Of all the off-the-beaten-path places most Americans miss, few have so much to offer as Roscoff, a quaint port on the English Channel, in Bretagne (Brittany), northwest of France. Some US travel guides don’t even mention it, which is a shame: Roscoff has gorgeous views, great cuisine, rich history and a central location that invites you to explore Bretagne.
I had Roscoff on my radar, and decided to rent a house there with my daughter Clara, in the winter of 2017; the idea was to enjoy the town without the famous crowds that arrive faithfully from England every summer. I had been warned that it would rain a lot, but I didn’t mind that.
Our house was on the waterfront and facing a small chapel – Saint Barbe – built in 1619 by Roscoff’s seamen, to ask protection on their voyages. From my window I could see the picturesque port, and the ferries departing to Plymouth, in England, at 113 miles across the Channel. Bretagne is surrounded by the sea on three sides, and ferries are a natural mode of transportation there. The regular service to England actually started in Roscoff, with a company called Brittany Ferries. Their first boat was a converted Israeli tank-carrier that left Roscoff for Plymouth in 1972, carrying loads of Breton cauliflowers and artichokes, main local products.
Roscoff was also the birthplace of Thalassotherapy in France. There’s a large institute in town, where they offer treatments for all sorts of conditions – from skin problems to stress – using seawater. The vast complex opened in 1899 and offers hot and cold pools, massage therapies and a line of products made with seaweed. My favorite ‘treatment’ turned out to be sitting in the pool under a waterfall of warm water that made my headache disappear. From the same spot I could see quaint Ile de Batz, a small island across the port.
During the day Clara and I would explore destinations on my must-see list: Morlaix, Saint-Pol-de-Leon, and the mesmerizing les enclos paroissiaux (Parish close). In the evenings we would return to Roscoff before the local bakery closed, to get a fresh baguette for the next morning. With that important item guaranteed, we would head to one of the few restaurants open in the winter, to have delicious crepes (her) or seafood with the catch of the day (me). And all that without tourists!
It did rain a bit, but not enough to ruin our stay. In fact, on rainy days I would read or look out from my window to see the ships being tossed like small toys by the strong winds in the port. But the sun would usually come back at the end of the day, just in time for me to be delighted by the sunset behind Saint Barbe’s Chapel, a silent witness to Roscoff’s centuries-old love affair with the sea.