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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Sampling Roscoff

Written by Ben Lawson
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As one the first ports of call in French territory across the English Channel. Just how much does Roscoff speak for the aesthetic richness of France? I take a seasickness-enduring daytrip to find out.


I dash un-preparedly from the ferry terminal late at night, through a torrential downpour - a recurring theme of my travels. What’s left of my ticket is hurriedly scanned at the base of the ramp leading up to the MV Amorique; my destination – Roscoff, France.


Operated by Brittany Ferries, the MV Amorique serves the Plymouth-to-Roscoff route up to twice a day, along with its much grander sister ship, the Pont Aven. Taking advantage of a late online offer, I had booked one of the premium ‘club plus’ cabins the night before.  Boarding the ferry, it seems adequately equipped as I collect the cabin key – with various bars, restaurants and seating areas – although with my acutely nauseating affliction of sea-sickness, I’m not really here to judge the amenities.


However, the cabin is pleasant and spacious, with complimentary chocolates and drinks, with a large outside window - which I at least hoped would alleviate some of the sickness – and a coffin-esque but a well-appointed bathroom.


Clasping the railings in a perhaps mostly unfounded fear of being violently blown overboard by the still persistent showers, heavy winds and subsequent needle-like bombardment, I make my way to the top deck as the Amorique disembarks. Plymouth slowly vanishes into a generic and unrecognizable canvass of streetlights against the howling night sky.


A quick and welcome pint of beer, and with a realization that wherever I go aboard this ship I’m not going to sprout sea legs of any sort, I return to the plush cabin to get some sleep; 6:00am tomorrow – Roscoff.

Roscoff9


Roscoff1After a claustrophobic shower and miniscule breakfast, I peer outside to see the first sign of Roscoff in the emerging light of day, before making my way downstairs to disembark.


Although Roscoff might seem a little absent of noteworthy or exciting history, there are some points of interest that make it far more than a meager ‘wine-run’ destination -  sadly for ‘connoisseurs’ of cheap booze this trend fizzled out years ago. In terms of export however, it has remained a primary port for the distribution of uniquely pink onions, particularly the ‘Roscoff onion’ to Britain. In fact the globally stereotypical image of the stripy topped, bike riding ‘Onion Johnny’ - donning a beret - originated from Roscoff!


Even more astonishing is that my plush cabin back on board the Amorique originated from the Onion Johnny’s – Brittany Ferries was dreamed up and established by a group of them in the 1970s, as a modern continuation of the trade.




Of course we don’t see them anymore; at least not distributing by bike on our doorstep - but their legacy has resulted in the presence of an Onion Johnny museum, as well as a two day summer  'Fête de l'Oignon', in honor of the onion.


A little ravenous after the less than filling breakfast, a pleasant walk reveals the harbor. The original harbor was destroyed in 1375 by the Earl of Arundel during the Hundred Years’ War, and was subsequently rebuilt where it stands today.


Roscoff6Opposite, the architecture serves to establish that I’m in a harbor town – indeed a typically French harbor town. With its dated buildings of mixed periods: some clearly baroque and beyond, some perhaps even medieval, the town is lucky to have preserved an essence of France as a first impression to visitors.








Roscoff7Well worth battling ensuing winds, Roscoff’s very long pier has opportunities for great photos at the end. After a few quick snaps, I give in to the wind and search for something to eat. Beyond the harbor, it’s difficult to miss the ‘Notre Dame de Kroaz-batz’ – a beautiful renaissance era church, built over a long period between 1522 and 1545. Just beyond this - another fantastic building, the ‘Station Biologique de Roscoff’ built in 1872; an important marine research facility, and inherently French in its appearance.


Navigating narrow and inviting cobble streets, I am lured by scent alone into ‘Pause Café’. I challenge anybody to walk by such a French bakery without being drawn in. The first bite of the croissant I order reminds me of a thought I always have, post supermarket shop - why can a perfect French croissant never be found, or replicated, anywhere else. Divine.


Although out of courtesy I did make use of my limited French vocabulary, language barriers here, as with most of France, didn’t appear to be a problem with Roscovites – particularly evident here because of the intrinsic ties to Britain.


Roscoff8Pottering around the cobble streets further, I encounter a scattering of shops: contemporary art, gift shops; some more ‘touristy’ than others, and maritime paraphernalia.


Trying not to anticipate my nauseating trip home, just before my departure it’s time to indulge in a spot of lunch. ‘Marie Stuart Pizzeria Restaurant’ served up a fantastic, French style pizza in a very small but homely setting.


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I make my way along the residential road leading back to the ferry, before disembarking later in the afternoon. Again haunted by dreadful sea sickness, I reflect on my day trip to Roscoff – how much of a ‘serving’ of France did I get?


Roscoff has its fair share of tourist ventures – perhaps mainly anchored with the quickly dissipating days of the ‘wine-run’; whilst retaining its dignity and soul, both architecturally and through its people.


All one has to do is picture the ‘Onion Johnnies’ – the quintessential embodiment of French people the world over – to realize that Roscoff couldn’t be more French if it tried.


©Ben Lawson

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012