Spotlight on Brittany

Phares bretons

Looking for a new way to discover Brittany, a change from traditional tourism? Set off to meet these behemoths of stone, these giant guardians of the sea, the aptly-named Breton lighthouses.

Brittany, besieged by tourists in summer, is perceived as a wild, rainy and comforting land. It needs no introduction. In fact, it enjoys an excellent reputation, attracting as many tourists every year as the PACA region. That’s how much it’s appreciated!

For an iodine break, a bucolic interlude or a medieval halt, Brittany offers many ways to get away from it all. You’re sure to find what you’re looking for, even if you’re not looking for it. Whatever the case, today Generation Voyage takes you off the beaten track. We’ll accompany you as you discover the lighthouses of Brittany, those marine emblems of hypnotic power. Did you know that over a third of France’s lighthouses are in Brittany? And for good reason, with its 1,100 kilometers of coastline, lighthouses had to be equipped to protect them and warn ships of nearby reefs.

That said, Brittany’s lighthouses play much more than just a protective role. While this is of paramount importance – and some lighthouses still have this vocation – the stone buildings hold many secrets that you’re going to love revealing. We invite you to meet them, learn their stories and find out more about them and what makes them so mysterious.

A complete, fun-filled itinerary takes you through Brittany on the theme of its lighthouses. At times, you’ll take to the skies, but each time you’ll enjoy the marine atmosphere so special to Brittany.

Guardians of the seaside lands… guarded

Although Finistère is the department with the most coastline, all Breton departments have lighthouses. Dressing the coastline with their enigmatic stones and luminous focus, they have become symbols of the maritime world.

Phare du Créach

Créach lighthouse – Photo credit: Shutterstock – Linossier Jean-Pierre

However, there’s one thing not everyone knows about lighthouse keeping. If the building can be guarded (mostly by men), then it’s a « lighthouse ». If it’s not, then it’s a « fire ». So, even if today everything’s getting mixed up – as we more often refer to the building rather than its function – remember that in Brittany, there are almost only lighthouses! Protected seaside land, protected seaside land…

The latest in a long series that began in the 19th century

Lighthouse automation, GPS-equipped commercial and pleasure vessels and more modern cartography have all taken their toll on this solitary profession. There are no longer any lighthouse keepers to speak of. The last true lighthouse keeper, Henri Richard, retired in September 2019 from the Cap Fréhel lighthouse.

There are still three of them, between Groix and Belle-Île-en-Mer, but not in the exact tradition. Today, their role is more focused on maritime watchkeeping and prevention (issuing nautical warnings).

Lighthouse typology

Lighthouses fall into several categories: those on land, those on the coast, and finally, those on the open sea. Obviously, this implies that not all lighthouses in Brittany were perceived in the same way by their keepers. Lighthouses on land were called « Paradises », because they were easy to reach, close to homes and less isolated.

Then there are the lighthouses built at sea, but on an island. These are nicknamed « Purgatories ». And finally, there are the lighthouses built on the open sea, on rocks large enough to support them. Their isolation and difficult access have earned them the nickname « Hell ». And with good reason: many lighthouse keepers have gone mad as a result of their isolation…

In fact, there’s even a « Hell of all Hells »: the Ar-Men lighthouse. This is Brittany’s most westerly lighthouse, perched on its rock on the open sea, the last human bulwark before the ocean.

Phare d'Ar-Men

Ar-Men lighthouse, a veritable maritime hell – Photo credit: Shutterstock – Gregory Valle

« Who sees Ouessant sees its blood, Who sees Molène sees its sorrow, Who sees Sein sees its end, Who sees Groix sees its cross. » (Breton proverb)

Let the light from the headlights guide you

Now that we’ve piqued your curiosity, let us roll out an itinerary idea. That said, don’t expect to visit every single lighthouse in Brittany. There are almost 200 of them, and you won’t be able to see them all in a single visit. What’s more, some of them are located in the open sea (the famous « infernos »). So you can’t always get close to them.

Finistère, with its end-of-the-world feel

In the Breton language, Finistère is called « penn-ar-bed », which means « end of the world ». As you’ll see from our road-trip, you’ll be spending a lot of time here… and with good reason! Finistère has the most lighthouses! In fact, it’s also the department in Brittany with the longest coastline, facing the Atlantic Ocean and Great Britain.

Suffice to say, there was a time when it was working for the defense of the country, with such a panorama. But it’s also very dangerous, with numerous surface reefs and isolated rocks along the coast. Lighthouses were vital to the survival of sailors in those days, and are still useful today in many ways.

« Lighthouses belong to no one because they serve to spare the lives of sailors of all nations and those of their passengers. »

– Le Net, engineer who saved the Port-Navalo lighthouse from dynamite in 1944.

Day 1: Port Navalo lighthouse, Goulphar lighthouse and Poulains lighthouse

? City of departure: Vannes

? Arrival city: Lorient

?️ Surroundings: Vannes, Auray, Carnac, Belle-Île-en-Mer, Lorient

From Vannes, a town we recommend you spend a few hours or even days in to discover in depth, head for Arzon. Arzon closes the Gulf of Morbihan from the south, on the Rhuys peninsula. As well as enjoying the attractive gulf itself, you’ll be able to see the Port-Navalo lighthouse. This lighthouse was almost blown up in 1944, during the Second World War.

Arzon et son phare

Arzon and its lighthouse, an invitation to tranquillity – Photo credits: Shutterstock – sylvain Thiollier | Philippe PATERNOLLI

Yet here it still stands, at a height of 32 meters. It was an engineer, Le Net, who saved it, convincing the German troops of the lighthouse’s usefulness in guiding ships across the gulf. Once there, take a stroll around Port-Navalo and admire Locmariaquer opposite, or the Quiberon peninsula in the distance!

Continue your journey with a one-off return visit. Take a break in Vannes, then in Carnac. The Alignements de Carnac are no longer in the limelight, but are still worth a visit for a real leap into the past. Continue on to the Presqu’île de Quiberon, a magnificent piece of rock jutting out into the sea. From the peninsula, take the boat to Belle-Île-en-Mer.

Phares des Goulphar et des Poulains

Goulphar and Poulains lighthouses – Photo credits: Shutterstock – sylvain Thiollier | Philippe PATERNOLLI

Once there, we recommend spending at least half a day there. Then set off to discover the Goulphar lighthouse to the south and the Poulains lighthouse to the north. In a way, they frame the island, protecting it from shipwreck. Don’t forget to visit Belle-Île-en-Mer, an admirable pearl facing the Morbihan department.

Once you’re back on dry land, spend a night in Lorient, the city of sailors and the Interceltic Culture Festival!

D2: Pen-Men lighthouse

? City of departure: Lorient

? Arrival: Port Tudy or Lorient if you don’t sleep on the island

?️ Surroundings: Île de Groix

For this second day, we propose a departure from Lorient, a ferry crossing and a full day on the island of Groix. It’s a beautiful island, very attractive in summer, and one that many Bretons appreciate for a day’s getaway. There’s plenty to see, not least the Pen-Men lighthouse.

Located on the west side of the island, it is the most powerful lighthouse in Morbihan, with a range of 54 kilometers and a height of 64 meters. It is in fact a lighthouse house, meaning that the functionality of the lighthouse is fully integrated into a habitable building. As well as being unusually beautiful, the headland where the lighthouse stands is home to an ornithological reserve, with many species nesting in the cliff crevices.

Phare de Pen-Men

Pen-Men lighthouse – Photo credits: Wikipedia – Pliny

Continue your discovery of the island by visiting the Groix eco-museum, sampling the many local « lichouseries », or strolling along the Grands-Sables beach. And don’t miss the astonishing Trou de l’Enfer, a huge gash in the cliff face. Legends are born here. For example, it is said that if you dance at the edge of this hole, you drive away the evil spirits… Perhaps they are frightened by the sometimes zany dances of humans?

You can choose to spend the night in one of the accommodations on the island, or in Lorient.

Day 3: Bénodet lighthouse and Eckmühl lighthouse

? Departure city: Port Tudy or Lorient

? Arrival: Quimper

?️ Surroundings: Quimper, Bénodet, Pont-L’Abbé, Guilvinec

Continue your discovery of Brittany’s lighthouses with those of Finistère. From Lorient, we recommend that you head for Quimper and enjoy a few hours in the town: Saint-Corentin cathedral, cobbled streets with old-world charm, original boutiques… Then head south, following the Odet, the Quimper river, to Bénodet.

Bénodet et son phare

Bénodet and its lighthouse – Photo credits: Shutterstock – Ronan Davalan | Alexis Sarremejane

On the edge of Anse du Trez, next to Pointe du Coq, enjoy the view of Bénodet’s lighthouse, or bonfire, known as Le Coq. With its green band, it brightens up an already magnificent landscape of beach and bay decorated with boats. And while you’re here, take the opportunity to visit Bénodet, a charming, chic commune in southern Finistère. The town’s immediate proximity to the sea, as well as to the dynamic city of Quimper, means that houses here fetch high prices.

Then on to Penmarch (pronounced « pinmar »), via Combrit and Pont-L’Abbé. You don’t have to stop here, but it’s recommended. If you’re going to get close, you might as well stop off there. Once you’re in Penmarch, you won’t want to miss its famous behemoth: the Eckmühl lighthouse. You can visit it from the inside and climb to the very top.

Le phare d’Eckmühl

Eckmühl lighthouse, Penmarch – Photo credits: Shutterstock – synto

But this comes at a price: 307 spiral steps without a break. That takes some physical training! In fact, there’s an annual competition to see who’s the fastest! At the top, from the campanile, you can see the whole bay, and on low tide days it’s even more impressive.

Then get off and do a bit of fishing on foot. On the way back, stop off at Guilvinec and its distinctive port.

Day 4: Petit-Minou lighthouse, Kermorvan lighthouse and Saint-Mathieu lighthouse

? City of departure: Quimper

? Arrival city: Brest

?️ Surroundings: Brest, Le Conquet, La Pointe-Saint-Mathieu

Your adventure continues in Nord-Finistère, in the Pays du Léon as it’s known. As the final destination of the Mer d’Iroise, you’ll see some of the most beautiful coastlines in France. But we’re more interested in the lighthouses that tower over the cliffs, protecting the coastline.

Start with the Petit-Minou lighthouse, at the entrance to Brest harbor. The continuation and end of the Fort of the same name, this lighthouse is so beautiful that photographers snap it up! Almost facing the pointe de Pen-Hir, at the tip of the Crozon peninsula, it offers a sublime 360° view, from both land and sea. To get there, you’ll have to follow a romantic stone walkway.

Phares de Petit-Minou et Sain-Mathieu

The Petit Minou and Saint-Mathieu lighthouses, and their restful settings – Photo credits: Shutterstock – Luboslav Tiles | makasana photo

Next, approach the Saint-Mathieu lighthouse in Plougonvelin, proudly standing in the ruins of the Abbey of the same name. Dressed all in white, with its red hat, it dominates the sea and cliffs, as well as the view from Pointe Saint-Mathieu. There are also a number of cafés nearby where you can stop for a coffee or a bite to eat.

Le phare de Kermorvan

Kermorvan lighthouse – Photo credit: Shutterstock – Yuriy Shmidt

Finally, head for the Kermorvan lighthouse, making sure to stop off at Le Conquet, an adorable fishing village like Douarnenez in the Sud-Finistère region. Follow the coastline and the Blancs-Sablons beach to reach the Kermorvan lighthouse. A timid stone construction, it radiates a peaceful atmosphere at the end of its cliff on the sometimes turbulent seashore, giving it the air of a medieval castle tower… A must-see when the weather’s fine, and even when it’s raining!

Day 5: Men-Ruz lighthouse and Bodic lighthouse

? City of departure: Brest

? Arrival city: Saint-Brieuc

?️ Surroundings: Ploumanac’h, Perros-Guirec

Round off your discovery tour with the Côtes-d’Armor. First, the Men-Ruz lighthouse, which you’ll already have a good idea of if you’re familiar with Ploumanac’h. Famous for its Pink Granite Coast, this commune is home to one of Brittany’s most beautiful lighthouses.

In fact, it’s built from the same stones that litter the coastline! This gives it an absolutely remarkable allure. From the edge of the beach, you can observe the Costaérès castle, located on a small island of the same name just offshore. It’s also a great place to recharge your batteries and enjoy the beach and sea air. And don’t miss Perros-Guirec, right next door, with its Trestraou beach and Pointe du Château. An ideal place for a crêpe or two…

Phares de Men-Ruz et de Bodic

Men-Ruz and Bodic lighthouses – Photo credits: Shutterstock – Stefan Rotter | Wikipedia – Clicsouris

Then continue on to the Bodic lighthouse. What’s special about this lighthouse… it looks like a rocket! In fact, following its destruction in 1944 under German occupation, it was rebuilt in a rather original way. The lighthouse is built into the wall of the façade, making it look like a spacecraft.

Still, it’s a beautiful building, situated on the estuary leading to Pontrieux, a pretty little town in the Costarmorican region. Once you’ve enjoyed the view and the atmosphere, head down the coast to Saint-Brieuc. Take time to visit the town, especially its center. And so ends your Breton micro road-trip!

Optional and delightful travel tip

If you wish, you can also choose to spend a day on Ouessant, an island off the coast of northern Finistère. Known as the « island of 5 lighthouses », there are several lighthouses to see, including the Stiff, the oldest lighthouse in Brittany, built in 1695, the Mare and the Créach.

Ouessant

Ouessant, its lighthouse and rocky coast – Photo credits: Shutterstock – Maurizio Biso | Philippe PATERNOLLI

You can also discover the large fields and famous sheep of Ouessant. The island can be visited by bike, and is reached by daily ferry. A great alternative for those who want to take another break from their Breton road-trip.

Lighthouses that can’t be visited, but can be seen from afar

In our list, we’ve omitted some very famous lighthouses. For the simple reason that some of them are veritable hells. Perched on its rock, the Tévennec lighthouse is the most concrete example. The lighthouse has been manned by 23 successive keepers over a period of just 35 years! It’s said that the lighthouse is haunted, and that at night, ghosts and voices wake up, driving some of their comrades mad…

So this is one lighthouse you won’t be able to visit. Just like other famous structures in Brittany, such as the Phare d’Ar-Men, mentioned above, or the equally legendary Phare de la Jument, on Ouessant. However, if you take a look at the horizons of the more indented coasts, you should be able to see some of them from afar.