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A charming port of call Roscoff

Making "economy" rhyme with "beauty"

Roscoff is a surprise. Beyond its privateering history, this harbour town in the Land of Léon never fails to seduce visitors with its energy and multiple personalities linking the present to the past, the sea to the land, and science to tourism.

As you near Saint-Pol de Léon, there are clues that Roscoff is not far off. There’s a little more traffic - a mixture of cars and tractors, delivery trucks and lorries making their way towards the quayside and the port, as well as British holiday-makers who’ll be crossing with Brittany Ferries that same evening, heading home. In the fields, farmers are gathering their famous Pink Onions of Roscoff. It’s this blend of activities with layer upon layer of different eras that makes the Roscoff we know today.

Roscoff’s economic activity is not just a happy accident. Located at the entrance of Morlaix Bay and at the edge of a rich agricultural area, the town enjoys an exceptional position on the Channel. This explains how locals as far back as the late Middle Ages began a maritime trade that transformed the fishing village of Rosko goz into a shipping port and tourist resort that is famous throughout Europe.

These days, it’s lovely to simply stroll along the old quayside and watch the buzz of activity from afar. The pavement cafés and the sightseers. People waiting for the next boat to the Île de Batz that’s two kilometres across the water. Close by the port are the famous dwellings where Mary Queen of Scots is said to have stayed. Close your eyes and you can imagine these waters filled with sailing ships. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, Roscoff locals sailed back and forth to southern Europe, trading in canvas. Business was booming, and shipowners became linen merchants and salt traders. In a short space of time, they amassed considerable fortunes and beautified their town with houses and buildings richly decorated with turrets, spiral staircases, sculpted dormer windows, gargoyles and other adornments. At the end of the landing stage, where you take the boat to the Île de Batz at low tide, you can really appreciate this seafront, encircled by monumental houses and indestructible walls. Several narrow passageways lead from the shore to the town centre, like a hyphen connecting the outside to within, the luminosity of the seascapes to the enclosed shelter of old granite. Along any of these passageways you can make your way to the historic centre.

The Notre-Dame-de-Croas-Batz Church has canons sculpted in the stone, proudly pointed towards England. Nearby, the Rue des Perles boasts some of the town’s oldest dwellings. Their cellars, visible on the surface, remind us of the era when this town was associated with smuggling.

Follow the Chemin de Roc’higou, and the seafront soon reappears. Here, the beaches of fine sand and the imposing 19th century villas show Roscoff’s role as a seaside resort.

An scientific legacy

Not far from here, along the Grève du Vil, there’s the Marine Biology Centre. Nicknamed the ‘Labo’ by the locals, this centre was established in 1872 by Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers, Professor of Zoology at the Sorbonne. Roscoff gave him an outstanding area for study: extreme tides, an extraordinarily rich site for seaweed, and an incredibly diverse wildlife. The ‘Labo’ is now a leading research centre, especially in the field of marine genomes.

Your path continues towards Laber, a vast coastal inlet that means you can walk from Rockroum to the wooded peninsula of Perharidy. On this strip of the coast, you can follow the traces of another scientific figure who found a thousand blessings in Roscoff’s mild climate and seawater, and who used it as the basis for a new type of treatment for sufferers of rheumatism: marine hydrotherapy. When Louis Bagot founded the Rockroum Institute in 1899, he became the pioneer of France’s Thalassotherapy Spa treatments. Since then, maritime pines have covered the coastal point like a protective screen, but the view over the Île de Batz as you follow the path around the peninsula is just as magnificent as ever.

In Roscoff, the legacy of the scholars, peasants, sailors and merchants of times gone by is well and truly alive.

Roscoff enjoys an exceptional setting at the crossroads of the English Channel and a rich vegetable-growing region. This explains its surprising destiny as a trade port as well as its incredible energy.

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