Down the Rabbit Hole; a Day in Belle-Ile

We first caught sight of our guide on the side of the road, which leads out of the village of the Port de Sauzon. As far as we could tell, he was in the middle of a territorial stoush with one of the other locals and eager to soak up some local drama, we watched and waited. Immobilized and hair bristling with a charge of energetic anticipation, these two played out their archetypal dance of war as if from script. One last arched back and whimpered reply led swiftly into a denouement of mutual retreat into their otherwise much more leisurely pursuits of hiking, hunting, sunbathing and swimming.

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It was our first morning on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany’s largest island and I realised the previous day, as we made the surprisingly rude ferry crossing from the sparkling town of Quiberon on the presqu-île (literally ‘almost island’), skies and sea take no formal heed of seasons. As our ferry pulled out from the dock, so did their promise of a summer’s day vanish into a vigorous swell, biting wind, with sun and blue skies teasingly, almost instantly, obscured by a wall of clouds. I had to remind myself that we could’ve chosen to holiday in the Mediterranean.

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Its rugged beauty has attracted many an artist, most notably Claude Monet, who created his series of rock formation paintings on its wild ‘Côte Sauvage’. Although more temperate than the mainland, it is often wild and windy. I get the impression that both locals and visitors learn to make the most of the unpredictable weather and seize the opportunities, when blustery winds decide to disperse the often dull, monochromatic palette of the coastline, which when the sun’s not shining, is broken up by the brightly-coloured strokes of yellows, reds, pinks and blues of window shutters, bobbing sailboats, thickly optimistic hydrangea bushes and facades of its old stone cottages that dot the landscape like dabs of an artist’s brush.

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Encouraged by clearing skies, we set off to discover the village of the Port of Sauzon. The simplicity of quieter travel destinations is often enchanting, with their pulse never as obvious as that of metropolitan hubs. You start off on a simple path but inevitably get drawn into the rabbit hole. It turned out that Blackie, a local character and guide extraordinaire would be our white rabbit.

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We had noticed him following us a little later but so were other tourists and even locals crossing our path and we assumed that he too, was getting on with his day. One local spotted and chastised him as one would a lovable but incorrigible child, but his “Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici? A la maison, tout de suite,” unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears. It was a little while later, as we kept to our trail through wildflower-dotted-scrub that we realised that he had adopted us as his pack for the day and although we vaguely followed our map, he was now the leader, guiding us along spectacular coastal paths, waiting patiently as we made it up steep inclines, which led past jewelled inlets and coves.

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While we focused on following the path, he simply followed his nose. He disappeared occasionally to chase and eat rabbits, swim in the sea, quench his thirst at water springs that only he knew of and jump fences to tease hapless cattle. He truly was one with the land, which only served to highlight how at odds we were with it. Stepping out in the morning for a quick stroll, we found ourselves, almost sixteen kilometres and five hours later, parched and tired, at the port of Le Palais.

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Having been abandoned on the homestretch by Blackie, who lured by open fields and more rabbits to chase, left his pack to make his own way to one of the portside cafes. As we sat down, slightly crestfallen, that we hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye, who should trot in and throw himself on the pavement beside our table? The waitress took our convoluted story in her stride, calling to inform his master that he was ready for collection. This was obviously not his maiden tour. He contentedly lay in the afternoon sun, waiting for his ride back home, all well in his world. And just like that, in a matter of minutes, he was gone. But the gift of his day, which opened up the natural heartbeat of this island, will stay with us forever.

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