Brittany’s beautiful Atlantic coastline, with its rugged headlands and windswept islands, is a lighthouse-lover’s paradise. Due to the wild nature of these western shores, the Finistere and Morbihan departments account for a large proportion of France’s total 150 lighthouses. These evocative structures, built largely during the 19th century to keep shipping safe, serve as reminders of the country’s rich maritime past.

The formidable Ar Men

Originally equipped with revolutionary lenses, invented by Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel, each can be recognised by its unique beam of light and many have fascinating stories to tell – like that of the formidable Ar Men (‘the rock’). This daunting sentinel was built between 1867 and 1881 to warn shipping off the treacherous Chaussee de Sein, the rocky extension of Finistere’s Pointe du Raz which terminates in the Ile de Sein. Along with neighbouring La Vielle, Ar Men had a reputation among lighthouse-keepers (‘gardiens’) as being a harsh posting not least because of the difficulties involved in arrival and departure. To reach them, men and supplies had to be winched through the air from boat or (latterly) helicopter often in heavy seas.

The life of a lighthouse keeper

In his excellent films Il etait un Phare and La Lumiere et les Hommes, documentary-maker Thierry Marchadier captures the lonely, repetitive routines of the ‘gardiens’ before they finally ended – with automation – Ar Men in 1990, La Vielle, 1995. The last to lose its inhabitants (2004) was Kereon, lying south of windswept Ouessant (the island of Ushant, as the English know it). With its luxurious interior, Kereon was – and still is – a legend among lighthouses, guarding the notorious Passage de Fromveur (‘great current’).

End of an era

Many of these offshore giants are now automatically controlled from land-locked Cre’ach, whose distinctive black-and-white-stripes are visible from most parts of Ouessant. Inside, the Musee des Phares et Balises is of interest to lighthouse enthusiasts. Also open to the public is Eckmuhl (Penmarch, south Finistere) with its beautiful spiral staircase.

In the age of satellite navigation, tourism may prove the saviour of these monuments which, deprived of daily scrutiny by their human caretakers, are being reclaimed by the very elements responsible for their creation.

The official website of tourism in Brittany have created a Lighthouse Route to whet your appetite and help plan an itinerary.

Select Villas offer a range of villas around the coast of Brittany. Take a look at our portfolio here