George East is a writer and humorist. His latest book about the culture, history, food and drink (especially the latter) of Brittany comes out this summer. He has kindly agreed to give our readers some sneak previews in the run-up to release. The previous excerpt explored the mythical Isle of Ys in the Bay of Douarnenez. This time we have moved on to Morlaix. Over to you George….
If the ancient town of Morlaix were a woman, I think she might be a sophisticated, elderly but still game former university lecturer in fine art. Madame Morlaix would have a very developed sense of style and presence. I imagine she would also have a bit of a past and a penchant for smoking the odd spliff.
A bit of geography
Morlaix sits at the end (or beginning, if you think that way), of an estuary opening on to the north west coast. It has an unusual and rather twee inland port. Once upon a time, the medieval quay allowed barges to pick up and discharge their cargoes for and from Paris. Nowadays, the old tobacco factory is a trendy business centre overlooking an even trendier marina. Posh yachts pass through the lock gates when the tide is right. They then make their way into the great bay named for the town. The Rade de Morlaix is dotted with islands bearing forts, exclusive homes and the tallest lighthouse in all France. Along the shorelines are thriving oyster farms and a number of interesting villages. Restaurants specialising unsurprisingly in food from the sea are dotted along some corking coastal paths and clifftop walks.
Back the other way, trains run over the soaring viaduct. It overlooks some near-perfect examples of unspoiled columbage (beam and plaster fronted) buildings around the old market square. From the town centre, cobbled lanes or venelles climb woozily and steeply up to the surrounding heights.
A bit of history
Morlaix got an early taste of booze-cruising Brits in 1552, when an English raiding party sacked the town. According to legend, the raiders gained entry by dressing the most attractive of their number as women. These talked their way through the gates, then managed to let the rest in. The guards were too busy admiring the seemingly comparatively hairless legs and underarms sported by English females!
Obviously already aware of the British attitude to and tolerance for strong drink, the surviving locals waited until the raiders drank themselves insensible. They then killed them all. This encounter is said to be the origin of the town’s motto: Bite Us and we Bite Back. In French, S’ils te mordent, mords-les.
A bit of entertainment
Nowadays, Morlaix is more welcoming to British visitors, and obviously a town very much at ease with itself. Its artiness rating is almost off the scale. An indication is the number of older men wearing carefully uncultivated beards, pony tails, voluminous overcoats and interesting hats. Many of the older women dress as artfully, but most eschew the beards. Morlaix also continues the peculiar Breton tradition of having more lookalikes to the square kilometre than any other French region. So far today we have been served coffee by Robbie Williams and bought a newspaper from Sacha Distel. We also spotted Jo Brand and Graham Norton petting heavily on a bench outside the public toilets.
It is a rare interlude when there are not several concerts, exhibitions, festivals and celebrations of the arts happening around Morlaix. Every Saturday, the town hosts what is acknowledged by many to be the biggest and best market in the department. A variety of artistic happenings and at least a couple of protests and demonstrations provide entertainment for market-goers. Last week, I sat on the terrace of a café in the square as a jazz band arrived by vintage charabanc. They were belting out a Gallicised version of Muskrat Ramble. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful young woman in a bridal costume and long veil appeared at the entrance to the Town Hall. She watched the band for a moment, then threw her bouquet at a startled passer-by. Just as suddenly, she picked up her skirts and ran off through the stalls. This being Morlaix and France, it could have been an artistic event or an act of pure and genuine impulse. Sadly, I will never know the reason for the lady’s getaway, or how the story ended.