so kilometers away from Stiff. Several bike rental options crowd the road leading from the port, as well as a crêperie “d’arrivée”. Minibuses also run passengers to the city. The D81 road that traverses the island starts off uphill before peaking halfway, making for an agreeable coast into Lampaul. Gîtes and chambres d’Hôtes – Bed and Breakfasts – idle on the roadside, as well as a large campground and many sheep.
On arrival in the town, the visitor may well be hungry. If it is the first Sunday night in August, the choices may be limited to two crêperies. Crêperie du Stang is well and good and serves Breizh cola, but the open setting allows one to gather further evidence that French children are just as big a set of misbehaving bastards as the rest of ‘em and that French parents are no less indulgent than American ones. Crêperie Ti a Dreuz, “the slanting house” offers a cozier, friendlier ambience, better crepes with a top-notch soubise (creamy onions) topping, and a great glass of lemonade.
On any given summer night, one can wander along the nearby beaches and coasts, seeking sunset and cool breezes: the island is unsurprisingly full of sunset and cool breezes. If it is the first Sunday night in August 2012 and one wants to watch Usain Bolt run 100 meters, the only recourse is the Fromveur, a bar that serves Belgian beers and Kinder Bueno chocolate bars. The local tippler may, when not spitting vomit over his shoes, getting kicked out of the bar, or causing a ruckus outside worthy of police attention after getting kicked out of the bar, obsess over buying and giving away these chocolate bars to anyone within arm’s reach. The bar rejoices over Bolt’s win, and also the Frenchman taking second in the 3000 meter steeplechase.
In the daytime, one finds the solitude needed from an island. The thing to do on l’île d’Ouessant is to hike the coast. 45 kilometers of rocky shore, spongy short grass paths, decaying lighthouses, and goats. Bikers too, but the population of the island is listed as 878 habitants, and if that many people come and go each day in the summer, at most, there is still plenty of open space to hide in. For example, while hiking, the cautious and watchful visitor (at least the male ones) can pee up to three times in a five-hour period without causing a stir or looking out of place, by feigning a dignified attention to certain more sheltered rock formations or port landings.
The lighthouses are something to see, if perhaps not the museum dedicated to them. Many a ship have wrecked of Ouessant’s shores on their way to the English Channel or elsewhere. So the French built the Phare du Creach, the world’s most powerful lighthouse. Actually quite ordinary in the day, at night it sends two rotating beams every ten seconds with a power to haunt one’s sleep, should one fear light. Other, older lighthouses loiter off shore and offer better daytime visuals.
Bikers circle the island, and one hears Italian, a little Spanish, but mostly French. And why not? l’île d’Ouessant is quite far away from most of France – six hours away from Paris, another two to three hours at least from the south and east of the country by fast train. Ouessant’s town twin is not from another country but merely the other side of France – Obenheim, next to the German border in the Alsace.
To avoid the bikers, one heads for the grassier coastal paths. Bikes are not allowed on these paths, though some still find their way there. On these paths, solitude and stone surround the visitor. If one is inclined to walk barefoot, theses paths offer a perfect bed for the soles, soft and giving. Beware of muddy areas and little purple and lavender flowers whose beauty is protected by fierce thorns.
Animals dot the island. Ouessant is known for its black sheep and wool. Goats lurk in shrubby fields, barely seen but for their horns and ear tags. Sea gulls of course gull out their lungs going to and from the island. Horses can be found – according to a placard for one abandoned fog siren, horses bred on the island in the 19th century tended to be small, and few people had more than one of them. If one is staying at the friendly Auberge de Jeunesse, there is the chance on the short walk into town to peer into a yard were a coterie of cats hang out, six or seven, fully grown and of several colors – white, black, gray, and mixed.
Weather on the island is predictably unpredictable. The first Monday in August may feel like an October day, though the air is lighter. Out on the path, one can get sun burnt and rained on in two, three, four successive cycles. The sky changes quickly, and one can see the gulf stream make its final push towards Europe, washing over the island inattentively.
At night on the first Monday in August, after eating again crepes, one can attend a concert at the local church, a string and piano quartet playing two pieces as part of the “les musiciennes d’Ouessant” festival. The ladies play well and the well-trained crowd only claps after the 3rd and 4th movements of each piece. The stained glass windows are adorned with French captions that may simplify Biblical language a touch: “Jesus threatens the winds and tells the sea, “shut up!” The end of the concert proves insufferable – the crowd of nearly 100 cheers and cheers, demanding an encore, hoping to prove how sophisticated they are and how non-rural, non-isolated the island can be. The quartet, an ad hoc group no doubt, cannot do but to repeat a few choice parts of the second piece. The crowd howls for more, clearly not having paid enough attention the first time (or so starved for culture they cannot let go? Or just wanting full money’s value for their 18 euro ticket?). One is advised to sneak out before a third encore is possible.
If the truest adventure of our times is away from technology, from phones, computers, the internet, connection, Ouessant provides for this adventure as well. Not that those monsters do not reach the island; one can be connected here. But with the small size of the island and its limited population, there is no need for connecting. Everything one needs to know about the island can be found out through the ancient search engine of asking a local. And if one’s phone battery dies, depriving one of all time-telling devices, the church offers a large clock face and an hourly bell to keep one from becoming completely unstuck in time.
Yes, such is l’île d’Ouessant. All one needs to escape the mainland, to extricate oneself from normalcy, all that can be found on the island. On the ferry to and from the island, one is as if entering a chamber of isolation, preparing for the island and then again for the return. An hour to unshackle the mind and another to reshackle it.
Ahh, but the one thing one cannot escape on an island ? Oneself. All that solitude, space, and isolation forces one in on oneself. One must dig through consciousness, through thought, to deal with the fact that in solitude, one is with oneself. The freedom from other concerns becomes a sentence to explore the base of one’s inner space. The island’s shores limit physical movement but erase mental boundaries.
One can hide in daily life’s distractions. When going to an island, one seeks to escape distractions and relocate oneself. True of all travel, this tendency sharpens on an island. One goes to lose one’s quotidian life and to find oneself.