Northern France is ringed with coastal communities built on rich maritime heritage. I love Normandy's northwest peninsula farmlands, port cities like Bar Fleur, Cherbourg and St. Vaast and the wild coast with their layered history, stunning light and open spaces. Hon Fleur, where the Impressionists gained such great inspiration (and painters still paint the harbor daily) is a special favorite. Thankfully, I've got family friends in the region who are excellent "local" tour guides, game to explore backroads and patient translators. Together, we've driven many country roads, walked beaches, explored marinas, hedged farm roads, dark forests and historic castles. Yesterday, while in St. Vaast, I was struck again by how many people stop and take photos of wooden boats. With such a close proximity and long history of boating (both fishing and pleasure craft) in this region, understandably, there are a majority of steel and fiberglass boats in the marinas and on the tidal flat moorings.
But as we walked the docks, there was the "last 3-masted wooden ship" Marite and several smaller boats that look like traditional fishing boats, but empty of gear as if ready for tourists. They were beamy, flat transomed with a huge gaff rigged main and very long bowsprits, at least one-third their length. I noticed that in almost every harbor there was at least one of these historic wooden boat available for charter (or two) positioned near the pedestrian approach sides of the harbor where tourists tend to walk. In several places it appeared the boats were at reserved docks, a place of prominence and if tourist strategy was the goal, it works. We took photos of the boats, as did others whom I heard speaking German, Dutch, Chinese, British and American English. Congratulations France! It worked!
While in Normandy this trip, I'm also researching the Wooden Boat Festivals in neighboring Brittany, just south and a little west of us. The Brest Festival (held ever 4 years) will be held July 13-19, 2012. Douardenez is another must see festival and community I'm planning to visit next trip.
In all these coastal towns, fishing, seafood and maritime culture is alive if not always well. Wooden boats are a significant part of their cultural history and most towns either display this publicly along the waterfront in key locations and/or preserve the information (boats, photos, artifacts) in museums that offer at least one free day a week. A gorgeous maritime climate, classic naval pinstrip clothing, great boats and seafood help ensure that maritime culture will remain a strong influence on this part of France and that's good news for people who love wooden boat culture.