Best Places to Visit in Brittany | A Day in Roscoff & the Ile de Batz
A deep water port in Roscoff has made Brittany in France more accessible than ever to tourists travelling by sea from the UK and Ireland. With its beautiful architecture and Breton restaurants, it would be a mistake to overlook this historic little town. Ferry boats in the Old Harbour offer daily crossing to a bucolic small island known as Ile de Batz, one of Brittany’s gems.
Freshly disembarked from the ferry linking Southeast Ireland to Brittany’s northern coast, I spent a day visiting the picturesque town of Roscoff and exploring the nearby charming and car-free Ile de Batz.
Roscoff: A Wealthy Past Preserved in Stone
I landed in Roscoff in the early hours of the morning after a night arguing with my stomach on whether or not to eat on a persistently swaying ferry from Ireland. I wanted to get to Finistère, Brittany’s westernmost region, but in the absence of direct flights from Ireland I embarked instead on an overnight sea journey with Brittany Ferries.
Woken up at 6am (5am Irish time, huh…) by the music of an harp unleashed in my closet-size cabin through the boat’s speakers, I was now wandering in sleepy Roscoff still bathed in the soft morning light.
I only had a couple of hours to spare before sailing to the Isle of Batz so I briskly reached Roscoff’s Old Harbour. The proud square-shaped lighthouse was watching over lonely fishing boats and two young backpackers who had swapped their bikes for a bench on the quay and tasty all-butter croissants.
I was starving too, I realised. My feet back on firm ground, my stomach seemed to have come to a decision at last. Time had come to investigate Roscoff’s early morning food scene.
Roscoff was waking up. A group of French tourists seen on the ferry earlier had taken over the entire terrasse of French bistro “Café Ty Pierre”. Sun-glasses on, they were resolute to both savour a cup of coffee and the open view over the historic harbour.
As I left the sea behind me I found myself in the main shopping district of Roscoff. Beautifully preserved historic stone houses were home to French restaurants and crêperies serving the famous Breton buckwheat crepes. My appetite was building…
Roscovites (as the inhabitants of Roscoff are known) were popping up from nowhere, but all heading on auto-pilot in the same direction: the bakeries. To my delight the sweet smell of pastries and French baguettes went straight to my head.
Pain au chocolat in hand and more in my bag (I’m such a sucker for pastries), I resumed my wandering in pretty Roscoff, chocolate melting in my mouth. I couldn’t have been more content, or so I thought.
At the end of the street was the heart of Roscoff. The gothic church of Our Lady of Croaz-Batz (no, I’m not sure how to pronounce that either) took me by surprise as I walked in admiration circling around it. Its elegant and airy bell tower reaching for the pale blue sky was an exquisite example of the French 16th century Renaissance architecture.
Built by shipowners and corsairs Roscoff thrived on trade throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They left behind romantic turrets and gargoyles with watchful eyes adorning the facade of picturesque granite houses, reminders of Roscoff’s wealthy past.
I could have spent hours rambling across the town looking for sign of the past but it was already late in the morning and the quay was filling up fast with families, hikers and couples eager to depart for the tranquil Ile de Batz. The next ferry for the popular destination was about to leave and I was joining the party!
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Ile de Batz: A Joy for the Senses
Tickets for the next crossing to the Ile de Batz on this bright morning had disappeared like snow under the sun. The passengers were now all seated aboard the ocean-blue ferry ready to roar its way to the isle. The journey would only take fifteen minutes and I strategically positioned myself at the back of the deck to enjoy the best view over the rugged coastline.
Our boat reached smoothly the isle and its only town. The passengers disembarked swiftly on the quay, their excitement barely contained. The long curving bay and its Caribbean-like water overlooked by the the town’s church could not have been more picturesque.
With a population of just 600 and the interdiction for visitors to bring their cars over, the almost complete absence of vehicles was striking as I walked along the town’s narrow and quiet streets. Only the murmurs of fellow visitors could be heard in the distance.
Heading towards the west shore my eyes only guided by the isle’s 19th century lighthouse so conspicuous in this treeless landscape, I couldn’t help but notice a strong scent of honey following my every step. In the cracks of stone walls behind whom private gardens were hiding the sweet alyssum, a white flower native of the Mediterranean region, was flourishing under the exceptional microclimate of the isle… and hijacking my air ways.
Soon I was at the lighthouse’s door. 198 steps later, 44 meters higher and 2 knees shaking, I was contemplating a breathtaking 360-degree view over the green island and the sharp coastline. If only I could have figured out where in the horizon Roscoff was… Hopeless me.
Retracing my steps back to town I stumbled upon (literally) “Ty Yann”, a traditional Breton crêperie. Its welcoming terrasse bathed in the midday sun was too tempting. Soon I was devouring a delicious savoury crepe “complète à la tomate” rightfully followed by a sweet one covered in melted chocolate (no judging please) and sprinkled with almonds, all washed down with a chilled and sweet Kir Breton. Santé!
With the sun not showing any signs of waning, the botanic garden Georges Delaselle created in 1897 on the southeast of the island offered a welcomed refreshing halt. I strolled among luxuriant palm trees, colourful and exuberant flowers never seen before, quirky cacti of all shapes and sizes. I was surrounded by more than 2 000 species of plants from all 5 continents thriving under the microclimate of the Ile de Batz.
The day was drawing to its end. Kids in their orange life jackets were pulling their sea kayaks back onto the pristine sandy beach nearby. One more picture of the 11th century Saint-Anne Chapel being inescapably swallowed by the sand and I headed back to the quay and the blue ferry. The time to end this delightful day on Brittany’s northern coast had regretfully come.