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Reading Between the Coastlines
Brittany, France
by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh is surprised to come upon a literally littoral bookshop on the shores of the Côte Sauvage in Brittany.

Brittany’s Côte Sauvage is wild and empty, with craggy cliffs and crashing waves. West of the village of Locquirec, the undercliff forms a dramatic grey cascade strewn with russet-coloured bracken and bright yellow gorse. Sheltered from the brisk wind by the wizened, wind-bent trees which overhang the path, we tramp past secluded coves of large pebbles which scrunch noisily with each encroaching wave. My daughter Amy and I have not seen a soul for three hours.

The last thing we expect to come upon is a crowded literary café.

Perched above a shingle beach, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Caplan & Co comes as a total surprise. The bookshop-cum-café is buzzing with bohemian and intellectual-looking customers. The walls are lined with highbrow volumes – Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, the complete works of Samuel Beckett. Above the bookcases are ancient wireless sets and other dusty curiosities, and the glass-topped tables display messages inscribed on eccentric objects, which have been posted to the café from afar. Challenging classical music plays as Amy and I sip hot chocolate from huge cups.

We still have a two-hour walk to our hotel, so we tear ourselves away from this incongruously esoteric scene and plod on, our shadows lengthening before us. Grey waves pound over scattered rocks as we follow the mossy path through tangled undergrowth. This beautiful stretch of coastline is a protected nature reserve, and we pass information placards written in both French and Breton. It is getting dark as we reach the first of Locquirec’s pale sandy beaches. The sea and sky become a blur of mauve and grey, and night falls as we round the Pointe du Château and reach the floodlit limes that line the beachfront gardens of Le Grand Hôtel des Bains.

The hotel was built in the late 19th-century but has been stylishly decorated by Dominique van Lier, its current owner, making it one of the few comfortable and elegant seaside hotels on France’s north coast. We are ravenous after our hike, and tuck eagerly into a dinner of delicious local fish. We survey our fellow diners, trying to spot distinguished members of the Académie Française, who, Monsieur van Lier confides, are regular visitors, treating the hotel as their seaside cupola.

That evening after dinner Amy and I borrow the DVD of L’Hôtel de la Plage, a hilariously dated film in which Le Grand Hôtel des Bains features as the eponymous location. According to the cover, the film’s themes are les loisirs, l’oiseveté et les rencontres amoureuses – leisure, idleness and amorous encounters. The hotel itself is barely recognisable, with tatty 1970s décor, red plastic furniture and queues in the corridor for communal bathrooms. But the avenue of pollarded limes and the hotel’s tower-shaped folly are instantly recognisable, the cliffs and beaches are unchanged, and the village church has the same impressive calvary and the same deafening bells.

As befits its name, Le Grand Hôtel des Bains has a marine spa offering some intriguing baignoires hydromassantes and enveloppements d’algues, and the next day Amy and I try them out. My treatment starts with a deep, bubbling bath sprinkled with essential oils to tone and (this sounds unlikely) slim. Fauré’s Requiem plays pianissimo from a CD player, and scented candles flicker. Next comes the seaweed body-wrap - slimy green gunge, hot from the microwave, is smeared over my body, and I am then mummified in cling-film. From within this claustrophobic bondage, I listen to several movements of Fauré, while the scalding seaweed detoxifies and remineralises. But worse is to come: la douche à jets. Standing naked in a white-tiled torture chamber, I am instructed to adopt awkward postures while the hitherto charming therapist blasts off the algae with icy water from a fireman’s hose. Finally, back between warm towels, I submit to a blissful back, face and scalp massage.

Feeling cleansed and exhausted by our programmes bien-être, Amy and I have lunch at the Brasserie à la Plage, on Locquirec’s sheltered quay - an informal restaurant with scrubbed tables and bare floorboards, and full of locals. The hotel chef cooks here too. I choose red onion soup – a speciality of Roscoff, just down the coast – followed by tender scallops. Amy eats Roscoff crab, and we wash it all down with local cider.

The tiny penisula of Locquirec lies between the rough Côte Sauvage and the gentler Côte de Granit Rose, and our hotel bedroom looks east, towards whitewashed villages nestling between low headlands of pink granite. We want to walk along that coastline. We also want to visit the cider orchards at Guimaëc or Plouégat-Guerrand, and the historic market town of Morlaix. But we have sunk into a happy stupor, induced by fresh air, seaweed and cider. We haven’t had any amorous encounters, but Locquirec is certainly a perfect place for les loisirs et l’oiseveté.

First published by the Telegraph

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