Some places are just worth coming back to again and again. For some people, it’s Disneyland. For others, it’s Mount Everest. Or prison. To each their own. Since we’ve moved to France, we find that the list of places we want to visit repeatedly keeps growing. The city of Dinan definitely ranks high on that list. Cherie and I first visited during our initial trip to Bretagne in 2018 and we fell in love with it. Charming, beautiful, interesting, rich with history, full of good flavors, dramatic vistas, shops galore. It’s got it all. So, when we were thinking of places to show Valerie during her recent visit, we knew that Dinan had to be one of them.
Val gave it the thumbs-up, so we checked the weather forecast, picked an upcoming sunny day, and launched into the countryside for the 65-minute drive to our destination. Dinan is a moderate-sized town which sits atop a plateau and spills down the slope to the Rance river. In the Middle Ages, the town began as a port on the river where it was still navigable to larger boats coming in from St. Malo and the English Channel to the north. But there is little room for expansion along this constricted section of the Rance. So Dinan expanded up-hill to the plateau where it’s historic prosperity is still on full display.
The old center of town is thick with architecture from the medieval and later periods. We have never seen such a collection of medieval porches. Formed by the upper stories of the buildings projecting over the sidewalks, these structures are beautiful. Walking through them is so evocative of how it must have been to pass through the town during the Middle Ages. Most of them still enclose shops at the ground level and serve as private residences above. There are supposedly some 130 half-timbered houses in Dinan. We didn’t count them ourselves. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are that many or more. They are so beautiful and the brilliance of the craftsmanship which they display never ceases to be a wonderment to me.
Civic and religious sites are also on full display in Dinan. As in Fougères, the town élites had erected their own beffroi (bell tower), La Tour de l’Horloge. It was constructed in the 15th century, with a clock installed in the 16th century at the behest of the Duchesse Anne de Bretagne. The beffroi stands on the highest point in town and is reputed to have a magnificent view. None of us are particularly fond of heights, so we didn’t make the climb. But if you’re keen on hanging out in high places, I’m sure it’s worth a look.
The Basilica Saint Sauveur was built in the early 12th century and greatly expanded in the 15th. It’s a lovely church with some particularly fascinating sculptural details both inside and out. There are fantastic, wild and exotic beasts galore to be found on the walls of the basilica. My favorite is the relief of a camel on the capital of the column just to the right on the inside of the entrance to the nave. The area around the church is a bit more tranquil than the heart of the centre-ville, with a chestnut-lined square and the adjacent Jardin Anglais adding to more sedate ambiance which surrounds you as you admire the romanesque and gothic architecture of the edifice.
Rue du Jerzual is a beautiful cobblestone street leading steeply down from the center of town to the old port on the river. It’s been there for 10 centuries and is not to be missed. Flanked on both sides with ancient stone and timber houses, this pedestrian way gently winds down the slope, leading you to the delights of a pasty or a drink on the stone-lined quays along the River Rance. Along the way, there are many opportunities to stop into several art galleries, restaurants and cafés, all of which are housed in the charming buildings lining the way. At mid-point, the rue passes through the midst of a 14th century gate tower, Porte du Jerzual. It’s a beautiful example of a single-tower gate and it’s in such a picturesque setting you won’t believe you’re not in a fairytale. Walking down the street is also a great opportunity to see several former medieval merchant houses, many of which served simultaneously as warehouses and workshops. A word of warning: he who wanders happily down must eventually climb back up. Unless you’re planning on hiring a cab for the drive the long way around, or just giving up and slinking away on a boat downriver to St. Malo. The street is not especially steep, but it’s worth consideration if you have difficulty with long, steady climbs, you are using crutches or a wheelchair, or if you’re trundling along with a baby stroller. In our two visits to this street, we have passed a fair number of out-of-breath visitors – still smiling, but looking a bit worse for wear.
Dinan boasts the longest surviving stretch of still-standing defenses in Bretagne: 2.65 kilometers (1.64 miles). They encircle an area of roughly 30 hectares (74 acres). The city walls include 15 towers and gates which are still visible. One can walk atop a good portion of the ramparts and there are many points which offer beautiful views of the town and its surroundings. The prospect from Tour St. Catherine is particularly awe-inspiring, as it overlooks the Rance, the old port, and the towering viaduct linking the city to the east side of the river valley. Probably the principal attraction of the medieval defenses is the Tour Ducale, a large fortified tower used as a residence for the the Dukes of Bretagne. It was built in the latter 14th century and stands quite close to the tourist information office. Probably not just a happy accident.
For some reason, the three of us actually debated as to whether or not we should visit the Tour Ducale. Cherie and I had gone inside in 2018. And it was great. But I think we undersold the experience to Valerie, which is why she was initially on the fence about it. Wisely, we eventually decided to give it a look and we were quite happy we did. Especially because the number of areas open to visit have greatly expanded since Cherie and I were last there. Now, in addition to the tower itself, there are chambers within the walls and gate (which include some interesting interpretive displays), as well as a long subterranean corridor that connects them. The cost of an entry ticket is definitely worth it. A tour of the ducal residence provides a good insight into the lives of the people who lived and worked there – from the kitchen in the bottom, through the ducal chambers above, and up to the soldiers’ barracks at the top. There are also some spectacular views from the rooftop of the tower. If you don’t mind heights, that is!
There is so much in Dinan to delight. In addition to all of the amazing sights and history, we enjoyed a great lunch and even a bit of shopping along the way. It’s a brilliant town and well deserves all of the praise it receives. We had a great time. Cherie and I will be visiting regularly and we were so pleased that we could share this wonderful place with Val. You should see it too. Do it! You’ll be glad you did.