Stuck out on the far north-western tip of France, as close to Dublin as it is to Paris, the harbour city of Brest is a mainly post-war construct. Its football club, Stade Brestois 29, were formed in 1950 – the ‘29’ refers to the national département number here in Finistère – from a merger of five smaller clubs.
The most prominent of these dated back to 1903. Amoricaine de Brest – a reference to the historic name for the region – made progress in the French Cup and nurtured locally born Alex Thépot. A member of the French team that sailed for two weeks across the Atlantic to play at the inaugural World Cup in 1930, Thépot was the son of a Breton sailor, fearless in the penalty box. The first-ever match at a World Cup was marked by his violent collision with a Mexican forward in the 26th minute, leaving France down to ten men for the rest of the game. Thépot then rallied to put in sterling performances against Argentina and Chile to be voted best goalkeeper at the tournament.
No wonder Amoricaine’s motto was Pen Huel, ‘Head Held High’ in Breton, a maxim carried over in the name of a stand at the Stade Francis-Le Blé. Approaching its centenary, this venerable ground in the far east of town, where Thépot learned his football, embodies another aspect of Breton culture: Catholicism. It was an abbot, Cozanet, behind the building of the original Stade de l’Amoricaine in 1922, the stadium only falling into municipal hands 60 years later when it was rebuilt and renamed after a Brest mayor who had died that year, Francis Le Blé.
In 1950, with the former Nazi submarine base of Brest in ruins from Allied bombing, it was a local canon, Balbous, who proposed the merger of five clubs under Catholic patronage into one Stade Brestois. The move weakened the local influence of the secular AS Brestoise, regional champions and French Cup quarter-finalists shortly before the war.
Formed in 1905, les Bleus attracted disillusioned players from Catholic club Amoricaine a decade later. Under Hungarian coach Kálmán Székány, who introduced his WM formation to good effect, AS Brestoise were the best-performing amateur club in France during that cup run of 1935-36, falling 4-2 in Paris to illustrious Red Star. Based at the Stade Menez-Paul, close to Amoricaine and expanded to 20,000 capacity in 1952, AS Brestoise remained a top amateur side for at least a decade.
Twice winners of the CFA-Ouest division in the early 1960s, second-best amateur side in France in 1963, ASB had one last great cup run that same year, losing out 1-0 to Toulon in the quarter-finals. Dropping down through the amateur ranks from the late 1980s onwards, AS Brestoise are currently in the seventh tier, still based at the Menez-Paul (40 rue de Gouesnou) by the tramway stop of the same name, one from the Stade Francis-Lé Blé.
Until 1970, Stade Brestois shared the same third tier as their nearby rivals, attracting five-figure crowds to either stadium on some derby days. La Team Pirate’s move up to D2 then, in 1979, a first season in Division 1, encouraged the local authorities to oversee the Stade Francis-Le Blé. The club rebranded as Brest Armorique and invested significant sums in attracting players from South America and top French talent – including David Ginola. Centre-back Jorge Higuaín played at Brest for a season in the 1980s, which is why later Argentina World Cup star Gonzalo was born here in 1987.
Overstretched, Brest Armorique collapsed in 1991, fans protesting on the pitch during the derby with Guingamp, now the main local rivals. Reformed and rebranded as Stade Brestois 29, the club spent 12 years in the amateur divisions before making Ligue 2 in 2004. In 2010, 20 years after Ginola, Brest regained the top tier.
During that time, the Stade Francis-Lé Blé had become a base for the France U-21 side. Harry Kane scored a brace in driving rain here in 2014, when later Bayern Munich star Kingsley Coman scored the winner in France’s 3-2 win over England.
By that time, Brest had been relegated, taking six seasons to get back to Ligue I in 2019.
Brest-Bretagne Airport is 10km (6.5 miles) north-east of town. After incoming flights, a shuttle bus runs to Porte de Guipavas, the nearest stop on tramway A that calls at Place de Strasbourg by the stadium, and Liberté in town. A ticket (€1.60, pay on board) is valid for 1hr, including further travel on the bibus network of buses, tramway and cable car. A day pass, sold at machines by stops, is €4.
The train from Paris-Montparnasse takes just under 4hrs. Advance singles can be as little as €43. Brest station is a 10min walk into town but a steep trek up rue Jean-Jaurès to the stadium, served by tramway.
Based on Jean-Jaurès, Taxi Brestois (+33 2 98 801 801) charge €26 from airport to town, bookable online.
Brest Tourisme has a hotel database. The only lodging near the stadium is Appart’City on rue du Vercours, a standard chain three-star. One tram stop towards town on rue Jean-Jaurès, the Kyriad is similar in style and standard. Just off Jean-Jaurès by the tram stop of the same name, L’Amirauté is a notch above, its restaurant likewise. In the same local family-run group, the equally four-star Oceania Brest Centre on city-centre rue de Siam follows the same maritime theme with its Nautilus restaurant. Nearby, on square de la Tour d’Auvergne, Oceania le Continental retains its pre-war Art-Deco style.
The other side of Jardin Kennedy, equally handy for the train, the mid-range Vauban has been in the same family for a century, the hotel rebuilt after the war, its ballroom the venue for top groups in the 1960s. A recent million-euro investment saw all 53 rooms renovated with no loss of external style. Alongside, the Mercure Brest Centre offers upper mid-range comfort with a bar attached, the Abalys is a neat two-star and alongside that, closest to the station, the Citotel Brest Centre Gare provides sea views at reasonable prices.
Waterfront views are one of best things about drinking in Brest, bars near the Pont de Recouvrance such as Offside Bay, Casa Havana, and sport-friendly tir na n’og providing a convivial excuse to sit outside and imbibe.
Round the marina side, affable Irish pub McGuigan’s also has a terrace, nearby pub/restaurant Les 4 Vents overlooks the waterfront that brings so many fishermen and sailors here, while the lovely Café des Mouettes further along is an elegant yet unpretentious bar of carved wood, maritime knick-knacks and TV football, in the same family since 1964. Its sun-catching terrace gazes over the harbour. Set behind, the Tara Inn lays on authentic Irish music, lashings of Guinness and TV sport. After-hours fun takes place a few doors down at Le Living Room, a weekend-only, over-25s only dance spot.
In the urban buzz near the Siam tram stop, the Blind Piper is a popular haunt for football-watching, Le Tudor likewise, and Le Central exudes bonhomie. The after-work crowd gathers over the well-chosen wines at Le Montparnasse, open weekdays only.
One tram stop up at Liberté, the terrace at La Petite Poésie throngs with locals, partly thanks to 90-minute happy hours, partly thanks to location, partly thanks to the quality drinks on offer.
Nearby, tucked away where rue Branda meets rue de la 2ème DB, Pub Hamilton is the best place in Brest for TV sport, its wooden interior decked out in framed shirts.
If you’ve just arrived by train, Le Cap Horn near the station offers a convivial welcome.