Islands and gardens at the end of the world – that’s Finistere in Brittany says Georges Lévêque, France’s leading garden guru as he reveals some of his favourite places to visit in this beautiful area of northern France…
The department of Finistère was once considered the end of the world in France – but that was before the discovery of America. These days it is a place of 1000 attractions and a rich culture, but for me the real pleasure is to go west, towards the setting sun for a memorable walk of intense pleasure where you will see exquisite gardens and sites.
For one thing, there is the discovery of Brittany’s islands. Especially worth visiting are the most famous islands such as Sein and Ouessant. There are smaller isles too, like Callot Carantec connected to a road at low tide and Tristan, which in front of Douarnenez. A day on these pieces of rock, isolated from the coast offers a magical experience. And then there are the gardens, like hyphens between men and culture. Finistère has many notable gardens but here are five of my personal favourites:
Botanical gardens of Cornouaille at Combrit
This garden has proved an adventure of more than thirty years now, led by Jean-Pierre Gueguen, joined by his two sons Stephen and Xavier. It is the shaping of an arboretum (mostly planted trees and shrubs) on almost 12 acres of pine forest with an abundance of the rarest and most beautiful varieties of plants. This elegant park will delight visitors and keep them happy for a long time. In the spring a walk amongst the flowering prunus, camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias is enchanting. In summer, there are many hydrangeas and the water garden is at its best. Visit the nursery with its large greenhouse where you can buy seedlings and the knowledgeable gardeners can help with more information. Signposted from Combrit: http://www.parcbotanique.com
Priory Garden in Quimper
The Jardin du Prieuré at Quimper is free to enter and you will find the entrance next to the famous Faience HB Henriot in Locmaria. Recent work has seen the introduction of splendid aromatic plants assumed to have been cultivated in monasteries at the time of Anne of Brittany (1477-1514). A kiosk features a fountain, a symbol of the source of life that once irrigated Paradise and wooden pergolas symbolize the sky in this medieval style garden. It is a place for daydreaming and to lose yourself.
Roscoff Exotic Garden
At Roscoff, a garden that is completely different. Almost 30 years ago, an amateur group of plants men have managed to convince the town council to sponsor them and they acquired an abandoned by the coast complete with a universe of huge rocks. It was more or less a dump but the budding botanists lavished love and time on a vegetable themed collection, then Mediterranean flora and even subtropical flora. This is a rare plot since the huge volume of warm water that carries through the year on the Gulf Stream tempers the air masses that are present. This enables rare plants to not just survive but to thrive, colonizing the garden with plants such as Canary Island Echium. It is an exceptional collection, rarely found in such abundance in France. A network of paths takes leads the visitors through the collection and to a high point on a rock 18 meters above which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the garden. The labelling is excellent, visitors can easily discover the identity of the wonders encountered and you can buy seedlings produced on site. This garden is very rich in colour between May and September. Roc’h Hievec, Roscoff www.jardinexotiqueroscoff.com
Garden of Georges Delaselle on the Island Batz
Accessed by a 15 minute ferry ride from Roscoff, the island of Batz is a village surrounded by agricultural crops but at its eastern end is a very famous garden with a fascinating history. A Parisian insurer named Georges Delaselle was passionate about exotic vegetation and fell under the spell of this miniature island in 1897. Over the course of a twenty year obsession, he erected a string of artificial dunes and planted the garden of his dreams. In 1918, he moved to Batz permanently and worked in his beloved garden until his death in 1944. He was 83 and had no successor to take over his garden which was abandoned for more than forty years. In 1987 a team of volunteers decided to revive the gardens as a tour will reveal and how glad we are because it is exquisite and offers wonderful views.
Frequent shuttle boat from the port of Roscoff: www.jardin-georgesdelaselle.fr
The garden of the Abbaye de Daoulas
Unique in Brittany, this Roman cloisters and its remarkable pond, fountain and 16th century oratory, as well as the abbey-church dating from the 12th century, all bear witness to the initial splendour of this site. A former monastery, built in the 12th century by Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, the Abbaye de Daoulas overlooks the little town of Daoulas, once a strategic port between the Léon region of Brittany and Cornwall. It is in this historical setting in the heart of the pretty village of Daoulas that the Finistère Council commissioned an abbey garden of medieval inspiration. There are over 300 species of medicinal plants from five continents, each plant is labelled and gives details of its properties. www.cdp29.fr/fr/presentation-daoulas
4 Great places to dine in Finistere
Georges Leveque recommends these off the beaten track places where you can enjoy a relaxing meal in Finistere:
La Moule au Pot, 13 rue Edouard Corbière to Roscoff. Excellent food cooked by Nicole Quéré in a warm atmosphere in the old town.
Chez Janie at the Hotel du Centre. Located in a beautifully restored old house between the port and the rue Gambetta in Roscoff.
The Priory restaurant in Quimper is chic and trendy, spacious and beautifully decorated, in fine weather take lunch in the courtyard – glorious. 1 place Bérardier www.le-prieure.fr
La Blanche Hermine in the heart of Pleyben. A colourful tavern with traditional cuisine where the smiling proprietor Thierry Tavenard offers a fine selection of beers from local micro-breweries. 1 Place Charles de Gaulle www.la-blanche-hermine.com
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Find out more about Georges Lévêque’s exhibitions and photographs as well as his blog at: GeorgesLevequeJardins.com