Monday, March 12, 2012

Brest And Its Environs

I totally just realized that the word "environs" clearly comes straight from French. ("Environ" means "about" or "around".) I'm observant.

Now for some nice things about Brest.

For one thing, Brest has an interesting atmosphere in that it's a big city that sometimes feels like a small town. I'm actually not a hundred percent sure just how big Brest is, because I have heard several conflicting population estimates, but I know that in Brittany, it's second only to Rennes, which definitely qualifies as a major French city. I also know that geographically speaking, it's a pretty big place. I've never literally walked from one side to the other, but I live near the middle and I know that it takes me a solid hour or more to get out if I try to head for the coast in either direction. I'm always a little surprised when I arrive from somewhere else on a bus, because we cross the city limits and I think, "Oh, we're back," and then it actually takes another fifteen or twenty or thirty minutes (depending on the route) to actually reach the city center. And yet, it's very concentrated. It's divided up into official neighborhoods with their own names and and markets and parish churches and mairies*, but the heart and the life of the city are very much in the city centre, along the two main streets stretching away from the Place de la Liberté and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Running into people you know, and into the same people over and over again (including our students, some of whom don't even live in Brest full-time), is incredibly common. Finding out that people you met in different settings already know each other from somewhere else or discovering half a dozen mutual acquaintances with someone you've never spoken to before is also common. (Being an expat no doubt exacerbates the frequency of this phenomenon, but I assure you it also happens with locals!) When one of the other assistants left her camera behind at a bar a few weeks ago, it was returned to her by the bouncer in a chance encounter at the Sunday market the very next day. So we laugh about how small Brest is, when in fact, it's actually not that small, objectively speaking.

Brest is, for a port city and for any city that tends to feel so much smaller than it is, very cultured. I don't mean that in a snobby way, just that it doesn't seem big enough to support a thriving arts scene while also being built primarily on commerce and industry and the military. But it has, to begin, a surprising number of cinemas, playing French films and American films (sometimes dubbed, sometimes just subtitled) and other foreign films, lowbrow comedies and award-winning dramas and documentaries. Several of them play operas and ballets as well as traditional films, and there are film festivals, including the big short film festival I went to last fall. At least one of the cinemas doubles as a theatre, and I don't know much about the theatre scene here but at least there is one. There are also several local choirs, and probably some instrumental ensembles, too. There are concerts--big well, publicized acts and also smaller performances by local and/or lesser known groups that take place in various bars on practically a nightly basis. I've already mentioned the extensive library system (which is vastly superior to the public libraries where I come from, and I often compare Brest to the Allentown/Bethlehem area), which is excellent and well-used. Bulletin boards in the libraries advertise assorted opportunities for music lessons and language classes. All of this is, again, nothing out of the ordinary, but more than I might have expected for a city this size and especially a city that doesn't even feel as big as it is sometimes.

Sports, especially football/soccer and rugby and assorted water sports (obviously), are also big, and I can see the lights of the football stadium from my room at night. And of course, there are lots and lots of bars and cafés. All kinds of bars and cafés. Also a couple of crummy nightclubs, and at least one nightclub I rather like.

Brest has several suburbs, which I'm just now beginning to really explore. I've been to Guipavas, which is to the northeast and is the one closest to where I live, several times, but to the really suburby area between its downtown and Brest, never to the center of the town yet. I've skirted Le Relecq-Kerhuon (just east of Brest) along the coast, but haven't really seen its center yet, either. I have been to Plougastel-Daoulas (southeast of Brest, on the next peninsula down) a few times; it's the home of the Musée de la fraise et de la patrimoine (the Strawberry and Patrimony Museum), which was more interesting than it sounds. The Plougastel peninsula is well-known for its strawberries, and the museum included the history of strawberry production in the area but was also about its customs and material culture and fishing/maritime traditions, etc. And just last week I spent a few hours in the area of Bohars, which is north of Brest and is the home of a sixteenth century chapel and fountain, several still-functioning watermills, and my personal favorite [thing ever], the remains of a MEDIEVAL MOTTE. I'm not sure it had ever even occurred to me that there were surviving mottes in France, but there ARE, and I've been half an hour away from one for the last six months without even knowing it!

There are beaches just outside of Brest in either direction.

As far as Things To See In Brest, there's not that much. I think that's partly because it was bombed and partly just because its importance has always been as a port city, and there just isn't much here for the tourist industry.** There is Oceanopolis, a huge aquarium near the port that I haven't yet been to. Then there's the castle, located right where the river flows into the harbor, which mostly survived the war and has parts from pretty much all periods of Brest's history dating back to the Roman Empire. It's now a national museum about naval and maritime history. Around the castle and extending along harbor in both directions, as well as some distance up the river, are some surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century fortification walls. (At least I think they're surviving, and not rebuilt.) Just across the river from the castle is the Tour Tanguy, a three or four story round tower, which is medieval and older than most of the remaining parts of the castle. Once a prison, it's now a museum about the history of Brest, mostly full of dioramas depicting the city at various times. It's actually pretty neat if you're into that kind of thing (which I admit I am).

The main street leading down to the castle is the pedestrians-only Rue de Siam, which is lined with expensive shops and has a cluster of bars and restaurants at its base, near the harbor. It connects to the other main street, Rue Jean Jaurès, at the Place de la Liberté, which is for all intents and purposes the center of Brest. It's a big plaza, mostly below street level, running downhill from the mairie. There's a very modern-style fountain just in front of the mairie, and futher down the plaza goes under an overpass, beyond which is another big phallic monument to various war dead, with small gardens on either side.

Brest has many bridges. My favorite is the Pont d'Iroise, which crosses the eastern end of the harbor from the outskirts of Brest/Le Relecq-Kerhuon to Plougastel. The main one across the river, and the one on most postcards, is the Pont de Recouvrance, which I think is the kind that raises up to allow ships to pass under it. (Not a drawbridge that splits in the middle, but the kind where the whole thing moves up.) It goes from the end of the Rue de Siam to somewhere just uphill from the Tour Tanguy. Further north but still pretty much in the city centre is the Pont de l'Harteloire, which is absurdly long, less because the river gets really wide and more because the bridge itself is really high up and has to start pretty far back on the bluffs. I think I've mentioned the dramatic landscape around Brest before. Steep hills everywhere, and basically a cliff from the main city to the port. There are lots of stairs in Brest, and lots of places where the front entrances to buildings are on a different level than the back or the side entrances.

I've mentioned the American Monument, which is along the fortification walls overlooking the Port de Commerce. It and the castle, which is nearby, are surrounded by little gardens and walking paths. There are some other parks in the city, too, including a big one along the banks of the river with assorted walking paths and little footbridges. There's also one, the Jardin des Explorateurs, next to the walls opposite the castle. There's a raised walkway along part of the wall and then a formal garden tucked behind it. It's a really nice place to sit (I wrote postcards there once during the February holiday), or to stand on the wall looking out to sea.

Near the Jardin des Explorateurs is the Maison de le Fontaine, which I've mentioned before, and an eighteenth century church. A little bit north of there, close to the river, is the little Rue St. Malo, home to the one and only section of an old street to have survived the bombings. It's a short section, right at the river end of the street, but it's there. I went to find it two weekends ago. There are about ten or twelve stone houses in varying states of decay, all joined in a row and mostly without roofs or floors. (Some of them have been modified to hold, for example, restrooms and an office for the organization devoted to protecting what's left of the historic section of the street.) Most of them would have had two or three stories in their day. They face the high wall of what was once a convent across a narrow cobblestone street. There's a little fountain set into the wall that's still bubbling water. One of the bigger houses near the middle of the row has been turned into an enclosed garden, and inside it and some of the others that you can still peek into (some of them are locked tight and hung with signs proclaiming them dangerous to enter) you can still see the fireplaces and vestiges of steps or doorways. When I was there, on a drizzly weekend afternoon, it was utterly deserted except for me, and aside from being awesome, it was quiet and haunting. It's kind of a sad place, because it really is falling to pieces practically before your eyes, but it's also really amazing to find this secret little piece of the old city tucked away. I can just imagine it in 1944, a perfect little seventeenth and eighteenth century street, just standing there defiantly in the midst of destruction and chaos. It kind of surprises me that it is one of Brest's best-kept secrets, because it seems like it could be such a symbol of resilience.

* I actually can't think of how best to translate this right now. It basically means a town hall, but as I just said, there's more than one. There's the central town hall for the city, and then there are several others that serve specific parts of the city. I don't know what to call that in English. Somebody help me out.
** On a related note, I have absolutely no idea what to do about bringing my friends souvenirs... because there are none in the conventional sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment