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One more walk with Dad

Memories wash over the rocky shores of Brittany, and for a moment, anyway, the man who inspired the explorer in me stands by my side.

By EDWARD D. WEBSTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


MOELAN SUR MER, France -- Like the 10-year-old I had been 40 years ago, I clambered over rocks by the crashing surf (albeit much more carefully). I rounded bends in the trail to discover inlets from the sea and shipwrecks -- bare bones of fishing boats or complete hulls -- stranded in the silt, winches rusted, gaping holes in their sides. Awe filled me, as it might have when I was a boy.

I was hiking the Sentier Cotier, Brittany's Coastal Trail along the Atlantic. In a couple of hours I would return to our rented cottage, my wife, Marguerite, and our cat, Felicia, to enjoy dinner and a warm fire. The three of us, two people and a cat, were in the third month of a yearlong trip to Europe. But at this moment I was engrossed in exploration -- exploring Brittany, exploring my thoughts and feelings, exploring my past.

The trails of Brittany, preserved by a number of organizations, follow the entire coastline of this northwest province of France and snake inland as well, passing deserted mills and quarries, fortifications from both world wars, chunks and fragments and morsels of history.

One afternoon, I followed a twisting track along the edge of the land, amid golden gorse, honeysuckle and berry vines, pink-purple thistles -- all manner of wildflowers hugging close to the ground. To one side, rock cliffs dropped straight down to the sea. Clouds scudded overhead, a reminder of the morning storm. I advanced over rocks, settled on a level spot and felt the power, the magic of the rumbling sea. It washed away the tension at my core and allowed me to drift back to childhood.

Memories flooded me -- a trip to Bar Harbor, Me., and on to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It might have been 1957 or '58. Perhaps we had driven there in our family's '49 Buick. I remembered my father's avid desire to explore, my own thrill as my brother, John, and I jumped from rock to rock, stopping long enough to snap slides with my new Kodak.

I mirrored Dad's fascination, as he pointed out the transformations wrought by changing tides -- vast stretches of land exposed, then covered by water again within hours. We chased flying spumes of foam, marveled at sandstone formations cut apart from the land in New Brunswick. Dad climbed, ran and kept up as best he could.

Back in the present, the sun slipped out from behind a cloud, and I wished I had my camera with me, not left behind at our temporary home overlooking the port of Brigneau. Mounds of shimmering waves flashed from gray to green as they rode the wind into the sunlight.

After a while, I followed the trail back toward home, but I wasn't ready just yet, so I pursued a trickling stream into the forest. Here and there, sunlight penetrated between trees, shone on ivy and brilliant green moss that clung to the thick trunks. The calm of the lush forest, still wet from the morning rain, allowed my mind to ease.

* * *

Growing up in Connecticut in the 1950s, we had places to walk, open woodlands across the street, a forest down by the brook, trails for kids. But those lands were soon populated with schools and housing tracts to accommodate the baby boom. The Bretons seem to know better. They have set aside vast portions of their country for the public.

In my diary one day on that recent trip, I wrote:

"There's a section of the Sentier Cotier near our temporary home that I cannot walk without thinking of my father. . . . Along this stretch of the Brittany coast, jagged rocks reach far into the sea at low tide as they did in Nova Scotia. Tides here fall so far that boats are placed atop stilts in the harbor. . . . Breakers pound when storms are offshore, and the spirit of my father -- the spirit of adventurous joy by the sea -- enters me.

"I feel the deep churning of the ocean, stop and sit to admire and savor it. And my father is there in some elusive way. I talk to him. I thank him . . . for his patience with me, for his kindness, for the joy of nature he felt and passed on. Above all I miss him, miss his presence these 29 years since he died."

In a powerful way my dad's death was at the root of this year we were spending in Europe. That event, when I was 20, transformed my thinking about life. It weighed more heavily as time passed. The fact that there might not be a life after retirement made living freely for this year an all-important goal.

He would have loved Brittany, but he never came this way. And so I tracked different sections of the Sentier Cotier each day, looking through my eyes, seeing things for him.

From the harbor of Belon I followed the trail along a bay. Signs in both Breton (the ancient language imported from the British Isles) and French told me I was going in the direction of an allee couverte (covered alley). The path followed the inlet, every foot of its scalloped course.

I discovered more shipwrecks, and I trekked down onto the tidal flats to get a closer look. I examined their masts, their shattered wheelhouses, and I imagined them coming to this fate, cut loose by some angry storm and left to founder. "Observe," I could hear Dad saying, "the power of the tides."

Back on the path, I reached the turnoff for allee couverte and walked uphill for a couple of hundred meters. There in the middle of a farmer's field, I found it -- a long double row of standing gray boulders capped by flat slabs to form the covered alley. This megalith had been set here at some unknown time in antiquity, for unremembered purpose. A tree now grew bushy and tall straight from its heart.

I sat atop a weathered stone, ran my fingers over lichens. Wind rustled the leaves overhead. Tears tracked down my cheeks. "Be here with me, Dad," I said. "It's my turn to reveal history to you. Feel the majesty of this place. Imagine the people who built it."

I strolled back along the trail, visited a 16th century chapel. Its crude Christ on the cross -- made from the same rock as the megalith -- had lost all features to water, wind and time. Yet it expressed a deep humanity. I felt kinship for the builders of all these crumbling monuments, their connection to the earth, the sea, their gods.

On other walks along the Sentier Cotier, I found wayside fountains and simple shrines, a small 17th century fort with its stepped granite roof, quaint harbors and lighthouses.

I climbed down often to the sea, to feel the pounding of the surf. I remembered again that trip to Bar Harbor and the man who loved exploring, the man who planted that love in me.

-- Edward D. Webster is a freelance writer living in Ojai, Calif.

If you go

mapPhone calls to France are preceded by 011-33.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: In France, call the Moelan Tourist Office, 02 98 39 67 28; there, Madame Audren is a wonder who found us a house to rent by the sea, a dentist, markets.

STAYING THERE: Madame Audren at the tourist office has a long list of private homes, in addition to hotels and manors in the area. For instance, there is the Chambre d'Hote of Mr. and Mme. Audren in St. Cado, near Moelan; follow the signs to the St. Cado church. The rate is about 250 francs (about $38) per night. Call 02 98 39 67 24.

For a three-bedroom house overlooking the sea on a grand section of coast, within walking distance of the port of Brigneau, call Mr. and Mme. Jegouzo (02 97 60 97 31), and be prepared to speak French. (They can also set you up with a handsome, 300-year-old, farmhouse inland near Remungol, $300 to $400 per week in shoulder season.

Mr. and Mrs. Williams operate an inviting chambre d'hote (bed and breakfast) in Trenogoat, which is part of Moelan. Mrs. Williams is wonderful company and will do anything to help you, even if you don't stay at her establishment. Call 02 98 39 62 82; fax: 02 98 39 78 09.

EATING THERE: All of the following have excellent seafood with two-course, three-course and four-course fixed price menus, usually for less than 100 francs (about $15): Le Ponthouar, between Moelan Sur Mer and Kerfany beach; the Patio, Moelan Sur Mer; Le Neptune Restaurant, Brigneau.

For an authentic seafood experience, make reservations for cotriade (fish stew) at La Cabane; come very hungry.

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