Call of the wild
The raging sea is a powerful lure to this craggy isle
BELLE-ÎLE-EN-MER, France - Alone on a cliff above the ocean, a low pine is so bent by wind, its seaward edge no longer holds needles. Rising hundreds of feet to the low-swelling plains, the cliffs that surround this island off the Brittany coast have the look of gnarled, petrified wood - twisted strata of schist and quartz that embody a defiant, frozen history of the angry sea.
"We live and work in the part of the world where the sea meets the land," says Patrick Tanguy, a former resident who returns to the cliffs dozens of times a year to fish for gooseneck barnacles, stubby mollusks that look like dinosaur toes at the end of a rubbery black neck.
Tanguy likes to fish on the Côte Sauvage - literally, the "wild side" - of Belle-Île, where the ocean crashes into the land in a magnificent explosion of sea spray. Wearing only a neoprene scuba suit, he scrapes barnacles from rocks at the point where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
This wildness is at the heart of what Belle-Île offers its 5,000 residents and thousands of their countrymen who regularly flock here to be soothed by its power. This is where, guided by nature, they come to grieve or heal, to be alone or fall in love.
Half hopping, half waddling between the rocks, Tanguy brings me down to take some photos of the barnacles on a "calm" day off. The water is a turquoise froth that rushes in from several angles at once. Apart from some hearty mussels, the barnacles are the only things that can hang onto the rocks in this thrashing surge. "A couple people died right here a couple years back," says Tanguy, whose wizened face resembles Gene Hackman's.
In the 35 years he has been doing this, "three or four" licensed fishermen (out of a group of only 47) have lost their lives. Tanguy has had three accidents in the last two years, including one that ripped a hole in his calf muscle and left him dangling upside down from a cliff with his foot pinned in the rocks.
Despite the danger, he couldn't imagine doing anything else. "We're in nature," he says, gesturing around him. "Doing this, we feel free. Everything is beautiful."
Along the Côte Sauvage and all around Belle-Île, there are no Jet Skis buzzing the beaches, no boardwalk to see and be seen on. This is not the place to come for a wild weekend with the gang.
"This is the anti-Saint Tropez," says Serge Albagnac, who has been preserving and promoting Belle-Île for 50 years.
"I came for a girl when I was 18, but by the time I moved here, we were done," he says, smiling at a far-off memory. Now, he's the president of the island's tourism bureau, conscious of the mix of locals, tourists, and nature needed to keep Belle-Île thriving.
Historically the area was a strategic military and fishing location until both industries eventually dried up and went elsewhere. Now, the majority of employment on the island revolves around visitors.
"A local might deplore the idea of the importance of the tourists who come here [particularly in the late July through August vacation season], but, very simply, the island is a mix of populations," Albagnac says.
And if there were no tourism?
"It would be catastrophic," he says. "Fishing and farming couldn't hold - everyone depends on it."
Albagnac is also very aware of the number of French seaside towns that have been swamped by development. "Concrete," he muses, "isn't very pretty."
Much of the coast is now off-limits to development, preserving hundreds of miles of walking paths and seaside wilderness. There's an abundance of old convertibles - especially Citröen 2CVs and Méharis - which, despite their age, are still the cars best-suited for the island.
As I explore Belle-Île on foot and by bicycle, the absence of concrete is a blessing. There's a purity, particularly of light and smell, that jostles memories and invokes calm, leaving little wonder why Monet, Matisse, and scores of other Impressionists began setting up camp here in the late 1800s.
Riding my bike late one afternoon, I crest a hill and, surrounded by fields and hay bales with the sea in the distance and the sun setting beyond it, everything else drops away. For a brief, blissful instant, life is as it should be.
It gets better: I'm on my way to dinner.
"About 75 percent of what we use here is local," says chef Pacôme Epron at La Table de La Desirade. Most of the restaurant's fish, meat, and vegetables come from island producers. Other items, he forages for himself.
"To like it here, you've got to like nature," Epron says. "Every afternoon, I'll go fishing or out picking wild produce. Right now, we're out picking mushrooms; we've got death trumpets and chanterelles, and soon we'll have cèpes. We've got 300 kinds of mushrooms here."
Epron denies having a signature dish, preferring the mantra "que du frais, que du frais, que du frais!" (Only fresh!) and rolling with the seasons and product availability. It creates dishes that play with taste, texture, volume, and simplicity.
One of his best dishes combines layers of cockles and zucchini between thin layers of potato rosettes. It's all drizzled with a foie gras-infused meat jus. Purists might call the combination of meat and shellfish heresy, but the jus transforms the dish from delicate seafood to something almost carnal.
As opposed to the manicured mainland, which islanders refer to as "Le Continent" or just "the Other Side," the overriding sense here is this link to the primal, the wild - not comfortable but comforting - that lures people and keeps them coming back.
"It gets in your blood. It's a virus," says Didier Lemoine, who began coming to Belle-Île when his father got a job designing diving suits for Jacques Cousteau and his team here 50 years ago.
"I was 8 years old and told my father that I'd own a place here one day," Lemoine says on the deck of his home in the hamlet of Nanscol, "and I started coming by myself when I was 15."
Though Lemoine, who has lived around the world, held high-level jobs with the European Commission and is now on development committees for new airports in Rennes and Nantes, his passion has always been for Belle-Île.
"As soon as I could, I always came back," he says.
"There's history, gastronomy, flora and fauna, geology, architecture - what more could you want?" he asks. "It comes little by little, but if you know how to observe, you love it. If we pay attention to nature, she's extremely generous."
Back on the rocks with Tanguy, this generosity, this connection to land and sea, to the "sauvage" is as intense as the sun's reflection off the water.
"Those who talk about beauty are the ones who miss it," says Tanguy. "We don't talk about it because we live it."
Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.