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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.