Position: 48°22’36″N 4°29’34″W
Tonnerre de Brest!
Twenty miles offshore and heading for Brest in the thick of a thunderstorm, Captain Haddock’s expletive, Tonnerre de Brest! (Thunder of Brest) became reality. Rain lashed the dodger and our radar circled colourfully, highlighting the storm’s cells. The dim, grey clouds moved slowly, shattering the rain’s pitter-pat tablas with jagged bolts of lightning. …four one thousand, five one thousand… at least six seconds off. That’s okay. The wind shifted to our beam and Aleta picked up speed for ten minutes. She moved happily along on her best point of sail, when the storm moved off and took the wind with it. After three days at sea, sailing across the notorious Bay of Biscay from La Coruña, Spain, we were ready for a sheltered anchorage. Thus I fired up the iron jenny (engine) and motored the last six hours to our destination.
Sir John Betjeman once wrote, “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn’t fit for humans now, There isn’t grass to graze a cow,…” He might have been writing about Brest. Except the indignities put upon Slough were the result of rapid industrial expansion in the 1930s, while Brest was flattened by the Allies in World War II. In other words, Slough chose it’s fate, Brest did not.
Brest’s big natural harbour means it has served as a strategic naval base for almost 400 years. The British successfully blockaded the port during the Napoleonic wars, and it served as a staging post for inbound American troops during World War I. The Germans, under the Vichy government, used Brest as a base for its U-Boats and naval repair operations. This despite its being within easy reach of the RAF.
After D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the city was almost completely destroyed in the aptly named ‘Battle for Brest’. Only one of Brest’s old streets survives in a state of semi-preservation, the Rue Saint-Malo. Nearly bulldozed in the 1980s, a group of concerned citizens banded together and raised enough funds to keep the pretty, hand-built stone houses from collapsing altogether. It gives you a good sense of how modestly people would have lived back in the day.
The Rue Saint-Malo is just around the corner from Europe’s largest indoor public space, Les Ateliers des Capucins. This converted shipbuilding building houses hotels, climbing walls, Napoleon’s ceremonial barge, cinemas, a beautiful library, restaurants, and enough floor space for kids to kick footballs and ride scooters around without annoying anyone.
To get there you take a cable car. You could walk across a bridge, but someone thought a cable car would be more engaging. The navy wasn’t keen on the idea of tourists soaring above their secret boats and negotiations with the tourist bureau took some time. The compromise was cover the north-facing side of the cable car so you can’t see in that direction. They cut a hole in the car’s floor so you can look straight down instead.
We learned all this from Gregory. Owner of Enracinés!, a very nice café, market, and bistro. Gregory had spent many years working EU projects in southern England and spoke very good English. He had also worked as a tour guide for a bit, so was keen that we made the most of our time in the city. Without his help, we would never have found the fun things mentioned above. As a booster for Brittany, he also gave us advice on where to sail, what to see, and most importantly what to eat and drink. Turns out Brittany has become France’s microbrew destination, with dozens of breweries popping up in the past 10 years.
Thus our first impression of Brest, with its austere brutality (as in Spain’s brutalist seaside architecture), softened. We came to appreciate the history and sacrifices the city made in the name of freedom. The Americans showed their appreciation with an obelisk. The Germans, and this may explain some of the design choices, paid for the rebuilding of the city.
The Moulin Blanc Marina is a friendly place about three miles east of the city centre. We chose it because that’s where all the chandlers and shipwrights hang out. Aleta had been taking a little water in the forward cabin and we needed some expert help rebedding a reluctant stanchion. While dozens of children horsed around us on windsurfers, kayaks, and Hobie cats, Stephan instructed me in the finer arts of bolt head removal. The short answer is you drill the head out then knock it off with a chisel. Much better than a saw. After a good cleaning and a liberal dousing of Sikaflex, Carol’s cabinets should be watertight.
If you go
This time of year Brest is quiet. Most of France heads for the beach, so the city empties out at the weekends. This makes finding at table at nice restaurants much easier. Ferries full of Brits arrive, but they’re all heading someplace else. Fog hangs offshore and the warm sunshine glints happily off the beads of dew on your beer glass. That your glass may be filled with one of two dozen choices from Gregory’s fridge speaks volumes about our newly-found appreciation for this part of the world.
 For you non-native speakers, Slough (an English city near London) rhymes with now and cow, not nuff or cuff.