Monday, March 19, 2012

Quimper ("No, dad, it's not pronounced 'KWIM-per'.")

Quimper is the capital of the department of Finistère, and it's in the middle of Cornouaille, the area that includes the third peninsula south of the one Brest is on. I think I have that right. In any case, it's significantly smaller than Brest despite being the capital, but it's also significantly prettier. Allegedly, it's one of the cities in Brittany (along with Rennes) where the medieval architecture is best preserved. There are pretty significant sections of the old city walls still intact, including a tower, and inside them much of the city centre is twisty narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned and pedestrian-only, lined with half-timbered houses of all sizes and colors and degrees of decoration. The cathedral looms over everything, and is surrounded by a wide plaza that just accentuates its bulk.

One of my favorite things in Quimper is the monastery-turned-public-library. (One of my other favorite things, less historical, is the guy who hangs out near the cathedral with two tiny fuzzy horses and charges a few euros for pony rides. In the middle of the downtown.)

There are less-old things also worth looking at: the nineteenth-century theatre is a beautiful building, as are some of the various government buildings, and all of the above are along a small canal criss-crossed by little bridges every few yards. There are also some lovely gardens, including one sort of hidden away behind the theatre and one next to the wall with the tower that dates originally from the Middle Ages. Part of it still has its original layout, but more interestingly, it's full of subtropical and Mediterranean plants. Something about the climate of Brittany means that there are places where you can grow things that by all rights should not thrive in northwestern Europe, and from what I've seen Brittany is extremely proud of this fact. There are palm trees in all sorts of unexpected places, and gardens like this one devoted to hot-climate plants just because they can be. It's a little weird, but I guess it's also pretty cool.

I had been through Quimper a couple of times earlier this year to make bus or train connections, but I hadn't gotten around to really visiting it until the holiday last month, when I went twice.* Twice because there are two museums in Quimper: an art museum with a very good reputation and the departmental museum for Finistère. I did the latter first. It's right next to the cathedral, and it would be awesome even without being a museum. The building used to be the bishops' residence, and it's in three parts, a sort of tower house dating from the 15th or 16th century (I forget), the 16th or 17th century (depending on which the first one is) wing that attaches the oldest part to the cathedral, and the 18th century section that runs along the canal perpendicular to the rest of the building. Since it's L-shaped, and the cathedral is on the side opposite the canal, there's a nice courtyard, partly paved and partly a garden, with the remaining open sides closed in by walls. The entrance to the museum is inside the courtyard, and there are an assortment of sculptures scattered around the courtyard including a megalith, a row of grave markers, and a large cross, among others, that were all rescued from other places in Finistère.

The museum itself is mostly about the history of the area, specifically of Cornouaille but also the rest of Finistère. It begins with prehistoric and Roman-period artifacts, then moves on to medieval art, including a couple of awesome effigy tombs salvaged from ruined churches.

Upstairs are exhibits about the culture of the region in the last few centuries, which is where the focus really narrows to Cornouaille and other parts of southern Finistère more so than the area around Brest and the northern coast. This is particularly true of the costume exhibit, which was fascinating nonetheless. There is also furniture and pottery (for which Quimper is famous; you can also visit an important pottery factory/workshop elsewhere in the city). I continue to be amazed both by the distinctiveness of Breton material culture and by its consistency. Though there are a lot of subdivisions within Brittany that are accompanied by slight variations in, for example, traditional dress, which seems almost to have been different in every village, the broad similarities are always there.

I liked the Musée des Beaux Arts, too. It's quite big for a small city, and although it doesn't have a lot that's hugely famous, it does have a lot, and some of it is by very famous artists even if the piece itself isn't well-known. In particular, the museum has a big collection of paintings that are of places and people in Brittany, or by Breton painters, or both. They have a lot of stuff from the Pont-Aven school and after, but also a lot of works in more realistic styles and even some more modern art related to Brittany. One of the highlights, as well as one of the most famous pieces (at least within Brittany) is a painting of the king of Ys and some saint escaping the flood.** Anyway, it's really cool to walk through a gallery and recognize places in the paintings! It's happened to me before, but not usually so many at once. The day I was there, in fact, I had just been hiking the day before in the vicinity of a place that was featured in several paintings in that wing, and I was really pleased that I did things in that order so I knew firsthand what I was looking at. It's also really interesting just to see how much the region has changed over the course of the last century, in terms of culture as well as landscape.

Anyway, they also have other French art, including a Rodin sculpture, and also some Spanish and Italian and Dutch art. Lots of nice things. Also some less nice things, like some weird nature paintings of creepy-crawly things and a painting of Adam and Eve in which it was not immediately clear to me which figure was meant to be Eve. One of my personal favorites was the Italian painting of a half-naked woman grabbing her own [ample] breasts, titled "Abundance". I laughed out loud. (Because I'm a mature adult.)

Supposedly, it's allegorical.

Boobs aside, it's a good museum. I like Quimper a lot in general. I've sometimes wished we were there instead of Brest, because its prettier and also because it's slightly better positioned in terms of getting to other places. But it's also a lot smaller, and possibly less interesting for it. It's also not right on the coast.

It's a really, really nice place, though. Like a miniature, Western Rennes. Charming.

* The bus schedule, in combination with the museum hours, is too stupid for me to have done everything I wanted to in one day, and even if I'd had access to all my money at the time, I'd still have refused to pay five times as much to take the train.
** Ys is a mythological city that was swallowed up by the sea because of the Devil and a willful woman. It's basically the Breton Atlantis, with a healthy dose of Christianity and sexism and violence (like all good Celtic myths).

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