In my admittedly limited experience (and entirely for the sake of argument), there are two types of people who holiday in France: people who like to go south, and people who like to go north and west. As regular readers of this column might remember, I met my wife in Paris about six years ago, fell hard, and got married very quickly. When it was time to meet her dad and tell him of our plans, he was in Brittany, at the house he’s rented every August for the past 20 years. It was chilly when we arrived, heavy wool sweater weather. Many people come to this region on the westernmost coast of France for the shellfish and the sailing and wind sports, and for the rugged dramatic coastline that looks like it was torn off of Cape Cod when Pangaea splintered (perhaps that’s why John Kerry keeps a house here). I could see the appeal from my soon-to-be father-in-law’s temporary back yard, which slopes down straight into the Bay of St-Malo, with sweeping 180-degree views of a rapidly emptying and refilling seascape full of simple little white sailboats that lay down sideways on the sand at low tide then ease themselves back upright when the tide comes in, a charming ritual that marks the passing of the day.
Still, it didn’t make sense to me why anyone who didn’t have to (family obligations, for example) would choose this severe and capricious land instead of heading south into those ever-dependable olive groves, vineyards, and alpine foothills sheathed in lavender and thyme that make up sun-drenched Provence, a part of France that feels like Southern California and Napa Valley combined, and in so many places still looks like a painting by Cézanne. But this summer, I had the chance to contrast the two Frances (it’s difficult to remain in Paris for all of August, where everything from your dry cleaner to your favorite pizzeria shutters for the month), having spent a week drinking pastis and playing pétanque in the ceaseless plein soleil of the Luberon of Provence, and then coming straight up to windswept Bretagne. Sure, the weather is abnormally temperate this year, which can’t hurt, but the water is still breathtakingly cold—revivifying only in retrospect—and a sweatshirt is almost always welcome, even in the sun. But the subtler joys of the Bretagne region finally revealed themselves to me: that you can never take the sun for granted, for example, as people tend to do in the south—it must always be appreciated. Here the ever-shifting sea and sky become registers you must consult hourly, their variations in color and intensity addressing you directly—a living universe that never lets you fully turn your back.
What’s more, since nothing is given, everything is earned, inclement weather cannot ruin a day out here as it can in the pristine south, where a heavy sky is a catastrophe. The water is cold anyway—so you might as well go swimming.