Ever wondered how Tour de France commentators know so much history?

Haribo boy (with girl inside)

ASO is nothing if not efficient. It produces a whole stack of paper documents for journalists. Along with the ‘road book’, the Bible of Le Tour, there’s a fold-out map of France containing the race route; a list of hotels so journos know which teams are staying where in each town; a small pamphlet (French only) on the race regulations; and a full-on tourist guide.

This latter publication is stuffed with historical facts and figures so when a commentator suddenly seems all-knowing about the medieval wars between Catholics and Cathars he may have just flicked to the requisite page in the ‘Guide Touristique’.

Here, for instance, is the text for Brest, starting point for Le Tour.

Surface Area: 49,51 km2
Altitude: 0 m (mini) – 103 m (maxi)
Waterway: la Penfeld
Local saying: “L’on ne passe jamais par Brest, il faut avoir une raison d’y aller.”
Local Speciality: Kig’ ha Farz.
Monuments: le pont de Recouvrance, la tour Tanguy.

“You don’t just arrive in Brest, you have to have a reason for going there”, the local saying goes. What better reason for going there than the launch of the 2008 Tour de France? The Tour has passed through the town 28 times and this important Breton port has also hosted the start of the race twice, in 1952 and in 1974, when two giants of Bel- gian cycling, Rik Van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx, triumphed.

The largest city in Finistère and in Western Brittany, Brittany’s second largest conurbation, excluding Nantes, Brest is, like the rest of the region, a genuine cycling sovereignty, though its importance as a naval base and port remains its chief vocation as re? ected in the name given to the economic infrastructure organised around the Brest urban community: Brest Métropole Océane.

The origin of its name stems from an abbreviation of the Breton name Beg ar Rest (headland’s end), that perfectly re?ects its isolated geographical position, at the tip of Léon country, facing the Crozon Peninsula in the south, bordered by the sea twenty or so kilometres to the west and encircled in the east by Morlaix and Landerneau, for a long time its rivals.

The strategic importance of the mouth of the Penfeld River, an excellent natural port, has long been at the heart of the military vocation of the site, from earliest Antiquity. A Roman camp known as Gesocribate was set up here in the 3rd century on the very spot where the town’s castle still stands today. It was ?nally ceded to Duke Jean IV for a large indemnity in 1397. Controlled by the French crown like the rest of the Duchy of Brittany in the ?rst half of the 16th cen- tury, Brest was declared a town by Henri IV in 1593. At this time it had a population of 1,500 inhabitants. As in other important French military ports,

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Richelieu was the key to Brest’s expansion. In 1631, he created the Ponant Fleet and the port of Penfeld, at the same time developing the city’s arsenal. From 1683 to 1694, Vauban established coastal defences and forti?cations. The labour-force required in the city arsenal increased the population of the town to some 15,000 inhabitants. The port continued to expand during the second half of the 18th century with major engineering and construction works carried out under Antoine Choquet de Lendu. It is at this epoch (1750) that the prison and then the Naval Academy were built in Brest.

The city played a major role during the two world wars. It was initially the port where American troops landed in 1917 and 1918. World War II was a long torment for the city, occupied by the German army on the 19th of June 1940, and bombarded incessantly until its libera- tion by the Allies on the 18th of September 1944. The city was completely destroyed, only the castle and the Tanguy Tower resisted four years of bombing. Post-war architecture radically modi? ed the aspect of the town in spite of the fact that architect Jean- Baptiste Mathon’s draft plans respected to a great extent those of Vauban. In the second half of the 20th century, the economic fabric of the town remained based on its naval weaponry and its arsenal, but the decline in this sector constituted a real impe- tus for economic diversi?cation towards service sector jobs and new technologies. The natural maritime environment has remained very present in this diversi?cation as Brest is recognised as one of Europe’s leading marine science and technology research centres with 60 % of French marine research based in the city.

Finistère is located on the most Western- most point of Brittany. It is bordered to the north, the west and the south by the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. It is France’s leading coastal department: 118 out of a total of 283 of its communes are located on the coast, representing over one tenth of French coastal towns, and 1,250 km of coastline, which is nearly a quarter of the total coastline of France. A very urban community, 70% of the population of 800,000 inhabitants live in cities (Brest: pop. 210,000, Quimper: pop. 80,000), the department has many tourist attractions. The museums, castles and lighthouses in Finistère all recount the history of one of France’s most remarkable departments, certainly the most sea orientated. Between them, the Daoulas Abbey and the Trévarez Domain re?ect the breathtaking results of more than ten centuries of excellence and experience in terms of gardening and horticultural heritage. The region’s natural heritage is just as spectacular, as re?ected in the magni?cent Armorica Regional Nature Reserve (PNRA) and the famous Pointe du Raz. Finistère harmoniously combines maritime tradition and love of the land. Far from simply being a magni?cent picture post card, it is ?rst and foremost an outstanding living environment. The numerous ? rms that prosper in the region invite you in for a closer look. Visitors can explore a production plant that harvests seaweed to manufacture cosmetics, or discover regional earthenware and clog industries, the secret to the brewing of tasty Breton beer, succulent buckwheat whisky or traditional bread. Biscuit, canning and cider factories, greenhouses, auctions and a clock market are the living proof of an industrial dynamism at a human level. Printing, the use of marine resources like seaweed, oyster farming, coffee roasting, strawberry farming, the restoring of ancient fabrics, Finistère is steeped in ancestral skills and know-how in arts and crafts of the past… Parallel to its traditional activities of agricultural production, food-processing and ?shing, the area has pro?ted from the dynamism of its research scientists and its labour force, enabling its growth through innovation in ? elds of cutting edge technology: elec- tronics, the aeronautical industry and naval construction.