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The town of Rostrenen, situated in the heart of rural Brittany, is typical of small communities across Western Europe that are struggling to find a way to survive in the face of global pressures seemingly beyond their control. The following article, reproduced from the Central Brittany Journal November 2008, takes a look at Rostrenen past and present.
The Church in Rostrenen is known as a Collégiale. It dates back to the fourteenth century, when it was an important place of pilgrimage. In was damaged in the Revolution when it was used as a gunpowder factory.
In the Middle Ages Rostrenen was the site of a baronial castle, attached to the diocese of Quimper, and part of the region of Poher, a region of Central Brittany centred around Carhaix. Rostrenen was famous for the miraculous discovery of a wooden statue in the year 1300 - locals had noticed a rose bush that was in leaf and flowering during the Winter months and when a search was conducted around its roots, a perfectly-preserved oak statue of a woman was uncovered. For hundreds of years afterwards, the town was a place of pilgrimage, and its humble church was rebuilt and upgraded to the status of a ‘Collégiale’. A spring, close to where the wooden statue was discovered, was found to have healing properties and even today ‘La Fontaine de Notre Dame du Roncier’ attracts visitors seeking a cure for their ailments.
The town suffered a reversal of fortune during the Wars of Religion (in the late 1500s), when the castle was destroyed, and its owners effectively expelled from the town. During the 1600s and 1700s Rostrenen was little more than a wayfaring station for travellers using the road from Pontivy to Carhaix, and its entire population was a mere 700 people for most of this time.
The popular pizzeria, Kumquat, in the place de Martray.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Rostrenen's pivotal geographic location on the crossroads of routes going East/West and North/South helped it to a rapid rise in prominence: the years 1789 to 1805 are amongst the most dramatic in its history.
Logically, and historically, Rostrenen falls in the region of Carhaix, just as Carhaix falls in the region of Quimper: communications between the Rostrenen region and Carhaix have always been good, and the roads reasonably passable even in winter. During the French Revolution, however, all such considerations were ignored and the administrative boundaries of France were redrawn according to the political expediencies by people working far away, in Paris. This resulted in the whole area around Rostrenen, including Maël Carhaix, Gouarec, Glomel and Kergrist Moëlou being placed in Côtes du Nord (later renamed Côtes d'Armor), with St Brieuc as the administrative headquarters. There were no proper roads connecting the Rostrenen area to St Brieuc – just tracks, often impassable to horses, which took two days to traverse – and it therefore became necessary to establish a new administrative headquarters in the South West of the new department. Rostrenen was chosen at least partly due to the social connections and political activities of some of its leading citizens.
The new importance granted to Rostrenen by the Revolution helped to give it the reputation for being a 'Revolutionary' town, and its inhabitants supported the new government, even when the sentiment in the surrounding countryside was turning against the Revolution. Another, contradictory, feature of Rostrenen in the Revolution, however, is that, even though technically pro-government, it often acted out of step with official policies: everyone in the town was fairly up to date with the latest news from Paris - because it was relayed to them by couriers travelling on the road from Pontivy to Quimper - but despatches for the town officials always arrived late, because they had to come overland from St Brieuc.
Ty Boutik, run by Alain Benion, sells local crafts and fair-trade products sourced from around the world. Alain is also available to give advice on the Linux computer operation system, and stages art exhibitions at the back of the shop.
5 place de Martray, Rostrenen.
The Church and the 'Itran Varia ar Bod', (Culte de Notre Dame de Rostrenen), was an ancient institution in the town and integral to everyday life. The government in Paris ordered that all Church property should be sold off to help raise funds for the state. It appears, however that no one in the Rostrenen region, not even prominent figures in local politics, wanted to be seen to be profiting from the Church’s misfortune and even though Church property in the town was put on the market it remained unsold for many years. There was also local outrage when priests were required to swear allegiance to the French government, and services held by non-swearing clerics were held openly in a chapel in the town.
As political intrigues in Paris intensified, even the elected officials in Rostrenen became less inclined to cooperate with official policy: in one famous incident the most wanted men in France, a group of ‘Girondin’ politicians, were apprehended sleeping in a barn outside the town – their passports were inspected, but after several hours of deliberation and hesitation they were released to go on their way. They eventually made their escape via Quimper.
Rostrenen was in the centre of an area in which the ‘Chouon rebellion’ against the Republican government was very active. Troops were garrisoned in the town for its protection, but, even so, it is widely believed that the townspeople were complicit with the rebels. When order was restored and the ‘French Empire’ established by Napoleon Bonaparte, political activity diminished and consequently the amount of money coming to the town's officials. Rostrenen reverted to its traditional role of a market town serving the surrounding parishes.
The popular LeClerc supermarket in the centre of the town.
During the 1800s, in addition to the weekly Tuesday market, Rostrenen had more fairs and markets than any other town in Central Brittany and it was on the basis of these markets that the town continued to prosper, and the population doubled to around 2000 over the course of the century (Rostrenen is a small commune, not extending far beyond the limits of the town itself, so this figure does not include people living in the surrounding countryside.)
Transport links still posed a problem, however, roads were still undeveloped, and it was not until the mid-1800s that Rostrenen water-bourne transport became available to the town - the Nantes/Brest canal runs to the south of Rostrenen - but by then, most of Europe had already started to switch to rail.
The main French railway companies made a policy decision to ignore Central Brittany - rival companies built main-line tracks from Paris to Rennes to Brest, and Paris to Nantes to Quimper, but there were no towns large enough in the centre to justify the expense of building a main-line track from North to South. For this reason local business people funded the development of a narrow gauge railway system during the mid 1800s, based around Carhaix. There were many proposals to link Rostrenen to this network but it was not until the end of the century, in 1898, that a line was completed from Rostrenen to Carhaix. Lines from Rostrenen to Guingamp and Quintin were completed in 1907 – but by then transport was starting to switch back to the roads.
Possibly because of the poor transport links, no major industry became established in the town, and this, combined with the fact that administrative jobs were still in short supply, meant that Rostrenen remained completely dependant on local agriculture for its prosperity. Consequently, it was particularly vulnerable to the difficulties experienced by Breton farmers during the twentieth century, and, as the number of active farmers declined, so did the number of people using the town’s markets.
Matters came to a head in the early 1990s when the cattle market was acquired by new owners, who shortly afterwards shut it down. This had a knock-on effect on shops and businesses that relied on custom brought to the town by the weekly market, and precipitated an economic decline.
The Main shopping street is a collection of small, privately-owned shops and bars each of which offers a friendly service.
The task that has faced business people and local politicians since then has been to try to rebuild confidence. Like many other towns in Central Brittany, Rostrenen has had a far-left council for most of the past sixty years - reflecting the deep-seated resentment against activities of centrist and right-wing politicians during the war. The present mayor, Jean-Paul Le Boedec, however, was elected on a mandate designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of voters.
He is one of the local politicians first to recognise the contribution that newcomers can make to the region – even if they cannot speak fluent French. He is keen to make clear to English-speaking residents that his administration welcomes the presence of an English-speaking population and values the contribution that they make to life in the town – including the creation of shops and businesses and in helping to revitalise the tourist industry by opening Chambres d'hôtes, gîtes, etc., and even in their participation in local politics (all three lists in the recent elections contained English-speaking residents). His administration has make it clear that its ambition for the town is to make it welcoming and attractive for everyone who wants to live there - and it does seem that this spirit is helping to revitalise the town.
Local shopkeepers report that even though the streets of Rostrenen are not teeming with shoppers, rents and rates are reasonable, and that there has probably been a lower turnover of new businesses over the past few years in Rostrenen than in other, busier more prosperous-looking towns. The weekly market has re-located to the centre of town and is well-known for its locally-produced and organic produce – including vegetables, cheeses, breads, eggs, meat and cakes.
Small shops predominate in the town, shopkeepers are friendly, have time to chat, and many are willing to promote cultural initiatives and exhibit paintings – in short Rostrenen is now the sort of town that people across Europe, stressed by modern living, are dreaming of one day being able to discover.