Road testing your own guide book can be quite spooky, especially in places you wrote about blind; that is to say, on the basis of exhaustive study of the secondary sources – other people’s work. Last week I finally got round to visiting Brittany, some thirty odd years after writing about it, and enjoyed my post scriptum research. In my days at Holiday Which? this sort of jaunt used to be known, rather grandly, as an Editorial Trip: an excuse for one’s superiors to swan around the countryside eating and drinking on expenses and writing the occasional note in the margin of one’s sweat and tear-stained typescript.
My Brittany tour was not really an editorial trip, because I was not travelling with my old book in hand, and long ago forgot what I wrote in it. I was there to look at hotels and did not even have the green Michelin, or any other guide, with me. But while driving along thinking grateful thoughts about Anne of Brittany whom we have to thank for the fact that all Breton motorways are toll free, a different thought intruded: since I had all day to drive from near Brest to near Nantes I might as well explore the back roads and take an interest in my surroundings.
So I took the first exit from the Anne of Brittany Memorial Expressway, pulled in to a lay-by, looked at the map and noticed that I was a few miles from a village with two stars beside it, indicating a mérite le détour point of interest: Lampaul-Guimiliau. A couple of miles beyond that, Guimiliau also has two stars, and there are two more of them at nearby St Thégonnec. The names rang a thirty year old bell, and I realised I had nearly driven blindly past the perfect opportunity for a Parish Close tour.
The Parish Close is a Breton spécialité du pays and unlike cider and crêpes it does not travel beyond its native region: an elaborate complex of church buildings involving a monumental gateway, a Calvary (more or less densely populated with sculptural figures) and an ossuary, as well as the graveyard and the church itself, which is also richly decorated with carvings.
On return I looked up my Brittany chapter to see how my description compared with the places I had just visited; and found a rather solemn undergraduate-style essay that described and attempted to explain the Parish Close phenomenon informatively enough, but without any feeling of immediacy: a sort of wikibrittany piece, betraying the fact that I had just finished a history of art degree and had spent too much research time reading books written in French. How else to explain a sentence such as: “the church is typically charged with wood carving”?
Now that I have been there, I can perhaps fill in a few of the gaps. In all three places the ossuaries were locked and the graveyards mostly empty of graves. In other ways they were quite different. At Lampaul-Guimiliau the aspect that impresses most is the painted decoration of the church interior – the font, the altarpieces, sculptures on the wall and a magnificent so-called Glory Beam which supports a Christ on the Cross over the central aisle, with a monstrous beast’s head at each end of the beam, spewing out a stream of lively carvings, as one finds in the margins of illuminated manuscripts.
These Breton churches are crammed with popular art that seems medieval in spirit, although most of it dates from the 17th century. One of the altarpieces has St Lawrence carrying his griddle, and the explanatory notes in the church have a cheerful variation on the theme of Christian martyrs bearing their suffering bravely. Lawrence, lying on his back on the grill as the flames consume him, sunny side up, says to his executioner: “turn me over – you know how the Emperor likes his meat well cooked.”
At Guimiliau the big thing is the Calvary, teeming with figures, many in 17th century modern dress, acting out familiar Bible stories in the most engaging fashion. This artist’s particular genius, I felt, is for design rather than characterisation.
St Thégonnec is an altogether more restrained affair and as it was raining quite hard by the time I got there and I was slightly worried about the deadline for lunch, I did not hang around. The church interior struck me as less interesting than the other two, but the carved figures on the Calvary were particularly good.
These three close neighbours near Morlaix kept me happily engrossed for an hour and a half. It is the sort of sightseeing I like best: free (although there are plenty of collecting boxes encouraging us to contribute to the maintenance effort), not too time-consuming, much easier to decipher than a stained glass window and requiring no great effort of imagination. I am hopeless at prehistoric standing stones, display cabinets full of rusty spoons, and fragmentary archaeological sites where the only clues are a few broken bits of wall, drainage channels and petrified cart ruts.
These are not the only good Parish Closes, but they make an easy tour, close to the motorway. I don’t think it matters in what order you see them. In the afternoon, start at St Thégonnec. Or finish there, if you doing your Parish Close tour at the end of the morning, as I was. Either way, have lunch at the Auberge St Thégonnec: a fishy plat du jour, perhaps, with a small carafe of Loire white.
After polishing off my lunch I asked the waitress if I could have a word with the owner and chef, M Mathieu Perroud. “Non, vous ne pouvez pas,” she replied firmly. “M Perroud est dans les desserts.” Quite right too. The Auberge St Thégonnec is a good address: make a note of it, in case you are ever passing.