Postcard from the End and the Middle of the World

In front of me, I have a card from a ferry company called 'Penn Ar Bed'. What country do you think it comes from? Did you guess France? Be honest - you didn't really guess that, did you? But I picked the card up in my hotel in Roscoff (or Rosko as they subtitle it on the roadsigns), a little harbour town on the English Channel, in Finistere at the western end of Brittany, one of the Celtic territories on the north-western fringe of Europe. Roadsigns are in French and Breton, a Celtic language close to Welsh and Cornish. How close? Just offshore from Roscoff lies the island Ile de Batz - in Breton, Enez Baz. Linguistics nerds and Celtic Supremacists will have immediately clocked that this is almost identical to the Welsh for island, 'Ynys'.

So what was I doing in Brittany? I've just started a new job, back in the UK, at the University of Exeter, which lies more-or-less in the middle of the southwestern peninsula of England. An old boss of mine, Mark McCaughrean, is now a professor there; he's interested in Antarctic Astronomy, and has managed to sort out a job for me for the next three years. I started at the beginning of October, and two weeks later, found myself in Roscoff at a European conference on Antarctic Astronomy.

Roscoff is a seaport - it has a modern harbour that takes car ferries from Plymouth, an old harbour full of fishing boats, and a Marine Biology Research Centre where we had the conference. The old harbour is left high and dry at low tide, and all the boats heel and settle into the mud, except for the old-fashioned ones, which appear to have props built into the side of them so that they stay upright on the seabed. At high tide, the bigger fishing boats come in to the old harbour and unload tables with scales and crates of crabs. From the quayside, a long bridge runs out over the rocks and the sea, ending in a ramp down into the water: That's where the ferry to Enez Baz leaves at low tide.

Unsurprisingly, I ate quite a lot of seafood, which was excellent. But I also managed to pack in some other local specialities: Crepes were either dark buckwheat (for savoury fillings) or the more familiar light ones for dessert. Bretons drink a lot of cider with their crepes, though they make a very good wheat beer (Blanche Hermine) as well. If you don't feel like crepes, but are worried that without them your cholesterol levels will drop dangerously low, I'd recommend Kouign Aman, a Breton dessert whose spelling is still not entirely standardised, but whose guiding priniciple is simple: Take a large amount of the butter for which Brittany is famous, and add just enough flour and sugar to give it shape. That's it. The result is a cake whose flavour is almost entirely that of the butter - an ideal way to appreciate the excellence of the local butter. Also a pretty good way to knock a couple of years off your life expectancy. But the real local speciality - the one that bears Roscoff's name - is the onion. Seems odd, in a place where the seafood practically flops and scuttles up the wharf and onto your plate, but there it is: Oignons Roses de Roscoff. Apparently these pink onions are to their fellow bulbs as the finest Burgundies are to cheap plonk. They even have a museum dedicated to the onions and their sellers (sadly, I didn't quite have time...) I did try some, in a buckwheat pancake, and was forced to conclude that I have a long way to go as an onion connoisseur. Nice enough, but really - just onions.

The town is grey: rows of houses with thick grey stone walls, heavy slate roofs and small windows to fend off the grey-green sea and grey-blue sky. The most recognisable building in the town is the church, built in immaculately gothic style from about 1500 to 1550, but looking older, the gargoyles blurring away as if sinking into the stone surface. But then the renaissance must have hit this far western corner of France like a classical thunderbolt: In 1575, they added a tower to their gothic church, and they must have bought in some second-hand blueprints from Italy - they built an Italian Renaissance campanile jammed onto the gothic nave like an architectural centaur. It's difficult to convey quite how odd and unsettling this head-on collision is: The campanile dominates the town's skyline, its airy open structure floating above the solid enclosed houses. Mentally sheathe the tower in white stucco, reroof it in terracotta, and transplant it to Italy, rising out of dusty green hills, sharp against an azure sky, and it makes perfect sense. But the same structure, built of solid grey stone, blending into a grey Breton sky above the slates seems very strange.

The conference centre overlooked the town cemetery, and, walking past it, I saw a sign that said 'Commonwealth War Grave'. Sure enough, tucked in at the side of the graveyard are two tombstones: Flying Officer Stout of the RNZAF died at sea in 1944, and is now commemorated by a regulation white stone with the New Zealand fern and his service number, and by a gilt-lettered stone written in French. The cemetery seems odd to English eyes - a smooth and level surface of gravel, chequerboarded with stone tombs, both Catholic (Big Crosses) and Classical (Big Sarcophagi with Lions' Paws). But Flying Officer Stout's grave is full of greenery, demarcated from the gravel by a low concrete lip.

A couple of weeks later, I was looking at another war memorial: A huge arch carved into a cliff overlooking a busy road and the Mediterranean Sea. I was in Nice to talk to some of the Antarctic people I met in Roscoff, but from the rectilinear grey stone of Roscoff on the grey-green Channel, to the brightly-lit stucco and stone pleasuredomes of Nice on the bright blue Mediterranean, the contrast was so stark it was hard to believe that I was in the same country. Sometimes it was hard to believe that I was in the same world; Nice seems to be only loosely tethered to reality. On the approach into the airport, I could see black and white mountains like jagged notches punched into the edge of the sky - the Alps. As we dropped, the mountains slipped below the horizon to be replaced by white shark's-tooth mainsails in the Baie des Anges. Suspended between the mountains and the sea are Nice and the Cote d'Azur.

The Promenade des Anglais runs along the side of the Baie des Anges above the pebble beach: One side is lined with cuboid steel-and-fabric pavilions and the other with domed and pillared hotels and casinos, modern minimalist style facing off against art deco facades and stucco wedding-cakes across the palm-trees. The bay ends at a rocky promontory, and on the other side lies the Old Port. Walking through the narrow uneven streets of the old town, I could see flashes of blue and white, until finally I came out onto the quayside of the Vieux Port to see a basin of blue sea filled with white yachts, from the little sailing yachts I'd seen in the bay to giant toys for multi-millionaires. Then I realised: I was in the South of France, that imaginary country of which the English daydream, looking out of their windows into the rain.

The meeting was at the University, in a campus that started life as a playground for Russian aristocrats at the beginning of the twentieth century, when they'd take all the money they'd squeezed out of the peasants and live the high life in Nice. Any similarity between then and now is no doubt purely coincidental. I also spent some time at the Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur. This is the kind of place that fills English astronomers' daydreams as we sit in our ugly concrete offices and look at the rain. To get there, start at the landward end of the Old Town, and drive up the Grande Corniche; a turn-off takes you through the Observatory buildings scattered over one of the hills around the city: An airy old office building with high ceilings and huge windows, an ugly modern concrete office building (just in case you were tempted to take the beauty for granted), an excellent canteen, and several pieces of late-nineteenth-century Big Science. Biggest of all is a giant dome on top of a square building, fronted with false pillars. Above the doors, a bronze figure leans out of the stone, wearing an Egyptian headdress and holding torches. Inside, the giant refracting telescope still works, though it's not used for much anymore. But, back at the end of the nineteenth century, this was what you needed to compete on the world scientific stage: A refractor of very long focal length, with a tube as long as the dome is wide. A long focal length refractor gave the kind of excellent image quality required to map the Canals on Mars. Which, of course, don't exist. The project I'm working on with the people at Nice involves hunting for planets around other stars by searching for the tiny dip in brightness as the planet moves across the star's face. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that much of the Observatory is a monument to an earlier failed attempt to study other planets.

Even the South of France has to come down to earth sometimes: In the middle of town, I saw a sign to the French Foreign Legion Recruitment Centre. It's entirely reasonable for such a thing to exist, but obscurely disappointing. Somehow, I always assumed that you got recruited into the Foreign Legion by stumbling desperately into a little bar in an alley, the bright Mediterranean sunlight picking out the scars on some hard-eyed veteran's face who offers you cheap booze and a new start. Turns out all you have to do is go to Nice and follow the roadsigns. Nice comes down to earth more gracefully to the east of the Old Town and the huge memorial arch, where paths wind over and down the rocks. Half-lit in the few streetlights, there's a white wooden pavilion high on the rocks overlooking the sea. And that's my favorite memory of Nice.

Happy Easter to all those who believe in it, and Happy Vernal-Equinox-linked chocolate binge to everyone else.