The quaint coastal town of Concarneau in Brittany is home to one of France’s most important fishing ports. The walled town is twinned with Penzance (where we opened our first shop) and hosts one of the most vibrant festivals in the Breton calendar.
Just like its Cornish counterpart, Concarneau has a rich history of sardine and pilchard fishing. While the men would go to sea, the women and children would remain on land to work in the canneries, canning and preserving the catch. Until the early 1900s Concarneau had a thriving economy, but a decline in sardine levels devastated the town, and the men and women whose livelihoods depended on the small, oily fish were forced to live in poverty.
To help support the fishermen and their families, a factory owner, and Concarneau’s first magistrate, Monsieur Billette de Villeroche, proposed the idea of a charity feast. The community pulled together to help the fishermen and their families, and in the summer of 1905 blue nets decked the quay and the first Festival des Filets Bleus took place.
To help raise morale, it was decided that women from the canaries would reside over the festivities, and a queen, vice-queen and three bridesmaids were chosen to take part in the event. This tradition still exists today, and it’s regarded a true honour to be chosen to represent Concarneau in these roles throughout the year. The traditional costume that’s so distinctive to Brittany is worn to represent the farming and fishing trades of the areas, with the queen and vice-queen wearing the ‘penn sardin’, a traditional white lace bonnet in memory of the cannery workers.
Today the Filets Bleus has grown considerably, with over 60,000 people attending last year’s festival. Parades fill the streets with traditional costume, music and dancing. Free concerts take place around the town, and you’re never short of an opportunity to learn a few steps of Breton dancing. Play palets, the Breton equivalent of boules, with the locals or take in cookery demonstrations centered around the rich seafood the town is known for. The festival spans over four days and culminates in a Fest-Noz and a spectacular firework display.
What started out as a charity feast for the local fishermen has grown into a vibrant celebration of Concarneau’s rich maritime heritage. So, watch the blue nets filled with sardines being hauled in, wait for the sound of the Breton bagpipes and let the festival of the Filets Bleus begin!