Colourful Quimper is the oldest city in Brittany and many of its handsome medieval buildings remain intact. And it made for a pleasant stop on the tourist trail during a June holiday.
However, it’s never good to arrive in a city when it’s closed and Quimper had shut shop for the evening when we walked into town that first Sunday evening. Empty bars and zero atmosphere are not great ingredients for a night out and I felt deflated.
We’d arrived fresh and optimistic from our BA CityFlyer London City flight into the tiny local airport. From the back seat of the taxi to our hotel, we discovered a very pretty city within the confines of what remains of the old city walls.
I soon learned that this would not be a town to give you high blood pressure.
The capital of the Cornouaille region of Brittany (and the word is the French equivalent of the English Cornwall), Quimper is said to have been the destination of St Corentin, travelling with the first Bretons from across the sea in England around the 5th or 6th centuries. The twin-spired, much-restored 13th century cathedral that sits in the heart of the mainly pedestrianised old town is named after him.
It’s also the only cathedral that I’ve been in with such an extreme bend in the nave. Some say it was built this way to represent the position of Christ’s head on the cross. Others suggest the builders did it to avoid marshy land. Perhaps they were pissed on local wine at the time…
Quimper stands at the confluence of two rivers, the dinky Steir and the more impressive Odet. Pedestrian bridges, bedecked with flowers, spanned the water and more flowers decorated the quayside. Cobbled streets led off into the medieval heart of the city, where half-timbered buildings many centuries old gave the town such character. Occasional modern development on the river wasn’t as successful.
Still, one of the pleasures of Quimper was exploring, stopping off (regularly) in the cafes, bars and shops.
It was hilly. Tree-covered Mount Frugy dominates one side of the river – ‘mount’ being a very generous description for a modest hill. Opposite is one of Quimper’s pretty public gardens, Le Jardin de la Retraite, featuring a collection of palms and other Mediterranean plants.
We had hoped to take a boat trip down the Odet to Bénodet and the open sea but the weather was just a bit too drab.
Back in the city, we visited the Breton Museum in the delightful Bishop’s Palace. It has a large collection representing Brittany’s art, history and culture, including Roman remains, coins, paintings and sculpture. Some of it was rather dry, with the best display showing the development over the centuries of a typical Breton home and its furniture.
There was also a large collection of faïence, the decorated pottery for which Quimper is famous. Shops bulge with the modern stuff – quality and tacky. Graham bought himself a stylist modern plate.
So did this city ever get lively? Not when we were there – like many a holiday place in France it’s doubtless busy during school summer holidays but we found the bars and restaurants quiet. We enjoyed eating at Erwan and Chez Max and drinking at the lively Breton bar, Ceili, just opposite the Erwan and round the corner from the handy Best Western hotel that we stayed in.
Bizarrely, we discovered a quiet little gay bar complete with resident drag queen a few doors from the hotel – Le Look Cafe. All the drinks had the faint taste of bleach about them, which was a little off-putting, but there aren’t many small towns in Brittany where us gay boys would find ourselves such a home from home!