Fifth annual Breton Summer School

Fifth annual Breton Summer School


Between 17 and 28 June this year, I attended the fifth annual Breton Summer School organised by the University of Western Brittany and held at the university’s campus in Quimper. Quimper is the departmental capital of Finistère, one of the four départments that comprise the French administrative region of Brittany, and is an attractive, historic town with a population of about 67,000 people that stands at the confluence of the Steir, Odet and Jet rivers.

For those who don’t know, Breton is a member of the Brythonic, or ‘P-Celtic’, branch of Celtic languages and was brought to what was then Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries AD by migrants from Great Britain. Over time, it diverged somewhat from its British cousin languages but remains very close to Cornish and relatively close to Welsh. Until the early twentieth century, Breton was widely spoken in the area known as ‘Lower Brittany’ (‘Breizh Izel’ in Breton), which corresponds very roughly to the western half of the peninsula.

To travel to Brittany I flew to Paris and caught the TGV high-speed train to Rennes, a pleasant city located to the east of the Breton linguistic border and the last stop on the TGV network. The following day I caught the slow train (for New Zealanders, the adjective ‘slow’ must here be translated into ‘super high speed’ – the TGV therefore constituting something approaching teleportation) to Brest, which lies close to the westernmost extremity of Finistère and is a charming, unpretentious city that boasts a large castle (with Gallo-Roman foundations), excellent food, friendly people, and changing vistas of a mutable sky and a moody, grey-blue-green harbour.

The train-ride to Brest takes the traveller through increasingly interesting scenery that begins as comforting bocage and gradually transforms into something more ephemerally wild-looking. I say ephemerally because, well, ‘wild-looking’ is a relative term, but there is something subtly meaningful in my use of it that will make sense if you ever make the same trip – and will make even more sense as the train draws close to Brest itself and the coast is suddenly thrust up against the window of your train in such a way that the varicoloured sea and the graceful herring-gulls impose themselves on subsequent memories of arrival.

I spent an enjoyable, productive and, er, gastronomic week in Brest, at the end of which I felt satisfied that I would be happy to live there. Everyone there certainly seemed to feel the same way, and many of them were immigrants from other parts of the country or the world. Dylan Thomas’ description of Swansea as a ‘lovely ugly town’ seemed like it could be applied just as well to Brest, invariably described as it is by the French as ‘moche’. Views do diverge: I found one online description, made by an Erasmus programme participant, which included the phrases ‘a cold city with quite a strange atmosphere’ and ‘can be agonising’. New Zealanders will be pleased to hear that the Kermadec Islands, named after the Breton explorer Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec, were discovered by an expedition that set out from Brest’s capacious harbour.

My week there ended, I made my way to Quimper. Another traveller who made the same trip some two hundred years earlier wrote: “All this region far inferior to Leon and Traguer; no exertions, nor any marks of intelligence, yet all near to the great navigation and market of Brest water, and the soil good. Quimper, though a bishopric, has nothing worth seeing but its promenades which are among the finest in France”. In fairness to Quimper, and to the many tourists that visit it, the foregoing description is no longer true (if it ever was), and I found the town very beautiful and not only to be recommended for its promenades.

The format of the summer school was as follows: Breton classes from 9am to midday; a superb and slightly bibulous lunch in the university restaurant; presentations from guest lecturers in the afternoons. In the evenings, my fellow classmates and I would go out for dinner and/or visit one of three entertaining pubs. This was the format for the lion’s share of the itinerary, which was also enlivened by several excursions to other historic sites in the area (some of many – Finistère is littered with them, including a vast inventory of Neolithic structures).