Delightful Dinan

Outdoor Café on the Rue de l’Horloge

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.

View from the Tour Ducale

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.

Ringing in Your Ears for 600 Years – L’Horloge

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.

Enjoying My Stroll Down Rue du Jerzual
The Tower Gate

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.

La Tour Ducale

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!

Down on the Port

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.

Getting Lost in the Charming Side Streets
View of the Viaduct from the Port
A Devilish Font (Église St. Malo)

A Walk in the Park: Parc Botanique de Haute Bretagne

Le Château de la Foltière Overlooking the Gardens

So, yes, Autumn is in full swing. Probably not the best time of the year to visit a garden. But Fall has a beauty all its own, don’t you think? It’s not necessarily measured in riotous explosions of flowering and ebullient foliage. But this season brings a certain, slightly melancholic subtlety. An evanescence, a dénouement, if you will, signaling Nature’s job well done over the Spring and Summer. I like Autumn. I like its understated quality, its more solemn light and colors, its less frenetic energy. And there is a certain grandeur to be witnessed for those who wish to see it.

It was in this spirit that Cherie, Valerie and I decided to make a visit to the Parc Botanique de Haute Bretagne. This botanical park is a mere 15 minute drive northeast of Fougères, deep in the rural countryside, set amongst low, tumbling hills checkered heavily with corn fields and cow pastures. Last year, Cherie and I had ventured out to visit this garden, but we arrived to very ominous-looking skies which were daring us to go for a walk far from shelter. So we took the coward’s way out and drove right back home. But on this day of our return the weather was beautiful and Cherie and I were ready to reclaim our pride.

We had a nice, quiet time at the park. While there were certainly other visitors, they were far and few between. So it was tranquil. We felt like guests on a friend’s estate. Not that we know anyone who actually owns an estate. [But we’re not snobbish – if there are any estate owners out there who would like to become our friends, we’re more than happy to visit you!] The 25 hectare park is beautiful and offers a great variety of areas to explore with different themes. It’s well-curated and maintained. And even though most of the flowers were spent, it is still easy to imagine the potential. We will certainly visit again in the Spring or Summer.

View of the Walled Garden
Still Blooming – Red Bistort in the Walled Garden
In the Heart of the Maze of Knossos Lurks a Minotaur (On the Loo?)
The Japanese Garden
Autumn Reflections
Former Entrance to the Estate
The Old Boathouse
Things Get Rocky
Stable Barn

And finally, your reward for making it to the bottom of this post. A moment of zen …

Tap and Turn Up the Sound!

A Sunny Day in Saint-Malo

Palm Trees and Impenetrable Walls: Saint-Malo

It seems like we only really drop our preoccupation with the tower when we have visitors. Having Valerie stay with us has been a real catalyst for us to go sightseeing. Happy days! Yesterday, we awoke to beautiful October weather. Clear blue skies, warm but fresh temperatures, occasional gentle breezes – absolutely beautiful. And this time the city of Saint-Malo was our target for exploration.

Acres of Harbor: A French Naval Vessel Amongst a Fleet of Fishing Boats

St. Malo is a city of around 135,000 people in the metropolitan area. It’s a port city, situated on the northeastern coastline of Bretagne at the mouth of the Rance estuary. Wider St. Malo is quite spreading, but the old city, the Intra-Muros, is compact, easily walkable, and confined within the still-complete circuit of city walls which define it. It’s essentially surrounded on all sides by water, a combination of the ocean and a series of large harbors. There is a large fishing fleet, a naval station, marinas for pleasure boats, and a significant ferry terminal – all hugging the walls of the old town. From here, you can catch daily ferries to the U.K. (Portsmouth or Poole), or the Channel Islands. So, even though the center within the wall is largely given over to tourism, there is a good deal of serious business going on just outside.

What Was Lost: The Old Train Station in Fougères

There are direct TGV trains from St. Malo to Rennes, Paris, Brest, etc. But, sadly, not to Fougères. Our town has no train service at all, which is a real disappointment. Like many places in the world, a thorough lack of vision led to the cessation of passenger train services in Fougères in 1972. So, we drove. It’s only 1h25m by car to St. Malo, a nice northwesterly drive through rolling countryside. The outskirts of St. Malo are full of business parks, a massive water park, subdivisions and the like. Not particularly awe-inspiring.

Porte Saint-Vincent

Once past the detritus of modern sprawl, we came upon a 17th century vision: the old fortified city of St. Malo. It’s really beautiful and impressive. The original walls, devised by Louis XIV’s famed military engineer, Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, still encircle the original town. These formidable defenses erected to shield the inhabitants from English ambitions and to guard the surrounding waters for their naval and fishing fleets. The entire circuit is some 2 kilometers and it’s possible walk the ramparts nearly the entire way. So, we did. It was a glorious stroll, with magnifient views along every single section of the walls.

In particular, the ocean views are tremendous. The azure waters surround numerous small rocky islands, many of them topped with smaller forts and gun platforms. There are several stretches of sandy beach at the foot of the walls, punctuated with rocky patches strewn with tidal pools and low-lying causeways leading out to a couple of the islands offshore. Much of this is under water for part of the time. St. Malo experiences a huge tidal range of 13 meters! We were lucky enough to see it at low tide. There is also a large saltwater pool on one of the beaches, complete with several high-dive platforms at various levels. It was nice to see that locals and visitors alike enjoy these beaches, including several dogs happily frolicking in and around the water.

Run for Your Lives!: Tourists on Parade
Cherie Leading the Way into a Pictoresque Square

The city inside the walls is equally lovely. Massively shelled and bombed by Allied forces in August, 1944 as German forces refused to surrender, the city suffered extensive damage. Rebuilding took 12 years (1948-1960) and much of what stands today was reconstructed. Even so, the architects tried to replicate what had stood before the destruction of the war. The city streets therefore still exude a charm of previous times in a surprisingly pleasant way. The many cafes, bars, restaurants and shops lining the main streets are well-maintained and attractive – all designed to lure the countless hordes of tourists which visit the town every year. Even though we were there in October and Covid restrictions are still impacting travel, the high streets and walls were thronging with visitors. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the height of Summer sans pandemic.

Branching out from the main avenues, the smaller, more narrow and intimate streets were havens of greater tranquility from the madding crowds. These were our favorite areas, harboring old-style coffee shops, épiceries, restaurants, and bars. The ambiance was alluring.

Val, About to Test Out Another Kouign Amann (“queen-ahmahn”)
The Fattiest Pastry: We Love You Just the Way You Are

Of course, we stopped for some Kouign Amann (a sweet Breton specialty pastry), amongst other goodies. Unusually, for me, I resisted the urge. Probably because I was so entranced by the interesting architecture and animated street scenes laid out before me. Val has been eager to try out different iterations of Kouign Amann because it’s a recipe which she and her granddaughter Jessica have been working to perfect. So far, she’s been a bit underwhelmed by the offerings she has tried. We have to agree. The versions we had in Seattle were far better. Which is surprising, given that we now live in the birthplace of this really yummy pastry. In Breton, the name simply means “butter cake” and was invented in Finistère town of Douarnenez in the 1860’s. Apparently, the New York Times dubbed it the most fat-filled pastry in all of Europe. Yeah, baby! That’s why it’s sooooo good. Just a puff-pastry consistency yeast dough filled with butter and caramelized sugar. When done well, it’s a beautiful thing. When not – meh!

A Bemused Valerie in Front of La Maison du Beurre

Pastries accomplished, we sought out another destination: La Maison du Beurre. No, this “House of Butter” is not actually made of butter. Though nearly so. Situated down a cozy little street off the main thoroughfare, is a pretty blue-fronted shop dedicated to all things butter. I know, right? What could be better than that? They sell cheese too, which is also pretty great. It’s a small shop, packed with amazingly good things. Cherie and Val displayed admirable restraint, emerging with only a small bag of one slab of butter (olive oil and lemon infused), a wedge of cheese (Tomme de brebis Corse), and some apricot/basil paste (trust me, it’s good) to pair with the cheese. We broke into those goodies later that evening and I’m happy to report that they were all voted – by unanimous consent – delicious. None of it will last long. Not in our house!

We visited two churches in town. Well, one, really. The first one we spotted from the ramparts. It looked to be a mix of medieval and baroque architecture and we were intrigued. So we descended from the wall and found the front. But it was not quite what we thought it would be. We should have known by the formal greeting we received upon entering. Not something one expects when entering your average church in France. We quickly discovered that this was a former church, now an exhibition space. We could see right away that the art on display was, shall we say, not to our taste. Lots of large format watercolor renderings of industrial buildings, parking lots, old school structures and the like. But, given the formal welcoming we received, we felt obligated to at least make a show of interested and purposeful viewing of the pieces on display.

The social graces observed, we exited and returned to the ramparts. Somewhat later on, we managed to find the Cathédrale Saint-Vincent de Saint-Malo. A proper church. Although it is still referred to as a cathedral, it doesn’t appear to be the seat of a bishop anymore. But it was in the 12th century when bishop Jean de Châtillon began construction on the current edifice, built upon the ruins of a succession of older, war-ravaged, churches going back to the 6th century. Additional pieces were added in the later Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 18th century – elements of which are on display in this beautiful and interesting church. Of note is the sunken ambulatory which is one level below that of the chancel it surrounds. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’ve never come across this particular type of arrangement in any of the other ecclesiastical architecture I have visited. The famous french explorer Jacques Cartier (a native of St. Malo) received a blessing here before setting off to discover Canada in 1535. Well, if you want to get technical about it, he re-discovered it. Scandinavian explorers had found it centuries before. And, the Indigenous Peoples had been living there the whole time. Still, it was a remarkable feat of sailing and navigation. So there’s that. Back to the theme of war-ravaging, the cathedral was also heavily damaged during the siege of St. Malo in August, 1944. Reconstruction was not completed until 1972. Now whole again, St. Vincent offers a great insight into the history of the city and its people. We love churches and this one was well worth a look.

Place Chateaubriand

St. Malo was a real treat. We were so lucky to have visited during a spate of such glorious weather. Despite some crowded areas and the understandably heavy tourist influence, this city will definitely reward your efforts to get there. If you’re coming by train or ferry, it’s dead simple. By car, it’s rather congested and parking – even in October – was a bit hard to come by. But the city has clearly made significant efforts to accommodate their visitors. We will certainly make St. Malo one of our regular destinations.

For Jessica: A Bit of Retro Art Nouveau