Belle-Île or Belle-Île-en-Mer is a French island off the coast of Brittany in the département of Morbihan, and the largest of Brittany’s islands. It is 14 km from the Quiberon peninsula. Administratively, the island forms a canton: the canton of Belle-Île. It is divided into four communes: Bangor – Le Palais -Locmaria -Sauzon. The island measures 17 km by 9 km and has an average altitude of 40 m. The area is about 84 km2. The coasts are a mixture between dangerously sharp cliff edges on the southwest side, the Côte Sauvage (Wild coast), and placid beaches, the largest being les Grands Sables (The great sands) and navigable harbours on the northeast side. The island’s climate is oceanic, having less rain and milder winters than on the mainland.The two main ports are Le Palais (accessible by ferry from Quiberon) and Sauzon (accessible by ferry from Quiberon and Lorient). There used to be forests on the island, but these have long disappeared due to increasing agricultural use of the land. Belle Île was separated from the mainland about 6000 B.C., earlier than the neighbouring islands of Houat and Hœdic. Archaeological finds from the Bronze Age suggest that the island enjoyed a large increase in population in this time,probably due to improvements in seafaring.

The Roman name of the island seems to have been Vindilis, which in the Middle Ages became corrupted to Guedel. During the ninth century Belle-Île belonged to the county of Cornouaille. In 1572 the monks of the abbey of Ste Croix at Quimperlé ceded the island to the Retz family, in whose favour it was raised to a marquisate in the following year. It subsequently came into the hands of the family of Fouquet. The island’s fortifications were erected by Vaubanon behalf of Nicolas Fouquet, prior to Fouquet incurring the displeasure of Louis XIV; the land was ceded to the crown in 1718. The island was held by British troops from 1761, following its capture by an expedition sent out from England, to 1763, when it was returned to France in exchange for Minorca as part of the Peace of Paris. Much of the island’s current population is descended from repatriated Acadian colonists who returned to France after being expelled from Acadia (Nova Scotia) during the Great Upheaval (French: le Grand Dérangement). Today, Belle-Île’s population is about 4,000, and its economy is largely dependent on tourism and fishing. During the summer the island’s population increases dramatically, as many people own a second home on the island due to its secluded location and beaches. Lyrique en Mer/Festival de Belle Île is the largest opera festival in western France. Founded in 1998 by American opera singer Richard Cowan, the Festival produces two staged operas every summer, conducted by Music Director Philip Walsh and directed by Mr. Cowan, the Artistic Director. Additionally, there are sacred concerts in all four of the island’s historic churches, as well as many smaller concerts and Master Classes. Lyrique en Mer has wide support from the French business community as well as from the Conseil Général, the Conseil Régional, and the Paris Senate. The island is the setting for a portion of The Man in the Iron Mask, an adventure novel by 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas, père. It is where Porthos, one of the characters of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, dies, close to Locmaria. During the 1870s and 1880s, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet painted the rock formations at Belle-Île. Monet’s series of paintings of the rocks at Belle-Île astounded the Paris art world when he first exhibited them in 1887. Most notable are the “Storm, Coast at Belle-Ile” and “Cliffs at Belle-Ile” both rendered in 1886. The first time Auguste Rodin saw the ocean off the Brittany coast he exclaimed, “It’s a Monet.” Australian born artist John Peter Russell was a man of means and having married a beautiful Italian, Mariana Antoinetta Matiocco, he settled at Belle Île off the coast of Brittany where he established an artists’ colony. Russell had met Vincent Van Gogh in Paris and formed a friendship with him. Van Gogh spoke highly of Russell’s work, and after his first summer in Arles in 1888 he sent twelve drawings of his paintings to Russell, to inform him about the progress of his work. Monet often worked with Russell at Belle Île and influenced his style, though it has been said that Monet preferred some of Russell’s Belle Île seascapes to his own. Russell did not attempt to make his pictures known. In 1897 and 1898 Henri Matisse visited Belle Île. Russell introduced him to impressionism and to the work of Van Gogh (who was relatively unknown at the time). Matisse’s style changed radically, and he would later say “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me.”

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