Brest is the biggest town in Finistère and the second biggest military port in France but although we had visited Brittany three times we had never been to Brest. So we parked overlooking the harbour, on the edge of the city centre, and set off to explore, starting with a cup of coffee – and yes, I did enjoy every last crumb of that pastry filled with berries!
Brest was destroyed by fierce fighting in 1944 when it was retaken by the Allies and rebuilding after the war produced buildings which are somewhat ‘utilitarian’, even in the main street, the Rue de Siam.
We decided to only look at the harbour area and any historical remains in the old town. Brest is situated on either side of the River Penfeld and you look down on the river from the centre of the town. Brest started developing as a significant naval base during the 17C; it was used as a point of disembarcation by the Americans in WWI; and it became a German submarine base in WWII as part of ‘The Atlantic Wall’. The Pont de Recouvrance links the bottom of the Rue de Siam on the east bank with Recouvrance on the west bank and opened in 1954, replacing the bridge destroyed in 1944 during WWII.
Very little remains of ‘old’ Brest because the town was heavily bombed during WWII. The building of the Madeleine was founded in Recouvrance, on the west side of the river, in 1667 by nuns of St Thomas de Villeneuve as a ‘prison’ for prostitutes but it burned down in 1782 and was never rebuilt. The building below is adjacent to the site of the Madeleine and was also designed as a prison and built 1805-10. (Photos inside the prison here.)
Just under the walls of the Madeleine and the prison is the Rue St Malo, the oldest street remaining in Brest and dating to the 17C and 18C.
I probably didn’t do justice to Brest and if I visited again I would linger in the harbour area, part of Brest at the mouth of the Penfeld River, overlooking the Rade de Brest. The river mouth is guarded with Vauban fortifications and below the battery wall on the west side of the river the Garden of the Explorers opened in 2002. The origins of this garden lie in the 17C when a medicinal garden was attached to the sailors’ hospital in this part of the city. Just round the corner is the Maison de la Fontaine, dating to the 18C. This was the site of a cemetery for those who died at sea and on the corner of the house is a Mediaeval crucifix, next to the Fountain (attached to the house).
From the wall above the Explorer’s Garden you can look across to the Château de Brest, established by the Romans and renovated and rebuilt through the centuries. In the 17C, when Richelieu decided to develop Brest as a military port. Various fortifications were built, to be completed by Vauban. The fortifications protect Brest, but also the entrance to the Élorn River on which Landerneau is situated, another important export harbour for the linen, canvas, and flax trades between the 16C and 19C. The importance of this site has, almost unbelieveably, been recognised since c.300,000 BC!
On the opposite bank to the Château the Tour de Tanguy, a Mediaeval tower whose history appears a little uncertain but it is clearly part of the defences of Brest.
The American WWI Naval Monument in Brest was originally built after WWI, but destroyed in WWII. Today’s Monument is a replica of the original, erected in 1954, and stands in a lovely garden overlooking the harbour, the Cours Dajot.
Old photographs of Brest Naval Base
Maison de la Fontaine
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