Aptly-named Belle-Ile, by whatever name it is known - Vindilis, Guedel, Guerveur, Calonesus or Insula Bella – has always been a source of inspiration.
For centuries, pirates and privateers from everywhere came to pillage the monasteries and churches, or simply replenish their supplies of fresh water.
The English and Dutch armies always tried to seize the island to serve as an outpost for attacking the ports of Lorient and Nantes.
Fishermen knew that the finest fish and shellfish were to be found in its waters, along with, for many years, an abundance of sardines.
Then, in the 19th century, the first tourists discovered the charms of Belle-Île and gradually became invaders of a more peaceful nature.
Belle-Île is an island of culture that has always drawn artists, poets, writers and painters to its shores. In its luminous, rain-filled skies, the changing colours of the ocean, the intimate, wild atmosphere of its landscapes, the charm of welcoming valleys and paths lined with asphodels, they have drawn the inspiration to fuel their talent.
Belle-Île prides itself on its exceptional, many-faceted heritage
> a military heritage, owed to its strategic location, which today offers visitors an almost complete panorama of defensive architecture through the centuries.
>a cultural heritage, thanks to the writers, poets, actors, painters and photographers who came to the island in search of the simple but novel sensations that generate great works in literature and art.
>a human heritage, that has maintained a traditional economy, fishing and farming.
>an industrial heritage, with the vestiges of the fish-canning industry and the more recent creation of local artisanal industries (brewing, biscuit factory, chocolate making, etc.)
>an artistic heritage, conjuring up the memory of the great painters who stayed on Belle-Île and which lives on in the contemporary work of local painters.
Some of the must-see places
Pointe des Poulains
Topped by a small, automated lighthouse with a range of 23 miles, this site offers an outstanding view. In clear weather, you can see as far as Ile de Groix, Lorient and Quiberon bay. The Conservatoire du Littoral bought Ile des Poulains and the home/museum of the drama actress Sarah Bernhardt in 2000 and is currently protecting and developing the site.
Open every day from the beginning of April to the end of September, except Mondays in April, May, June and September.
Admission: €4, under-12s: free.
Culture pass on presentation of a ticket to the Vauban citadel or the Grand Phare lighthouse: 3 €
Visit Les Poulains (2010 opening times and prices)
Built from a design by the engineer Fresnel, the Grand Phare lighthouse in Kervilahouen was commissioned in 1836. The tower is 52m high and has a diameter of 7.50m at the base and 5.50m at the top. Visitors can climb the 213 granite steps and the iron staircase to reach the top. From there, in clear weather, there are wonderful panoramic views of the whole island.
Open every day in April, July and August.
Open Wednesdays and Saturdays in May, June and September
Admission: adults €2, accompanied children under 12: free.
Culture pass on presentation of a ticket to the Vauban citadel or the Pointe des Poulains site: €1.
Visit the Grand Phare (2010 opening times and prices)
Built on the remains of the Gondi family's castle, bought by Fouquet then fortified by Vauban, the imposing mass of the "Battleship of the Atlantic" overlooks Le Palais harbour. The citadel has been privately owned since 1960. It houses a museum that tells the history of Belle-Île-en-Mer and regularly hosts temporary exhibitions. To visit the citadel, museum and "landscaped bastions":
Open every day in April, May, June, September and October: 9.30am-6.00pm.
July and August: 9.00am-7.00pm.
November to March: 9.30am-5.00pm.
Admission (self-guided tour): adults €6.50, children (10-16 years) €3.50
In the late 19th century, Sauzon was a major fishing port, with over 100 "chaloupes" (rowing and sailing boats) supplying fish to the three nearby canneries.
Today the fishing industry is kept alive by a handful of dynamic fishermen, but tourism is now the leading industry in Sauzon, which remains one of the most visited sites on Belle-Île.
Le Palais fortified compound
Vauban had planned to build a fortified compound on the heights of Le Palais to support the citadel. He had even drawn up plans, but the project was shelved for want of finance. When the British invaded the island in 1761, they installed their cannons at the very spot where the fortified compound was supposed to have been built. It was therefore deemed essential to build the fortified compound for Belle-Île's protection. Work began in 1802 and was completed in 1877.
Take a pleasant 1½ hour walk among trees and old stone buildings to see it for yourself.
The church in Locmaria
The Romanesque-style Notre-Dame de Locmaria church is the oldest religious building on Belle-Île. It was rebuilt in stone in the 11th century, then renovated in the 17th century. Numerous pilgrims used to come to thank "Notre-Dame de Bois Tors" (Our Lady of the twisted wood). Dutch pirates had cut down a tree in front of the church to replace their broken mast. Our Lady deformed the tree trunk, making it unusable.
La Belle Fontaine
This water reservoir built under Vauban's authority in 1703 was formerly used to supply ships with fresh water. It can contain 860,000 litres and is a listed historic monument. Only two such buildings still exist in France today.
Aiguilles de Port Coton
The painter Claude Monet depicted the fascinating beauty of these jagged rock formations in a number of famous paintings. In heavy weather, the wind whips up large lumps of frothy sea foam that look like cotton wool.
Société historique de Belle-Ile-en-Mer
Belle-Île's historical society was formed in 1991, with its registered office in the Locmaria town hall. Its aims are:
>To gather together people interested in the history of Belle-Île, whether amateur historians, students or scholars, along with collectors of relevant historical documents;
>To make known the island's heritage and the history of its inhabitants.
>The society's headquarters in the Locmaria town hall are open on Saturdays, 10am-12.30pm, and Wednesdays, 3-6pm.
Visit the historical society's website: www.belle-ile-histoire.org