George East is a writer and humorist. His latest book about the culture, history, and food and drink (especially the food and drink) of Brittany comes out this summer. He has kindly agreed to give our readers some sneak previews in the run-up to release. Today’s excerpt explores the mythical Isle of Ys in the Bay of Douarnenez. We then move on to Penmar’ch and the Isle of Tristan, both also in the département of Finistère. Over to you, George….
Isle of Ys
According to legend, a mysterious place lies somewhere beneath the waves in the bay of Douarnenez. Its history holds nearly as much drama, sex and misery as a TV soap in desperate search of ratings.
The island city of Ys has several great stories associated with it. The most common and popular claims it was built for the princess Dahut by her father Gradlon. Gradlon was king of the Cornouaille region.
As well as suffering from a shortage of vowels, the island was below sea level and protected by a gated dike. The king held the only key to the city. Ys was to become the most impressive and beautiful city in the world. However, it was also a byword for sin and corruption. Dahut was a bit of a ladette. She had a penchant for organizing orgies, then killing her lovers when day broke. One fateful evening, a knight dressed in red arrived and Dahut invited him to join in the fun. During the night, he suggested that she steal the key from her sleeping father. She did, and the Devil (for it was of course he) threw open the gates and allowed the sea to swallow Ys. Enraged, the king threw Dahut into the oncoming torrent. She became a mermaid, doomed to swim the lonely seas for eternity. As with all drowned cities, on stormy nights you can hear the bells of the church at Ys ring dolefully out if you listen carefully. Sometimes you can even hear the mournful cries of the lonely mermaid.
Penmar’ch and the Isle of Tristan
You can find Penmarc’h just before the most south-westerly point turns the corner and becomes the south coast of Brittany. It dates back to before the 14th century, and owed its early prosperity to the fecund cod banks there. The discovery of the vast sea riches of Newfoundland brought about the decline of the town. The attentions of a single but truly ferocious bandit in the late 16th century also contributed to Penmar’ch downfall. The aggressor was an aristocratic thug known as The Wolf. He enjoyed sacking, looting and pillaging this part of Brittany, including the town of Pont-Croix, with the aid of his gang of four hundred followers. After having his way with Penmarc’h in 1595, The Wolf moved on to the isle of Tristan near Douarnenez. He set up his HQ there. In the process, he forced the inhabitants to destroy their own home and killed 1,500 protesters in a single day. His vast hoard of booty was said to be secreted on the isle, and may still be there.
Altogether a very interesting part of the region. Certainly well worth visiting with bucket and spade if you fancy having a look for the Lost Treasure of Tristan.