Car-free islands: Ile de Sein, Brittany

The third car-free island on our tour is the Ile de Sein in the Department Finistère, in the middle of the Iroise Sea, 8 kilometres from Cape Pointe du Raz. The island is 2 kilometres long, between 30 and 500 metres wide and shaped like an inverted S. With an average height of 1.50 metres, the Ile de Sein is only just above sea level.

The island seems to have emerged from a combination of rock and sea, the latter of which is omnipresent and perceptible with all the senses. The Armorique Regional Nature Park has been part of the Iroise Biosphere Reserve since September 2013, together with the islands of Molène and Ouessant. There is not a single tree or shrub on the entire island. The Ile de Sein is regularly exposed to devastating storms and strong currents have led to repeated shipwrecks in the past. It's an old fishermen's saying that “Qui voit Sein, voit sa fin” (He who sees Sein sees his end).

Despite all adversities, man has always felt attracted to the island. Near the church, two menhirs testify to the presence of man in ancient times, albeit short-lived. Another document dating back to 1604 speaks of an “uninhabited island”. It, however, soon became home to fishermen from the Cap Sizun, who found ideal conditions for fishing there, and shipwreck survivors. But in 1664, the Ile de Sein was destroyed in the war and became orphaned again. Since the end of the war, the island became increasingly inhabited. In 1936, the population reached its peak with 1328 inhabitants, and even after the Second World War, more than a thousand people still lived there. It was not until the beginning of the 1960s that a slump occurred, which can be attributed to a very specific reason: the scallop. With the decline in mussel catches at the usual fishing sites, the islanders followed the mussel as far as the Brest roadstead. Due to the drop in the price of scallops in the 1970s, the mussel catch shifted even further to the bay of Sein, where the mussels were of better quality and therefore fetched higher prices. In addition, with rising property prices, fewer and fewer young fishermen could afford to live on the island. With 197 inhabitants, the Ile de Sein is now the least populated island in the department of Finistère. During the year, the population varies from 120 in winter to 1500 in summer. 64% of the 350 houses and apartments are used as second or holiday homes.

Alongside fishing, the algae industry has a long tradition here. Especially the women knew how to produce all kinds of valuable things from these sea plants. Until the 50s, seaweed was mainly used for the extraction of iodine. The last ovens in which the kelp was fired still bear witness to this day. The algae were used locally for smoking and cooking. As there are no trees on the island, algae were the only available fuel for a long time. The lichen carragghéen was used in patisserie and pharmacy and the ashes of the seaweed kalkougn were used in glass art. The alkaloid-rich residues of the burnt seaweed were also used in the household and as fertilizer.
Another special feature of the car-free island is that the use of bicycles is not permitted for visitors. But with only 56 hectares, the island is so manageable that it can be easily explored on foot. The alleyways of the small place are so narrow that even the inhabitants are not allowed to use bicycles in summer.
Despite all the restrictions and precautions, tourism is a danger to the island. Sein does not have a continuous rocky base, but is part of an ancient plateau of piled up gravel. In recent years there has been a trend to use the pebbles to build columns that look particularly aesthetic in the evening light, but which pose a serious threat to the island. Together with collecting pebbles as holiday souvenirs, this new trend is increasingly contributing to the erosion of the island.

On the sensitive island, waste prevention and disposal is one of the most important tasks and is all the more complex and costly. All waste is taken to the mainland and disposed of there.

Since 2009, the Ile de Sein has been easily accessible by public transport. From Quimper, you can travel by train and bus to the port of Ste Evette, 25 kilometres from the Ile de Sein. You can reach the island from there by boat.