Biscay Islands

Last summer we did a flight of discovery around insular France: not the Caribbean or Indian Ocean but the Bay of Biscay. It turned out to be a journey from the Outer Hebrides to the Cote D’Azur.

First up was Oussant, or Ushant as I had known it since my days in the shipping business when we fixed ships on charter ‘passing Ushant’. It has, since then, exercised a fascination over me, a place on the edge of Europe lashed by gales and the heaving graveyard of ships. To find it, run your finger along the soft coast of Brittany around St Malo and trace it westwards. The further you go the bleaker it gets with woodland and hedges making way for walls and rough tussock grass until finally, over rocks and swirling tides you head westwards out to sea towards the outline of in island pricked by lighthouses.

If Ushant has a crop, it is lighthouses. Every corner of it has one, as well as on the terrible rocks that rim its coast. Like the Hebrides it so resembles there are almost no trees other than bushes that have tree like aspirations only to be bent eastwards by the prevailing westerly gales. The houses have small windows and shutters – simple dwellings for simple people living on the edge of the world. Its coast and its storms define it and every cafĂ© and hotel has photographs that would put you off ever going to sea again; lighthouses almost inundated, seas churned to white foam and ships thrown inland by tempests. Surprisingly for such a well known shipping landmark, there are no ships to be seen; they must give this infamous place a wide berth – though there is massive control tower that is clearly issuing instructions to the passing trade. There are some holiday-makers but, like the Hebrides, there would be precious few outside the summer holiday months.


We flew out of the little airport (we saw only one other plane) and headed south over the archipelago of rocks and islets where tidal races churn up the calm seas in the channels between - bound for Belle Ile a mere hundred miles south of Ushant – it too an off-lying island just in sight of the mainland. A hundred miles is the same distance as from London to Bath. But the contrast could not be greater. Belle Ile is like Jersey – pelagic but soft – on the leeward coast anyway: the western side is cliffs and breezy beaches. The interior is cows and wheat-fields and the towns and villages on the protected side like the prettiest of Cornwall. It feels sunny and temperate and there is certain Gallic chic: our fellow dinner guest at our hotel was Giscard d’Estaing. The main town is a busy fishing and ferry port dominated by the obligatory Vauban fortress (his work is everywhere). The food is delicious and though Marechal Petain ended his life sentence on the island, this is no St Helena. 

Belle Ile 

A hundred miles south again and the Ile de Re feels three of four hundred further on – like somewhere on the Mediterranean coast. Though the windward Biscay coast is rugged (but flat, as is the whole island, making it a bicycling heaven), the rest of it has that sun-kissed stone, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes that could be in San Tropez – sans the plastic gin palaces and the Russian models. Even in August it has a quiet charm that the crowds don’t quite spoil.

Ile de Re 

How can one country contain so many contrasts within such a short distance? 


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