Brest | France

Brest (French pronunciation: [bʁɛst] (About this sound listen); Breton pronunciation: [bʀest] ) is a city in the Finistère département in Brittany. Located in a sheltered position not far from the western tip of the peninsula, and the western extremity of metropolitan France, Brest is an important harbor and the second French military port after Toulon. The city is located on the western edge of continental Europe. With 142,722 inhabitants in a 2007 census, Brest is at the centre of Western Brittany's largest metropolitan area (with a population of 300,300 in total), ranking third behind only Nantes and Rennes in the whole of historic Brittany, and the 19th most populous city in France; moreover, Brest provides services to the one million inhabitants of Western Brittany. Although Brest is by far the largest city in Finistère, the préfecture (regional capital) of the department is the much smaller Quimper.

During the Middle Ages, the history of Brest was the history of its castle. Then Richelieu made it a military harbour. Brest grew around its arsenal, until the second part of the 20th century. Heavily damaged by the Allies' bombing raids during World War II, the city centre was completely rebuilt after the war. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, the deindustrialization of the city was followed by the development of the service sector. Nowadays, Brest is an important university town with 23,000 students. Besides a multidisciplinary university, the University of Western Brittany, Brest and its surrounding area possess several prestigious French elite schools such as École Navale (the French Naval Academy), Télécom Bretagne and the Superior National School of Advanced Techniques of Brittany (ENSTA Bretagne, formerly ENSIETA). Brest is also an important research centre, mainly focused on the sea, with among others the largest Ifremer (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea) centre, le Cedre (Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution) and the French Polar Institute.

Nothing definite is known of Brest before about 1240[dubious – discuss], when a count of Léon ceded it to John I, Duke of Brittany. In 1342, John IV, Duke of Brittany, surrendered Brest to the English, in whose possession it was to remain until 1397. The importance of Brest in medieval times was great enough to give rise to the saying, "He is not the Duke of Brittany who is not the Lord of Brest". With the marriage of Francis I of France to Claude, the daughter of Anne of Brittany, the definitive overlordship of Brest – together with the rest of the duchy – passed to the French crown.

The advantages of Brest's situation as a seaport town were first recognized by Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1631 constructed a harbor with wooden wharves. This soon became a base for the French Navy. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV, rebuilt the wharves in masonry and otherwise improved the harbour. Fortifications by Vauban (1633–1707) followed in 1680–1688. These fortifications, and with them the naval importance of the town, were to continue to develop throughout the 18th century.

In 1694, an English squadron under Lord Berkeley, was soundly defeated in its attack on Brest.

Brest is best known for its Pont de Recouvrance (Recouvrance Bridge, a massive drawbridge 64 m/210 ft high), the military arsenal and the rue de Siam (Siam Street). The castle and the Tanguy tower are the oldest monuments of Brest.

The Musée de la Tour Tanguy, in the Tanguy tower, houses a collection of dioramas that depict the city of Brest on the eve of World War II. The Musée national de la Marine de Brest, housed in the ancient castle, contains exhibits which outline Brest's maritime tradition, as well as an aquarium, the Océanopolis marine centre. The city also has a notable botanical garden specializing in endangered species, the Conservatoire botanique national de Brest, as well as the Jardin botanique de l'Hôpital d'Instruction des Armées Clermont-Tonnerre.

The city of Brest does not have much remaining historical architecture, apart from a few select monuments such as the castle and the Tanguy tower. This is due to heavy bombing by the Allies during World War II, in an attempt to destroy the submarine base the Germans had built in the harbour. In the 1950s, the town was hastily rebuilt using a large amount of concrete. In Recouvrance, the west bank of the town, there remains an authentic street of the 17th century, Saint-Malo Street.

A few kilometres out of town, there are more impressive landscapes, from sandy beaches to grottos to tall granite cliffs. Sunbathing, windsurfing, yachting and fishing are enjoyed in the area. Brest was an important warship-producing port during the Napoleonic wars. The naval port, which is in great part excavated in the rock, extends along both banks of the Penfeld river.

Due to its location, Brest is regarded as the first French port that can be accessed from the Americas. Shipping is big business, although Nantes and Saint-Nazaire offer much larger docks and attract more of the larger vessels. Brest has the ninth French commercial harbor including ship repairs and maintenance. The protected location of Brest means that its harbor is ideal to receive any type of ship, from the smallest dinghy to the biggest aircraft carrier (the USS Nimitz has visited a few times). Naval construction is also an important activity: for example, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) was built by Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) in Brest.

Despite its image of an industrialised city whose activity depends mainly on military order, the service sector represents 75% of the economic activity. The importance of service sector is still increasing while the industrialised activity decaying, explaining the unchanged rate of working-class in Brest. Brest also hosts headquarters for many subsidiaries like the banking group Arkéa... Research and conception is taking an increasing importance. Brest claims to be the largest European centre for sciences and techniques linked to the sea: 60% of the French research in the maritime field is based in Brest.

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