Nothing west of here but water – all the way to Canada
Click on picture to enlarge
Atlantic Ocean, Finistere, Brest, France
14 June 2019 (Friday)
Finistere literally means ‘end of the earth’ (finis terrae in Latin); it is the name of France’s westermost district. I did not know this until I reviewed the tourist information on offer by the Hotel de la Rade – my home in Brest – but I was very pleased to learn that the locals were confirming my final destination. I very much hope to find the end of the earth at the end of my journey.
I booked an airport rental car for Friday morning – the first rental car I had used on the journey – as I learned years ago that it’s possible to spend half a day getting out of a city, while airports are always linked to thoroughfares.
I had planned to take a €4 bus, which required one transfer, but due to a late start I took a €25 taxi to pick-up my Peugeot 208. The rental agent offered a BMW 118 for €12 more – sold (see picture).
The main highway went from the airport through Brest and it looked complicated. I thought I might come back that way as directions to airports are clearly signposted, but for my trip to the coast I selected highway D67.
My rental agent walked me to the window and pointed it out: see that motorcycle, make that right turn, then follow the signs to Le Conquet.
My destination along this meandering highway – through farmland (see picture) with the occasional charming French village, such as Gouesnou and Trebabu – was slightly north of Le Conquet. I can see on the map where the highway split down two peninsulas. I am aiming for Pointe de Kermorvan, which extended slightly further out into the Atlantic than Le Conquet.
The road ends at Site Naturel Kermorvan, which is classified as a national heritage site, and now I have a choice. To my right are cliffs leading towards a large sandy beach and to my left, the Point de Kermorvan lighthouse and the Kermorvan Fortress.
I can do both, so I begin with the cliffs leading towards the beach. The next day – at the Brest Airport in a miserable rainstorm – I realised how lucky I was that the weather was so ideal: overcast drifting into cloudy, drifting into intermittent afternoon sunshine.
The trail along the cliffs eventually led to the foundation of a home that must have had magnificent ocean views; however, upon further inspection I found smaller stone structures dug into the side of the cliff where I suppose there would have been machine guns. This was likely a German defensive outpost during World War II. There was a lot of rubbish lying about, so I wonder whether I might find a souvenir.
I could see lots of broken dishes, and am reminded of the bowls I found in an abandoned Japanese fisherman’s hut on Kinkasan Island off of Sendai, Japan in 1985. Bowels I still have and cherish.
No luck. Everything was broken. Yet one piece of china showed a clear image of a pink rose. It had one sharp side, so I took a stone and smoothed off the sharp edge, then pocketed it. Another piece of similar china featuring the image of a windmill said it was made by Moulin des Loups – France. Nice.
Eventually the cliff began to slope toward the beach (see picture) and stone stairs appeared. On the beach, I left my day-bag on a big rock, quickly removed my shoes, rolled up my pants and entered the water. It was cold, but that’s it. I had not only arrived at the Atlantic Ocean I had become part of that ocean by moving beyond the shoreline. I had gone past the end of the earth. Goal accomplished…
My feet did not adjust quickly to the cold water but it had been a two-month journey, so I forced myself to remain just beyond the shoreline. I began walking north, parallel to the beach.
This was a solo-sweet moment, but it was a moment I wanted to share. What I needed now was a party – a kind of celebration. To my right, not far from the water’s edge, is a collection of girls – ten to twelve years of age, I guessed. They were stooped over a pool of water. I was sure I could recruit these girls to share my joy.
So I walked out of the water and asked them what they were doing. Immediately, Rita who later said she was from Morocco, explained in very good English that they were looking for baby crabs. She showed me one (see picture).
Molly, who was clearly French but also had some English, showed me her baby crab and asked whether I’d like to have it. I didn’t quite know what I would do with a live baby crab, so I declined. But Rita jumped in and offers her crab as well. This was starting out well.
At that point, I told Rita my story and explained how my journey had finally come to an end. Although she was young, she was able to comprehend the distance I had travelled. I asked whether she would explain my story to her four friends, and she agreed. Some of them seemed excited by my story.
I asked whether I could take a picture of their baby crabs and they held them out. Then I asked whether they would mind if I took pictures of them. They seemed to like this idea a lot. One of the girls yelled to a group of six at another pool to join and now I had a collection of 11 pre-teenage girls happy that I wanted their picture. Normally I take ten pictures, discard nine and keep the best one, but these girls were so full of energy that I have kept most of the pictures I took. It is a pity I cannot include them all here.
I shook hands with each girl, starting with Rita, and each introduced herself to me in English – it was touching. But all good things must come to an end. Eventually an adult appeared – wondering quite reasonably about this stranger taking pictures of the children. Fair concern. I introduced myself and explained what I had just achieved, then thanked her and said goodbye to the girls and walk away. I have no idea whether she understood anything I said, but that does not matter. Briefly, I was able to share my joy with this group of girls and they were delighted by the moment.
I could see a rocky outcrop on the beach a kilometre or so away, so I decided to walk to that point and turn around. When I arrived, though, I could see I was only another kilometer from the end of the beach, so I walked to the northern end and took a picture of the entire beach, then embarked on my return journey.
I had forgotten about the tide. The rocky outcrop a kilometer away was now partially submerged, the water was rising fast and the rocks were slippery. Years ago, in Thailand, I had made this same mistake and actually had to climb up and over a very steep hill to get around a rocky outcrop that had quickly disappeared under the waves. Fortunately, this was not necessary on this occasion.
The girls were gone. I walked past my shoes before returning to find them where they had been left. Back up the stone stairway and right before I arrived at my car, I discovered a stone fence and recalled the bread and cheese from the hotel breakfast in my day bag. As I sat enjoying the view and the moment, a seagull landed several meters from me. I recalled the warriors of the wind I had enjoyed watching on top of Sinop Fortress at the Black Sea… and wondered whether this particular seagull had travelled west to join me.
There were two trails leading towards Pointe de Kermorvan, which included the lighthouse and a fortress. I chose the left one, which meandered along the water that separated me from the charming village of Le Conquet (see picture). It was a pleasant semi-circular walk through uncultivated fields. Slowly the lighthouse began to appear as I made my way toward the Pointe. Then another structure emerged in the distance, which I knew must be the fortress; it became clear that both were built within the last 100 years, as there was nothing ancient about either (see picture). As I got closer, I could see a gate and a sign that read ‘Entrée Interdite Sans Motif De Service’. I assumed it was telling me not to enter. When I later put the words on the sign into Google Translate, I discovered that it said, ‘Forbidden Entry without Service Reason’.
Unlike in China, there was no guard I could bribe to give me 30 minutes of access to the ocean. Alas…
So I climbed on to a rock ready to enjoy the view of the lighthouse and Pointe de Kermorvan and take pictures, and concluded that this is the end of the journey. I had put my feet in the Atlantic Ocean and that is enough…
But no! I saw three boys walking towards the gate, although I pay no attention to them as I am enjoying the view. Next time I look, I noticed that they were beyond the gate. Some local knowledge had appeared.
The sign is clear even when you can't read French. Such brazen behavior – I regret I did not actually see them climb over the gate.
I figured that if I got arrested for ignoring the sign then it would make a grand ending to my adventure, so I headed down to meet these delinquent boys. I hope they speak some English.
Climbing over the gate was like climbing up a short ladder and now I was inside Pointe de Kermorvan. I followed the boys around the right-hand side of the boarded-up fortress – which was clearly disused – to the area below the lighthouse, and introduced myself.
One of the boys spoke very good English. I immediately told them about my two-month journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic, then concluded by saying that “I declare, in front of each of you, that my journey is officially over.” They didn’t seem to regard me as odd at all – I am a curiosity.
Mathis immediately tells me that he had just had a job interview in English with an American company and had not yet learned the outcome. He didn’t seem old enough to be a mechanical engineer but that was what the interview was all about.
Aurelian said in very poor English that in the next week he will apply to join the French Army, while Arthur said nothing. Mathis explained that Arthur was studying to be an optometrist.
I asked them about the sign at the gate and they said they know about it but always ignored it. They had been coming here for years. They pointed to a peninsula just beyond Le Conquet and told me it was their village. Later I looked at Google Maps and concluded that they were from Pointe Saint Mathieu. At one time, I had thought that would be my final destination – long ago when I was planning my trip in Australia…
What were their plans for the day? Mathis had brought a fishing pole intending to fish here (look carefully at the picture of the lighthouse – below the two boys standing, as Mathis can be seen fishing). I asked whether he had ever caught a fish in this spot and he said no, he never had. That seems odd to me. With all his local knowledge why, fish is a place that has offered no success previously. I don't ask that question.
Mathis wanted to know about my journey, so I walked him through much of it. He concluded that I travelled a lot and asked about my favourite countries. In Asia, I listed Japan, Korea and Thailand; in Latin America, I listed Colombia, Peru and Chile.
Mathis inquired how I was able to do this. I explained that I was 66 years old, which is shorthand for ‘I’ve got years of experience behind me’. He said that I didn’t look or act like I was 66. Humbly, I agreed. I also explained that being an academic provided many travel opportunities.
We took some pictures – Mathis took the picture of me – and I said farewell to my new friends and wished them good luck. Mathis and Arthur said they and two other friends were leaving that night for a twelve-hour drive to Valencia in Spain – just for fun, as they had not visited Valencia before.
Mathis took the fishing pole and climbed over the rock wall and down what was once a lava flow to the water’s edge. He showed more courage than I, as the water was rough. One slip and you might get out, but the waves might just beat you against the rocks.
I climbed back over the forbidden gate, made my way to the car and said goodbye to Pointe de Kermorvan. Now I wanted a proper lunch in Le Conquet. Parking seemed complicated and I worried about getting a parking ticket, but the celebration continued – there’s no point in worrying about everything all the time.
On a hill looking over the harbour below was the Le Relais du Vieux Port – a four-storey guesthouse with a restaurant on the ground floor. The waitress said they had no English menu, but she could help me, and I am sure that she can. I sat by the front door and studied a chalkboard of the day’s specials. I could detect the French word for crab – I think. I am intrigued, as I received multiple offers of baby crabs today. So when the waitress arrives, I immediately ask whether the crab includes the shell and she confirms that it doesn’t. The dish featured crab meat on potatoes with a salad. Yes – and it was pretty good.
As I was paying the bill, I enquire and she confirms that she is from Le Conquet, so I asked what ‘Conquet’ meant. In my mind, this word looks very much like the English word for conquest, which is what I want to hear as I just conquered the EurAsia continent !
But, no. She seems surprised by my question and perplexed by her response, as she does not know what Conquet means. She thought briefly and said it must mean ‘front’. That makes sense: Finistere means ‘end of the earth’, so the locals call this place the front and everyone else calls it the end.
I considered driving back the same way I had come – as it is an easy drive – but then decided to take the main highway between the coast and Brest. I only took one wrong turn and quickly recovered, and the car was back at exactly 7.00 pm, as specified in my rental agreement.
One would think that the celebration should have continued, but practical matters had to be addressed. My hotel had no laundry service and I had not washed since Albania. The staff at reception pointed me to a coin-operated laundromat directly across the street from my hotel. I tried to talk them into walking across the street for three minutes to help me with the French machinery, but with no luck.
So I gathered up my dirty clothes and found a young lady at the laundromat – who said she was from Paris – about to depart with a bag of wet clothes. No dryer for her. She walked me through the steps. So many strangers were helpful on my journey.
With clean, dry clothes a sense of freedom returned. It was Friday night in Brest and time to see what was on offer. Eventually, I found a duo called Back to the Blues – I’d heard a lot of blues on this trip and didn’t really know why. The fellow was a talented guitar player and the woman has a powerful voice and sang rather provocative songs in English. I wondered whether she would dare sing these same songs in her native language.
And that’s how the last day of my EurAsian adventure ended.
Four days later, I was having lunch with Professor Sigrid Quack, the new Director of the German Centre for Global Cooperation Research, where I spent nine months as a Senior Fellow in 2016–2017. I offered an overview of my journey and a bit of detail and – a being the thoughtful leader that she is – Sigrid asked what insight, if any, I had gained through such an unusual journey. It was a question I’d been contemplating for a few days.
I told Sigrid that I had come to realise how blind I am, as there must be many very meaningful moments of insight, but so far, I could not find any.
Later, I reflected on this exchange. Many people had touched my life during this journey, and I believe I also touched the lives of many. This was meaningful in itself, but what was hidden beneath all this engagement? Was there something deeper? I simply wasn’t sure.
Such questions are interesting and even useful, but not especially important to me. I decided that I’d had a wonderful time through my contact with the peoples and places of EurAsia, and for me that was enough.
It was only later, upon further reflection, that I realised my journey of discovery could possibly offer guidance to others, as it is a transformational story with a message to be shared. Achieving meaning sometimes takes a while…