Secret history of buildings - March 2019

Jane Hanks discovers that Locronan, in Finistère, is much more than a perfectly preserved setting for filming historical dramas

Published Last updated

Brittany’s movie-set village with rich history of its own

Locronan, 17km north-west of Quimper in Finistère, has often been chosen as the backdrop to historical films because of its granite houses and buildings which have remained untouched since the 17th and 18th centuries.

It is extremely picturesque and attracts 600,000 visitors a year. But it is not just a pretty village, selling arts and crafts to tourists. It also has a rich history.

Julie Treussier who runs the tourist office, said the village is named after Saint-Ronan: “It is said he came from Ireland in the 7th century in a stone boat accompanied by angels to live a life closer to God. He set up a hermitage and it became an important site for pilgrims after his death.”

Numerous local legends are connected to him. In one, it is said he could transform himself into wild animals and as a wolf ate a local girl. At his trial, he proved the girl’s mother had killed her, led them to the grave and brought her back to life.

Nearby there is a “natural temple under the sky”, dating back to Celtic times with 12 stations representing the months of the year.

It is now the route of one of the biggest religious processions, called pardons in Brittany. La Grande Troménie takes place here every six years (next one: July 2019). Pilgrims walk in silence and wear the Breton costume specific to their villages. “It is seen as an important ceremony, where people are not there to dress up for the tourists, but to reinforce important links with their communities and their heritage,” said Mrs Treussier.

“The Arbre de Mai is a ceremony which has its beginnings in the druid cult and there is still a druid association based in the village,” Mrs Treussier said.

“On the first Sunday in May, a beech tree, which represents the rebirth of nature, is cut down in the main square and replaced with a new one, planted by the young villagers who have recently turned 18, to represent their awakening into adulthood.”

November 1 was the beginning of the Celtic year, when it was said there was communication between the dead and the living. The Pain des Morts, bread of the dead is still distributed at Locronan on the first Sunday in November.

In the 15th century, Anne de Bretagne gave Locronan the status of town. It was wealthy, making sails from locally grown hemp and flax into sails for the boats of France, Britain, Spain and Christopher Columbus.

It was bustling with weavers and merchants. The sea was just 5km away so exporting was easy and the townspeople were exempt from royal taxes.

Its prosperity continued into the 18th century, when competition from towns further north led the weavers to leave. Their numbers quickly dropped from 100 to 10 and Locronan gradually sank into poverty.

It was saved by its mayor, Charles Daniélou, in the first half of the 20th century. He was also a Minister in Parliament and used his influence to make sure that the buildings and houses were classified Monuments Historiques.

At that time privately owned houses were seldom classified. His foresight meant that the village has remained preserved up until today when there are now 800 inhabitants, who live side by side with the thousands of tourists who flock here to see one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.