Water cures have been in fashion for millennia. The Romans built spas around thermal springs in what is modern-day Tuscany, the Ottomans did the same in Hungarian capital of Budapest (where day spas still reign), and health-oriented travelers from around the world have been drawn to the Dead Sea and its strangely buoyant mineral waters. France, too, has a long history of water therapy options, including thermal spring cures in the Alps and Pyrenees, and saltwater "thalasso" therapy at coastal spas. I've tried nearly every kind of watery spa experience, but not the salt-water kind. All I needed was an excuse to head all the way out to Brittany, in the middle of coastal-nowheresville on the Atlantic, 4.5 hours from Paris by train. When I got my call from Michele, I had my excuse.
Michele--a friend and colleague originally from Botswana--is the charming and lovely brain behind boutique tour company Enjoy France Tours in her adopted home in Douarnenez, Brittany--messaged with an offer to come visit, there wasn't a moment's hesitation. YES!
Douarnenez is one of a few destinations where thalasso spas welcome day guests for relaxation and therapeutic pampering, and it's also renowned for maritime beauty and wild. Plus, Michele is a fabulous tour guide and really knows the region well.
Once the sardine fishing capital of France, the town of 15,000 has shifted its local industry to tourism with the decline in fish populations, the sad result of overharvesting. It's also known for producing some of the finest hand-stitched lacework in the world. For out-of-town city dwellers, the area holds a lot of appeal; the landscape is green and pleasant, the sea mesmerizing in alternating shades of turquoise and teal, and the architecture is unlike any other corner of France, with whitewashed buildings and vivid blue trim recalling the colors of Ireland or Cornwall.
Settling into Michele and her husband Lucien's seaside cottage--which, in an earlier epoch, housed workers from the local sardine processing factory--we hop in the car for a drive as far west as we can go, to explore the Cap du Raz, with its lighthouse and blustery breezes and epic views over the rough sea and out to the small islands just offshore. A stop at a tourist shop tempted us with local whiskey, cider, and ceramic bowls personalized with common French names, but the chance for an epic sunset viewing steered us west, for nature's ultimate lightshow. great wine, an Indian feast and great conversation, and a good night's sleep bode well for the following day's spa adventure.
We take the long route to town, stopping at a little organic market to check out the wares (we'll be back for bread and wine later) before taking a slippery seaside path that sidles between old stone cottages, pig paddocks, and ancient roman clothes-washing stations. On the pebbly beach, we spy the black egg casings of sea rays, but peering into the crystal clear water brings nothing but seaweed into focus. After lunch of mushroom-filled buckwheat galettes, salad, and cider at the 1950s themed Creperie Au Gouter Breton, we head to the spa for R & R.
Douarnenez's spa can be accessed in a number of ways; purchase a day pass (18 euro), book a treatment (entry fee is included, and begin at 30 euro), or book a room at the neighboring hotel and secure an all-access pass. Whichever you choose, you're given a white terrycloth robe, towel, and instruction on how to use the "cabines" in the non-gender-segregated changing rooms. In the lounge area next to the treatment waiting rooms is a tea station and stacks of magazines--and people sitting around in their robes giving you the once-over as you pass.
The spa itself consists of a giant indoor swimming pool with views out over the beach, two warm Jacuzzi-like tubs, an essential-oil infused steam room (hammam), and a dry-heat sauna. The final water option is almost too traumatizing to mention: a small pool filled with thigh-high water that's tepid on one side, arctic-sea-water cold on the other. You are meant to walk through one and into the other. I can't remember if I made it through the cold side or bailed out. It was cold and unpleasant and does not come recommended!
The seawater is heated to 31 degrees Celsius, which sounds warm, but doesn't feel particularly so on our 36 degree Celsius bodies. It's pleasant, but I couldn't help but think back to my most recent trip to Budapest, and how fabulous 41 degrees feels. Between the steam room and the pool, though, there was relaxation to be had. A different, saltier kind of relaxation, but good just the same.
Exploring any new corner of France means A. Trying the local wine, and B. Visiting the daily outdoor market. In Douarnenez, the market is small but quaint, with a handful of vendors touting the usual comestibles. While perusing the stalls and taking in the color and smells, a pile of shriveled-looking black things the size of large radishes demanded a second look.
"Excuse me, but what are these things?"
Ah! The famous blackened beets Michele had just been telling us about! They're cooked in an open fire and until charred, then eaten after peeling off the blackened skin. They're known for their tender, sweet flesh and slightly smoky flavor.
"I'll have two, please!"
The mysterious root veggies were as good as rumors suggested they might be--and as good a reason as any to return to this windswept corner of France.