Saturday, 25 June 2011

Sampling Roscoff

As one of the first ports of call across the English Channel, just how much does Roscoff speak for the aesthetic richness of France? I take a seasickness-enduring daytrip to find out.

Roscoff: a gateway to France

Run down abandoned buildings, mainly industrial facilities at first glance, and, not much really to speak of. This is what I would probably surmise about the immediate area surrounding Plymouth ferry port - with a pinch of bias I might admit - if I were to answer the same question about my departure point.  I may have acquired that all too ready, eye-rolling sense of ‘home turf’ sarcasm from seven years of association with Plymouth.

In actual fact, Plymouth cannot be completely condemned by any stretch; it was heavily damaged during World War II, including the harbour area; but how it serves as a first-glance reveal of Plymouth - the South West, or even Britain itself - might be open to debate.

I dash un-preparedly from the ferry terminal late at night, through a torrential downpour - a recurring theme of my travels. What’s left of my ticket is hurriedly scanned at the base of the ramp leading up to the MV Amorique; my destination – Roscoff, France.

Operated by Brittany Ferries, the M.V Amorique serves the Plymouth to Roscoff route up to twice a day, along with its much grander sister ship, the Pont Aven. Taking advantage of a late online offer, I booked one of the premium ‘club plus’ cabins the night before.  Boarding the ferry, it seems adequately equipped as I collect the cabin key – with various bars, restaurants and seating areas – although with my acutely nauseating affliction of sea-sickness, I’m not really here to judge the amenities.

However, the cabin is pleasant and spacious, with complimentary chocolates and drinks, and a large outside window - which I at least hoped would alleviate some of the sickness – and a coffin-esque but a well-appointed bathroom.

'Club Plus' cabin

Clasping the railings in a perhaps mostly unfounded fear of being violently blown overboard by the still persistent showers, heavy winds and subsequent needle-like bombardment, I make my way to the top deck as the Amorique disembarks. Plymouth slowly vanishes into a generic and unrecognisable canvass of streetlights against the howling night sky.

A quick and welcome pint of beer, and with a realisation that wherever I go aboard this ship I’m not going to sprout sea legs of any sort, I return to the plush cabin to get some sleep; 6:00am tomorrow – Roscoff.
After a claustrophobically perilous shower and miniscule breakfast, I peer outside to see the first sign of Roscoff in the emerging light of day, before making my way downstairs to disembark.

Early morning disembarkation

Although Roscoff might seem a little absent of noteworthy, or altogether too exciting history, there are some points of interest that make it far more than a meagre ‘wine-run’ destination -  sadly for such blind ‘connoisseurs’ of cheap booze this trend fizzled out years ago. In terms of export however, it has remained a primary port for the distribution of uniquely pink onions, particularly the ‘Roscoff onion’, back to Britain. In fact the globally stereotypical image of the stripy topped, bike riding ‘Onion Johnny’ - donning a beret - originated from Roscoff!

Even more astonishing is that my plush cabin back on board the Amorique originated from the Onion Johnnys – Brittany Ferries was dreamed up and established by a group of them in the 1970s, as a modern continuation of the trade.

Of course we don’t see them anymore; at least not distributing by bike on our doorstep that’s for sure - but their legacy has resulted in the presence of an Onion Johnny museum in Roscoff, as well as a two day summer 'Fete de l'Oignon', in honour of the onion. 

A little ravenous after the less than filling breakfast, a pleasant walk prior to anywhere opening reveals the harbour. The original harbour was destroyed in 1375 by the Earl of Arundel , during the Hundred Years’ War, and was subsequently rebuilt where it stands today.

Opposite, the architecture serves to establish that I’m in a harbour town – indeed a typically French harbour town. With its dated buildings of mixed periods: some clearly baroque and beyond, some perhaps even medieval, the town is lucky to have preserved an essence of France as a first impression to visitors.

Beside Roscoff's harbour

Well worth battling ensuing winds for is Roscoff’s very long pier, with some opportunities for great photos at the end. After a few quick snaps, I give in to the wind in search of something to eat. Beyond the harbour, it’s difficult to miss the ‘Notre Dame de Kroaz-batz’ – a beautiful renaissance era church, built over a long period between 1522 and 1545. Just beyond this - another fantastic building, the ‘Station Biologique de Roscoff’ built in 1872; an important marine research facility, and inherently French in its appearance.

Roscoff pier

Navigating narrow and inviting cobble streets, I am lured by scent alone into ‘Pause CafĂ©’. I challenge anybody to walk by such a French bakery without being drawn in. The first bite of the croissant I order reminds me of a thought I always have, post supermarket shop - why can a perfect French croissant never be found, or replicated, anywhere else.  Divine.

Although out of courtesy I did make use of my limited French vocabulary, language barriers here, as with most of France, didn’t appear to be a problem with Roscovites – particularly evident here because of the intrinsic ties to Britain.

Roscoff has a mix of architecture

Pottering around the cobble streets further, I encounter a scattering of shops: contemporary art, gift shops; some more ‘touristy’ than others, and maritime paraphernalia.

A handful of inevitable tourist ventures

Trying not to anticipate my nauseating trip home, just before my departure it’s time to indulge in a spot of lunch. ‘Marie Stuart Pizzeria Restaurant’ served up a fantastic, French style pizza in a very small but homely setting.

I make my way along the residential road leading back to the ferry, before disembarking later in the afternoon. Again haunted by dreadful sea sickness, I reflect on my daytrip to Roscoff – how much of a ‘serving’ of France did I get?

Roscoff has its fair share of tourist ventures – perhaps mainly anchored with the quickly dissipating days of the ‘wine-run’; but whilst retaining its dignity and soul, both architecturally and through its people.

All one has to do is picture the ‘Onion Johnnies’ – the quintessential embodiment of French people the world over – to realise that Roscoff couldn’t be more French if it tried.

Looking out from the pier

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