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Brittany’s phares are more than coastal highlights

Brittany has the world’s greatest concentration of lighthouses, with 27 classed as historic monuments. Most are in Finistère and eight are open to the public.

Tourism official Patricia Hamon from Brest Terres Océanes said each had its own story as the architecture is surprisingly varied. Even though built under extreme conditions for utilitarian purposes, aesthetics and fine detail still had a place.

The world’s first lighthouse is said to have been built by the Egyptians in 300BC on the Isle of Pharos, hence the name for lighthouse in French, phare.

Today, Brittany’s oldest existing light is the Phare du Stiff on Ile d’Ouessant which began working in 1700 when boats carrying Louis XIV’s soldiers to war left Brest by boat and needed guiding out to sea.

But as early as the 13th century monks at the Pointe Saint-Mathieu on the westernmost point of mainland France near Brest lit fires to guide sailors.

There is still a lighthouse there today and it is exceptional for its position, next to the ruins of a Benedictine abbey.

Legend has it that the relics of Saint Matthew were miraculously saved in a shipwreck off the headland and in the 6th century a mon­astery was built for them.

It was from here, around 1250, that the monks started lighting a lantern at the top of a 40m tower to guide sailors.

The monastery was deserted after the Revolution but you can still walk in the ruins of its 16th century church. Today’s lighthouse dates from 1835.

Most of today’s lighthouses were built in the 19th century, when the introduction of faster steamships meant shipping companies wanted permanent, easier access to ports. The state launched a construction programme and hydrographer and cartographer Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré worked out the best sites, requiring a detailed knowledge of local currents.

Engineer Léon Bourdelle was in charge of building them and he invented ingenious systems for taking men and material to the sites.

Different architects were responsible for the solidity of the buildings and also of their appearance as the practical aspect was not the only consideration in their construction. 

Some were given extra funds from private benefactors, which meant they could have surprisingly lavish interiors.

One of these is the octagonal Phare d’Eckmühl on the Penmarc’h headland which was finished in 1897.

It set a precedent for elegance and was financed by a 300,000 franc legacy from the Marquise de Blocqueville, and named for her father, dubbed Prince of Eckmühl by Napoleon in rocognition of victory in battle. She wanted it built to last: “The tears spilt due to the losses in war, that I dread more than anything, will be repaid by the lives saved from storms.”

It uses granite-like Kersantite stone, quarried south of Brest, and the interior is covered in costly opaline tiles which were manufactured locally from crushed sheep bones and glass. They gave insulation and avoided condensation. 

Marble is used for the platform and the locks and metalwork, including the stair rail, are made of bronze. The main hall has wood panelling and there is a bronze statue of Prince d’Eckmühl. 

The 82m Phare de l’île Vierge, at Plou­guer­neau is the world’s highest stone lighthouse and was built shortly after Eckmühl.

It is 1.4km out to sea and can be visited by boat and Ms Hamon said it was well worth the trip: “Inside it is fabulous. It is hollow with the 365 steps of the stone staircase spiralling upwards and as you climb you see down to the bottom.

“It is decorated with 12,500 opaline tiles, which produce a wonderful azure and green colour. The view from the top over sea and land is spectacular.”

The small Ile d’Ouessant has five lighthouses on and around it; Nividic, Jument, Kéréon, Stiff and Créac’h.

One of the most beautiful is Kéréon but sadly, it cannot be visited as it is on an isolated rock. Its spiral staircase is decorated with mosaic. Wood lines the living quarters and the fifth-floor salle d’honneur has particularly fine decoration with stars and lighthouses carved in relief on oak.

Built in 1916, it was planned as an unmanned concrete tower but a 585,000 franc gift from a benefactor, Mme Le Baudry, saw it replaced by an inhabited lighthouse, the last built in the open sea – or Hell, as lighthouse keepers call it.

They classed the lights in three groups: those surrounded by water were in Hell, those on islands, Purgatory; and those on land, Paradise. Lighthouse keepers always started their career in Hell.

Kéréon was manned until 2004 and all lights are now fully automated, with keepers phased out from 1990 onwards.

The eight lighthouses open to the public in Finistère are Phare de l’île Vierge, Saint-Mathieu, Trézien, Stiff, Eckmühl, Goul­enez, Batz and Créac’h plus the Phares et Balises museum on Ouessant. There are plans to open a sister museum in Brest in the near future. North Finistère also has a Route des Phares.

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