Whenever I visit Brittany, I always tend to look south of the map. The sirens of Southern Finistère are difficult to ignore. Please! Don’t get me started on that long sandy beach found in La Torche, I had so much fun surfing there!
But it would be unfair to completely overlook Finistère’s northern coast. Probably less touristy than its Southern sister, it is certainly not without charms. And the Bay of Morlaix has a few hidden up its sleeve.
The Bay of Morlaix has a loooong history that can be traced back as far as the 5th Millenium BC. And a rich past - I mean literally rich - that attracted at times unwanted attention from across the Channel. Morlaix would pay dearly for that.
Every time I research about the Bay, more evocative nuggets of the past emerge. The historic Bay of Morlaix has stirred my curiosity since the day I visited the fortress that guards its entrance and still I keep coming back to its shores.
If you are ready to get behind the wheel, I devised a list of things you shouldn’t miss if you visit the Bay of Morlaix in Brittany, France.
What To See In The Bay Of Morlaix
The Cairn of Barnenez | As Old As The Bay Of Morlaix Gets
Want to see something older than the pyramids of Egypt? I repeat: OLDER than the pyramids! The Cairn of Barnenez is a megalithic monument dating back from 4,500 BC and considered one of the oldest man-made structures in the world. Terrific! Well, it is to me.
The thing is, the monument is not as conspicuous in the landscape as the pyramids in the desert. So you might want to take your GPS with you. The Cairn of Barnenez is located on the quiet Kernéléhen peninsula on the East coast of the Bay of Morlaix, 6 km outside the town of Plouezoc’h.
The construction is a gigantic mound of dry stones with 11 burial chambers inside, each accessible by a narrow passage (but closed to the public for safety reason). Enigmatic symbols on the walls are still to be deciphered today. The site was used as a quarry (eyes rolling) before it could be saved from further destruction. Some of the chambers are therefore exposed. At least it allows the visitor to see inside the mound.
The reason why the people who lived there millenia ago chose this location to build such a humongous structure is a mystery. But I couldn’t help myself looking for clues in the landscape as I was sitting there, on a bench, admiring the soothing view over the Bay of Morlaix. Maybe that was it, the inherent calming quality of the place is perhaps what made it the perfect location for a mausoleum.
CAIRN OF BARNENEZ
Address: Barnenez, Plouezoc'h
Tip: Guided tours available in French only at specific times during the day. Documentation available in English.
The Viaduct of Morlaix | Admire The Old Town From Above
This is the one thing that you can’t miss even when afflicted with a hangover and a pair of shades hanging at the tip of your nose. As it spans over the town, it takes all the space in front you when you reach the historic centre of Morlaix. I’m talking about the viaduct, a symbol of the town.
The 292 meter long bridge was built during the 19th century and is still in use today. If you decide to take the train for Paris, you’ll enjoy the best view over the town, 62 meters above the ground!
You don’t have to get yourself a train ticket to admire Morlaix from above though. At about 13 meters high, the first level of the bridge is accessible to pedestrians. But you have to earn it! Look for the narrow and (very) steep streets under the bridge and start walking up. Don’t worry, it is only a 15 minute climb and the view is well worth every drop of sweat!
VIADUCT OF MORLAIX
Address: Old Town, Morlaix
Tip: Access through a gate which might not be open late in the evening. Preferable to go up there during the day if you don’t want to find the gate closed.
Maisons à Pondalez | Morlaix’s Unique Architectural Treasure
After climbing up the viaduct, you will need to stick in Morlaix a little bit longer. You simply cannot (once again, CANNOT) leave the town without seeing them. What am I talking about? I am referring to the unique “maisons à pondalez” or overhanging houses. This treasure of architecture can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
A “maison à pondalez” is a three storey half-timbered town house built in the 16th century by the rich linen merchants of Morlaix. The houses were built on the same pattern around a central courtyard where a massive fireplace heated the whole house. A central winding wooden staircase connected indoor walkways at each level.
Unfortunately lots of these centuries-old houses have been destroyed, a real loss for Morlaix. The best ones remain in Grand Rue, a street now filled with busy boutiques and cafés. The houses and their crooked timber frames are a real challenge for the photographer, you never seems to find the right angle!
One of them is called “Maison de la Duchesse Anne” (Duchess Anne’s House). It has been saved and opened to the public in Rue du Mur. For only 2 euros, you get to step into 16th century Morlaix. The dark wooden staircase is the masterpiece of the house. It was built around a 11 meter long timber carved with images of Saints guiding the visitor’s eye all the way to the top floor.
DUCHESS ANNE'S HOUSE
Address: Rue du Mur, Morlaix
Tip: Open from May to September only.
Château du Taureau | Unwavering Sentinel of the Bay of Morlaix
Ready for a treat? The Château du Taureau is a real adventure. Built on an isolated rock in the middle of the Bay of Morlaix, the fortress is one of those unconventional places that captures your imagination the minute it appears on the skyline.
The fortress was built in the 16th century by the people of Morlaix. In 1522 the city was plundered by the English, attracted by the wealth of its merchants (told you money got Morlaix into troubles…). A fort was built in the middle of the bay to increase the safety of Morlaix.
Under the direction of Vauban, Commissioner General of Defence of the King of France Louis XIV, the fortress was remodelled and grew in size and height during the 17th century. The bulky, oval-shaped fort that opens its doors to visitors today was finalised in 1745.
Eclectic use of the place was made along the centuries. From impregnable military fortress to damp prison, from holiday home with unbeatable sea-view for the adventurous or just plain eccentric, to renowned sailing school, the tour is not short of exciting and hard-to-believe-but-true-I-swear anecdotes to bring home.
The tour departs from the pier in Carantec and booking in advance is highly recommended if you want to get on the boat! The visit is run in French only so make sure to get a free copy of the very informative bilingual visitor’s guide if you’re not on the best terms with the language of Molière. An mp3 audio guide in English free to download on your phone is available from their website. As you roam freely inside the fortress you’ll find additional information boards in English in every room.
CHATEAU DU TAUREAU
Address: Departure from Kelenn beach in Carantec where you’ll find a ticket desk. Tickets also available from Tourist Office Centres and online.
Tip: Check online for the next visits as they are dictated by the tide timetable.
Saint-Pol-de-Léon Cathedral | Architectural Gem of the Bay of Morlaix
“What is a cathedral doing in this little town?” I wondered. Well, what looks like a typical market town used to be the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Pol-de-Léon until the 19th century. So the cathedral is actually a former cathedral. Oops, it got demoted...
Built, rebuilt and embellished from the 13th to the 16th century, the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Paul Aurelian, a Welsh monk that came to Brittany in the 6th century and defeated a dragon terrorising the people of the Ile de Batz (so the story goes). He became the first bishop of St-Pol-de-Léon.
The cathedral is a brilliant architectural achievement that deserves a stopover if you are driving along the Bay of Morlaix. The structure boasts many unusual and elegant features, starting with its two dissymmetric spires towering 55 meters above the town and the 66 artistically carved oak stalls from the 16th century. Lots of polishing required, I reckon.
Inside the cathedral the spectacular size of the rose window and the 2118 pipes of the 17th century organ are especially eye-catchy. A Roman sarcophagus, numerous relics and a baptistery elegantly carved in wood are among the cathedral’s treasures for you to admire.
Address: Rue du 4 août 1944, Saint-Pol-de-Léon
Tip: Open all day so just push the door!
Garden Georges Delaselle | The Ile de Batz’s Botanical Oasis
I wrote in more detail about the Ile de Batz, a small island off the coast of Roscoff on the edge of the Bay of Morlaix. The isle is a fantastic place to spend a day out away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Picture yourself lying on a sandy beach or enjoying the traditional crepe at a local restaurant’s terrace!
The visit would be incomplete though without a tour of the botanical garden Georges Delaselle. And this is non negotiable! The garden lays on the southeast of the island, just a short walk from the main (and only!) town.
The garden was created in 1897 and is an oasis of plants. More than 2,500 species from 5 continents are thriving in this little corner of the world thanks to an exceptional microclimate.
GARDEN GEORGES DELASELLE
Address: Ile de Batz
Tip: Open from April to October only. Don’t forget the map at the entrance or you might miss out on certains parts of the garden.
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