Pont-'n Abad – Kerbenn Ar Vro Vigoudenn
Pont L’Abbé – Capital of pays Bigouden
You will find this small town of 8,000 souls, twenty-five kilometres south west of Quimper, at the head of the estuary of the Rivière de Pont-L'Abbé and a very large pond. The name comes from the bridge (pont) built by the monks (abbes) of Loctudy, in the seventh century, between the harbour and the lake (étang). It is the capital of Pays Bigouden, a traditional Breton district. Bigouden is the name of the traditional feminine cup (basically a near-cylindrical piece of lace). The Coat of Arms: the red and gold being the traditional colours of Pays Bigouden. The currency of Pont L’Abbé in Breton: “Heb Ken” means, "not better".
Artefacts from the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic era prove that there has been a settlement around Pont L’Abbé for many thousands of years. Iron Age remains have been found in the suburb of Keralio, close to the present day cemetery, show that this was an important Gallic settlement at that time. Amongst the items found are a few ornate gravestone markers (stèles) that date from that time. The more exotic one are, including the “Stèle of Kermaria” are in the Museum of National Antiquities.
When the Romans invaded, they reused the site at Keralio and other sites close to Tréouguy and Kernuz, in the south of the city. They also built a camp at Menez-Roz-ar-C’hastel. In the Middle Ages, the village of Keralio came under the authority and the protection of a feudal mound set up near the southern accesses to the lake.
During the sixth century, the monks of Loctudy started to the first bridge over the river, on the site of the present bridge. Prior to that there was only a ford that was usable with low tide. In the ninth century, the Norsemen sailed down the river and ransacked the abbey. The monks abandoned Pont-L'Abbé to feudal lords, who built a small fort in the eleventh century. The first known Lord of Pont-L'Abbé was Juhel du Pont, who was captured during the siege of Dol in 1173.
The dynasty of the Barons of Pont thrived during the next few centuries. Several Barons of Pont played an important role in the military and religious history of Brittany. In 1214, Hervé du Pont and his brother Eon were bannerets (i.e., they were allowed to lead their vassals under their own banner) during the battle of Bouvines, when King of France Philippe-Auguste defeated a coalition set up by German Emperor Otto IV, John Lackland, the Count of Flanders and the greater vassals of the Kingdom. In 1223, Hervé du Pont returned the rights of the parish and the tax on wine to the Abbot of Located. In 1294, Robert du Pont, Baron Geoffroy's brother, was appointed Bishop of Saint-Malo.
The borough became more important under Baron Hervé III, who founded St. Johns' Hospital near the river and the St.Tudy's Chapel in his castle in 1350. In 1383, Baron Hervé IV built a White Friars' monastery (Carmelite), whose chapel later became the parish church, and the first wharf of the port. Baron Hervé VI was killed in 1426 during the siege of Saint-James-de-Beuvron. In 1441, Jean I du Pont was appointed haut baron (Greater Baron) of Brittany and was invited to the crowning of Duke François I. Baron Pierre fought in 1488 during the siege of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.
After the last Baroness, Louise du Pont, died in 1426, Jean V du Quélennec, grandson of one of Louise's aunts, was granted the barony. Quélennec was sent twice to the King of France Henri II to negotiate franchises for the Duchy of Brittany. During the early years of the sixteenth century, Charles du Quélennec, aka Soubise, converted to the reformed religion. He expelled the chaplains from his castle and led an uprising in Périgord (south-west of France) during the Religious Wars. He was captured and jailed in Jarnac but escaped. He was assassinated in the court of the Palace of Louvre in Paris whilst defending Admiral de Coligny (1519-1572), the leader of the Protestant party, during the St. Bartholomew's slaughter (23-24 August 1572) ordered by Queen of France Catherine de Medicis and the Guise family.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the civil war between the Holy League and the Royalists spread to Brittany. The Royalists seized Pont-L'Abbé in 1588 and the castle was looted; its clockwork, then the best in Brittany, was shipped to the neighbouring city of Concarneau. The warlord Guy Eder de la Fontenelle ransacked Cornouaille. He set up his headquarters on the Tristan Island, off the port of Douarnenez, whose fortifications he had destroyed. In 1595, Fontenelle ransacked the village of Penmarc'h; the next year, he killed 1,500 peasants in Plogastel-Saint-Germain. The garrison of Pont-L'Abbé besieged Tristan Island, to no avail. In 1598, King of France Henri IV appointed him Governor of the island, provided he stopped his criminal acts. Fontenelle was involved in a plot, arrested, sentenced to death and put on the wheel in the Place de Grève in Paris in 1602. Baroness Hélène de Beaumanoir, aged 18, was besieged in 1604 in her castle by an army commanded by her husband and was forced to surrender.
After the Religious Wars, the Catholic religion was re-established in Pont-L'Abbé and Loctudy by Reverend Father Le Nobletz. In 1622, the first municipal council was set up in Pont-L’Abbé. The council included 12 bourgeois and 12 craftsmen, and was presided by a Syndic. In 1674, the barony of Pont was transferred to Armand Jean de Vignerot, the grandnephew of Cardinal de Richelieu.
In 1675, the peasants revolted in the so-called Révolte des Bonnets Rouges (Red Caps' Revolt). Colbert had imposed high taxes in order to fund Louis XIV's war against Holland. The peasants released their claims in the Code Paysan, approved on 2 July 1675 in the chapel of Treminou. The uprising spread to the whole Pays Bigouden: the peasants hung the Lord of Cosquer-en-Combrit and the castle of Pont was looted and burned. The White Friars of Pont-L'Abbé were forced to approve the Code Breton, which suppressed the corvée. The revolt was severely repressed by the Duke de Chaulnes, the Governor of Brittany. The bell-towers of the revolting villages (Combrit, Lambour-en-Pont-l'Abbé, Lanvern and Languivoa-en-Plonéour) were pulled down.
In 1685, the barony of Pont was sold to François Joseph d'Ernothon. In 1718, d’Ernothon approved the claims of the States of Brittany against the absolute power of the King of France and was exiled. His successor Jean Théophile d'Ernothon went mad and jumped out a window of the castle in 1738. Henri Baude de Saint-Père bought the barony 1753 for £500,000. The literary critic Elie Fréron (1718-1776), born in Quimper, was married in the castle chapel in 1766. Fréron is mostly known as the unfortunate rival of Voltaire, who ridiculed him under the name of Frelon (in French, hornet) in several epigrams.
In 1779, Pont-L'Abbé lost its prerogatives in the States of Brittany. The municipality of Pont-L'Abbé was established on 1st February 1790. The village of Lambour was incorporated to the new municipality on 13 December 1790. In 1791, the Constituante Assembly prescribed the limits of the municipality of Pont-L’Abbé, which was increased by taking four rural districts from the neighbouring municipalities of Combrit, Loctudy, Plobannalec and Plomeur. The parish of Pont-L’Abbé was set up the same year. Before that, Pont-L'Abbé was divided between the two parishes of Loctudy and Plobannalec, whereas Lambour belonged to Combrit.
In August 1792, Baron Jean Georges Claude Baude was involved in the failed attempt by the royal family to escape and was exiled. On 7 November 1793, the name of the city was changed to Pont-Libre (Free Bridge). The castle of Pont was sold in 1799 to François Jérôme Le Déan, and eventually bought by the municipality in 1836, in order to house the City Hall, the Court of Justice, the Gendarmerie and the School.
In 1847, a riot broke out in Pont-L'Abbé when potatoes were loaded on a ship whilst the local population starved.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, lace industry was the main activity in Pont-L'Abbé. Strikes regularly broke out because of the miserable condition of the working-class life. In 1961, the farmers demonstrated violently against the low price paid to early potatoes.
As the capital of Pays Bigouden, Pont-L'Abbé has two museums dedicated to the Bigouden culture: the Musée Bigouden was set up in 1955 in the castle of Pont, and the Maison du Pays Bigouden was inaugurated in 1984 in the Kerazegan farm.
The most famous element of the Bigouden culture is the headdress. It is said that the height of the headdress was increased after Duke de Chaulnes had demolished the local bell-towers following the Red Caps' uprising, but this is only a legend. The monument aux Bigoudens, built in Pont-L'Abbé by F. Bazin in 1931, shows relatively small headdresses (10 cm-high). The headdresses seem to have increased only after the Second World War, but are hardly seen today, except in religious and folkloric festivals, and of course in the wonderful Bigouden road-movie Western by Manuel Poirier (1997).
The Bigouden culture has been studied and described in great details by the local writer Per Jakez Hélias (1914-1995), especially in his autobiography Le Cheval d'Orgueil (1975).
Pont L’Abbé is not the large commercial port it formerly was, however it continues to be an administrative, medical and shopping centre for Pays Bigouden. The castle is now the town hall and the medieval keep houses the Museé Bigouden. The Maison du Pays Bigouden is a complete contrast to the museum.
Beside the quay in a verdant setting is the Monument aux Bigoudens, carved by François Bazin in the 1920’s. It represents a grandmother, mother, sister, daughter and a small girl worrying about loved-ones taken by the storm. On the other side of the river, the ruined Église de Lambour has a sixteenth century façade and some bays of the thirteenth century nave. The bell tower was destroyed during the seventeenth century.
Thursdays, is market day, when the town really comes alive with gaily-coloured stalls in Place Gambetta and Place de la Republic. Locals mingle with tourists and holidaymakers, French intertwines with Breton, cafés and restaurants are busy, car parks are full, so get here early if you want to find a space.
A Short Coastal Tour
Situated two kilometres south east of the town on the road to Loctudy is Ferme de Kervazégan, open every day except Mondays from June to September. Built around a courtyard, it is a restoration of a 19th century farm, where you can see some of the furniture, household utensils and implements of that era.
Loctudy is a fishing port and marina at the mouth of the Pont L’Abbé River around which the town has grown. In earlier times it served as a port for the export of potatoes that were grown in the area. Today, fishing has taken over from agriculture to such an extent that the port holds twice daily fish sales and has grown to become the third port of Bigouden. The marina, open all year, had also grown over the years and can now accommodate 800 yachts. The downside to all this success is that over 50% of all housing is now second homes, thus the town is rather desolate out of season. The other problem being that this explosion of development has had an adverse effect of the wildlife, birds along this wild coastal area.
Continuing along the coast road through Kergall, you eventually come to a secluded bay with a delightful seafront café. This is the enclave of Loudonnec, where you can listen to the waves breaking on the shore and the call of the wind.
Eventually you come to Ploubannalec-Lesconil, a bustling little port with a daily fish auction at five in the afternoon, well worth a visit just to see the fishing-boats unloaded and the auction. Along the windswept shore to the west of the port, having pasted the solitary Dolmen, you will find an astonishing sight, row upon row, of what can only be described as, little figures made from pebbles…… breathtaking. Apparently it all started when an Irishman visited in 2001 and for something to occupy his time, he built the first figures. The locals were so impressed with his work that they asked him to teach them how to do it. Six years later, there are hundreds of these little figures, with more appearing on a daily basis.