Brittany is France’s westernmost region and most exposed to the harsh Atlantic – weather. But among rugged cliffs are charming towns with solid stone houses and small harbors. One of the beautiful towns in northern Brittany is Roscoff, port city on the English Channel. Roscoff or Rosko in Breton is well worth a detour on a tour of Brittany.
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Headland in the English Channel – Roscoff between land and sea
To get to Roscoff, you can drive from french mainland west of Morlaix along the peninsula at the bay of Morlaix and pass St.Pol de Leon. There the character becomes more and more maritime and is characterized by a hilly landscape, which is mostly closed by rugged rocky banks at the transition to the sea. In between there are hedge strips, small settlements and vegetable fields. At the northeastern end of the peninsula, the settlements finally condense into a small town – Roscoff.
This small town is characterized by two-, at most three-story houses made of Breton granite stones, which stand gray and solid on the last country pedestal. Low evening sun gladly breathes the massive walls in a light yellow – orange – tone, which makes the summer view together with blue sea sky even more pleasing. Moss grows on the stone roofs in many places, seagulls circle above them in the healthy salt-laden sea air, further enhancing the maritime impression.
The most beautiful part of Roscoff is the harbor front, the long arch of houses on the old harbor bay with lighthouse, small chapel and the quay walls, which are flooded or largely exposed depending on the tide. The wide harbor exit opens the view to the English Channel, which already has an immense width here, and a few small rocky humps in the sea, which just rise above the sea water level. At the eastern end of the wide harbor bay, a rocky ridge extends into the sea, on whose seaward tip the small 17th-century rock chapel of Sainte Barbe welcomes sailors.
The port determines the history of Roscoff
From the beginning, the port has been the most important element for Roscoff, even if the economy is now quite diversified. Indeed, Roscoff originated as a port village for nearby St.-Pol-de-Leon, which thus gained access to fishing and trade routes. But soon the small village developed into a town in its own right. In the 17th century a larger tidal water – port was built, the present old port on the northern outskirts of the town. Merchants and shipowners settled, corsairs – pirates with official permission for piracy – took advantage of the advanced location and so Roscoff recorded a certain wealth. This can still be seen today in the sturdy, partly beautifully decorated stone houses in the old town center and in the large seafaring church of Notre-Dame-de-Croatz-Batz with its striking bell tower, one of the most impressive sights of Roscoff.
Today, the deep-water port (Gare maritime) east of Roscoff is more important – from here ferries cross the channel to Plymouth in southern England and from April to October also to Ireland.
Léon – vegetable growing and seafood, today also seaweed – economy
The area around Roscoff is called Léon and is known for vegetable growing. Especially the pink onions have been grown and harvested in the Roscoff area for a long time. Braided into large braids, they also served as fresh provisions on board ships. Flying traders, called Johnnies by the English, even brought the pink onions to the south of the British Isles and went peddling them. Today, a small local museum, Maison des Johnnies, tells of this.
Every year at the end of August there is a „festival of pink onions„, „La fête de l’oignon rosé„. Even the famous Musketeer author Alexandre Dumas stayed in Roscoff in the summer of 1869 and wrote the „Onion Chapter“ of his „Little Dictionary of Cookery“ here in the last year of his life.
In addition to vegetable growing, today there is another specialty from Roscoff – Algoplus! The Algoplus company is dedicated to harvesting and processing seaweed into foods such as sea food, sea parsley and sea cosmetics. Algoplus can be visited by those interested. (North of the ferry port).
Certainly, the location of the Center for Marine Biology (Station Biologique de Roscoff) of Sorbonne University promotes the development of seaweed – food and the use of resources from the sea, but also serves other areas in maritime research.
Like fishing, the extraction of other „seafood“ such as crustaceans is another traditional industry. It even contributed in the 19th century to the extension of the railroad from Morlaix to Roscoff. The city fathers of Roscoff justified the need in 1868 with the ‚transport of about 5500 tons of vegetables, onions, fish and shellfish by wagons to Morlaix‘. However, several years had to pass before the railroad line was opened in 1883. If you like fresh fish and want to prepare it yourself, you can visit the „Viviers de Roscoff“ with its seawater basins near the Sainte-Barbe chapel. There, the newly caught fish as well as crustaceans and shellfish are sold directly.
At the harbor front of Roscoff
Lighthouse, chapel, creperies
As mentioned above, the harbor side with its pretty town houses and narrow streets is the most beautiful and worth seeing corner in Roscoff. Above the harbor rises the angular lighthouse Phare de Roscoff as a navigation mark for the harbor approach. Nearby is the small chapel Sainte-Anne from 1640, which was private for a long time and since the 70’s is used by the city of Roscoff as a small event hall.
In several houses there are creperies where you can enjoy the delicious Breton flatbreads with various fillings – both sweet and savory. There is also a bakery where you can buy Breton Gateau’s (Gâteau Breton – a cake plain or filled with vanilla or fruit) from the window to take away or enjoy in a small café on site.
Legend or true, one of the houses refers to a stay by Mary Stuart, later Queen of Scots, at the age of five, who is said to have stopped in Roscoff on her way to France by sea. Due to political unrest in Scotland, the heir to the throne was taken to safety in France. By marriage, Mary Stuart was also briefly Queen of France from 1559 to 1560, but her husband died just one year later.
Harbor pier and Ile de Batz
On the mighty pier of the harbor, other events take place from time to time during the summer. A walk across this „pier“ of the harbor provides a beautiful seaward view over Roscoff. The view becomes particularly „maritime“ if you also walk far out into the sea over the long jetty, which is attached to the pier in a northwesterly direction. Supposedly, this serves as a tide-independent ferry dock – option to be able to reach the island Ile de Batz at any time. However, during my stay I only saw ferries and boats going to Ile de Batz using the harbor with its pier. Ile de Batz is an offshore island (305ha, about 3.5km long) and own community with about 450 inhabitants. The ferry from Roscoff takes about 15 minutes. In about 2 hours you can walk around the Ile de Batz on a coastal hiking trail.
The church Notre-Dame-de-Croaz-Batz
Surely by now you’ve spotted the Gothic church of Notre-Dame-de-Croatz-Batz (Our Lady of the Cross of Batz) west of the harbor mile, its distinctive bellfry next to the lighthouse part of Roscoff’s „skyline.“ Set in a garden enclosed by a low stone wall, the building is a slender Breton stone structure built from 1520 to 1549 in the first phase and completed by 1701. Rich merchants and shipowners of Roscoff donated for the construction, which is indicated by numerous ornamental stones on the facade with ships and cannons facing the sea as a symbolic protection for the town and the community. In the church there are two burial chapels from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The impressive Renaissance bellfry from 1576 is considered a prototype for bell towers with an openwork double gallery.
The railroad station and the railroad line Morlaix – Roscoff
Roscoff also has a train station, but unfortunately it has been dormant for a few years. There must have been a landslide due to a storm in 2018 that blocked the line and since then the trains have been replaced by buses.
As early as 1868, some 5500 tons of onions and vegetables, fish and shellfish were brought from Roscoff to Morlaix by carts. This was a strong argument of the town councils at that time for the construction of a railroad connection. On June 10, 1883 the rail line to Morlaix (17miles) was inaugurated. The railroad not only facilitated freight traffic for Roscoff, but also boosted tourism and commerce. Bathers could travel directly from Paris to the lake. Around 1888, the direct train connection from Paris to Roscoff took 14 hours. From 1899 onwards, Doctor Bagot also treated spa guests with rheumatic diseases by means of thalassotherapy (treatments with seawater).
The direct connection Paris – Roscoff was stopped in 1985. In the meantime, the railroad facilities and the station in the center of Roscoff lie deserted and are slowly becoming overgrown. Around the station, new commercial areas, residential development and administrative buildings are being built – actually like a small new city center. Perhaps the railroad will experience a renaissance in Roscoff in the future with the sustainability debate.
Bathing near Roscoff
In Brittany, of course, you can’t expect endlessly long beaches like e.g. at the Baltic Sea. Between the rocky ridges on the coast are rather hidden small bathing bays with sandy or rocky beaches. In view of the rocky coastal landscapes, one has to be careful not to bump into underwater ridges. A beach is located on the northwestern edge of town (towards Ile de Batz) behind the Marine Research Institute. Other beaches, easily accessible by bicycle, are located to the east south of the ferry port and marina along the bicycle path to St.Pol de Léon behind the railroad line. For all other bathing places outside you must make yourself times on the search….
Travel tips for Roscoff in Brittany
The weather in Roscoff
According to the location of Roscoff at the opening of the English Channel to the North Atlantic, there is a maritime climate with the possibility of rapid and sharp changes in the weather, especially for storms and rain. Nevertheless, there are longer periods of good weather, especially in summer, and it is quite mild, which one would not expect. This mild weather is due to the Gulf Stream, which reaches the European mainland at the southern edge of the British Isles and the western English Channel.
As in the south of Ireland, some in Roscoff have the fun of keeping palm trees and other exotic plants. There is even a botanical garden worth seeing around the Roch-Hievec rock with about 3000 rather heat-loving plants – the Jardin exotique de Roscoff. The Jardin exotique is located south of the ferry port in a triangle near the leisure harbor (Port de Plaisance).
… by train and bus
Even though Roscoff is located far to the west on the French Atlantic coast, it is quite possible to get there by public transport within France. There are TGV trains* of the French national railroad to Morlaix and Brest and from both cities there is a bus connection to Roscoff (line 21/25 Brest – Lesneven (change) – Roscoff or line 29 Morlaix – Roscoff).
… with car or motorhome
With your own car, a rental car* or campervan* you can drive on the French highways E401 (from Rouen)/ E 50 (from Paris/ Le Mans) to Morlaix and then turn north towards St.Pol de Léon. When traveling by motorhome, you must be aware that the narrow streets of downtown Roscoff are not suitable for this purpose, and closures of both roads and parking lots („carpet poles“) restrict access with large campers.
Most travelers will either make a detour to Roscoff on a Brittany tour or make a stopover if they want to take the ferry to Plymouth in the UK or Cork in Ireland.
… or with bicycle
It is also possible to go by bicycle if you have enough time and want to. I tried it and I am thrilled! Roscoff is located on several long-distance bicycle routes, such as the EuroVelo EV4 „Central Europe“ route as the western terminus, which starts far to the east in Kiev (Ukraina). And on the EuroVelo 1 (Atlantic Coast – Route*) from the North Cape in Norway to Sagres in Portugal.
Unfortunately, continuing to the British Isles by bike via ferry from Roscoff is not possible, as Britany Ferries only carries motor vehicles (no pedestrians either). Otherwise, France has a lot of small roads with hardly any traffic – ideal for long cycling trips. With the help of openrouteservice and a small handheld GPS you can plan your cycling routes and then discover the beautiful landscapes of France in a very individual way.
Accommodation in Roscoff
Directly on the shore and opposite the Eglise Notre-Dame-de-Croatz-Batz is the ****Hotel Bord de Mer*. It is ideally located in the western center of Roscoff, within walking distance of all major attractions. Rooms in this hotel are available with a view of the town and the church as well as on the seaside with the harbor and Ile de Batz. The nearest beach is only about 500m away, and the Thalasso – Therapy Center in Rue Victor Hugo is also within walking distance at 700m. The hotel is largely handicapped accessible with elevator for higher floors, individual rooms are also suitable for wheelchair users. A family room is also available. There is no on-site parking, however, so only public parking nearby can be used.
One of the smaller traditional hotels in the seaside resort of Roscoff is the Hôtel Aux Tamaris – Vue Mer*. This hotel is located a few meters from the nearest beach, the sea view rooms on the west side offer a wonderful view at sunset. Single and double rooms can be booked. A varied breakfast ensures a good start to the day. Pets are allowed. There is public parking nearby.
In the old town and surrounded by several creperies is the Hotel du centre – Chez Janie*, with room options ranging from doubles to family suites. There is a restaurant in the house with regional food, which also offers children’s portions. The harbor is in front of the panoramic windows. Pets are also welcome in the hotel. Parking is possible only in public parking lots nearby.
The ibis Hotel Roscoff* is also located on a street with a sea view to the rear. The hotel offers double rooms, with expansion to three guests if necessary. Pets are allowed. Public parking is about 5min away.
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