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Saint-Malo is best approached from the sea. This is not only because the old town looks so impressive from offshore, the tall buildings within the walls peering watchfully out over the grey granite ramparts, but because the broad sweep of its seafront provides a kind of shorthand introduction to St-Malo's history and character.
While the grim old walled town on its central promontory catches the eye and hints at a turbulent past, to the east the hotels and cafés behind the beach of Paramé serve as a reminder that St-Malo is also a holiday resort. Similarly, as the visitor is steered through the fortified outer islands to enter the harbour from the west, it is easy to see that the quays are more crowded with pleasure craft than with fishing and commercial vessels. St-Malo is today primarily a visitor attraction, but much of its attractiveness depends on the relics of a former era, when attracting visitors was the least of its concerns.
* History *
St-Malo is so called after a British Celtic missionary called MacLow who converted the locals to Christianity in the 6th Century and was canonised for his efforts at the cost of having his name Gallicised in the process. There must, though, have been a settlement on the site long before then. The old town stands on what was originally an island sheltering a natural harbour with another easily defensible promontory, known as Alet, on the opposite bank. Lying at the mouth of the River Rance, it is an obvious location for a port and trading centre, and/or for a naval base.
During the middle ages, while Brittany was racked by dynastic squabbles and English invasions, the seafarers of St-Malo navigated their own course through the chaos, preying on shipping and profiting from all sides. At one time they went as far as declaring formal independence from France, and even when accepting the nominal sovereignty of the French crown, they did so on their own terms.
For long periods the town's main industry was privateering - a kind of state-sponsored piracy, mostly at the expense of British shipping. Before we Brits become too sanctimonious about this, we should remember that Drake and other Elizabethan naval heroes earned their fame by treating Spanish shipping in much the same way. In any case, St-Malo's maritime tradition also produced some notable explorers, including Jacques Cartier who first sailed up the St Lawrence estuary to found a colony that he named Canada. The Spanish word Malvinas - for what we know as the Falkland Islands - is a corruption of the French Malouins, or citizens of St-Malo, this being the origin of the first colonists.
Only in the 17th century, during the interminable reign of Louis XIV, was St-Malo finally and firmly brought under French government control. Recognising its strategic importance, Louis commissioned Vauban, his favourite military architect,
Pictures of St Malo (France)
Seen from the sea
to strengthen and extend the town's fortifications, most of which date from this period. The massive ramparts survive largely intact, but many of the buildings of St-Malo were reduced to rubble during the Second World War when the German garrison was besieged by invading Allied forces after D-Day. The town has since been rebuilt to the original pattern in much the same way as with Warsaw or Dresden, and casual visitors would hardly know that what they are seeing is in many places a reconstruction rather than the original. * A walk around the ramparts *
Having taken the wise precaution of arriving by sea, the canny visitor will already have guessed that the next step in discovering St-Malo is to walk around the walls of the old town, the view out from the ramparts being just as impressive as the view the other way. At the same time, much of the interior can be seen simply by turning your head that way as you go round.
My wife and I most recently undertook this circuit on a shower-swept blustery day, chilly weather for August, but maybe it helped keep the other sight-seers at bay. In any case, with its austere granite facades and slate roofs as steeply pitched as witches' hats, there is something about the city that rather suits bleak weather with a seasoning of salt spray in the air.
We started out clockwise from the southern gate, the Porte de Dinan. From above the gate you look out over the harbour entrance, busy with ferries and pleasure-boats, to the green hill of Alet on the further side, the fortress on its crest now a ruin. Walking seawards, the resort of Dinard can be seen on the far side of the Rance estuary, and the sweep of Brittany's "emerald coast" beyond.
Turning north at the bastion on the corner (all the corners of St-Malo's ramparts are reinforced with bastions, a souvenir of Vauban's visit) you find the seaward view suddenly opening up in front of you. At high tide the water almost laps the walls; indeed, in a storm it pounds them, as it does the islets poking up just offshore. At low tide these are revealed as the tips of rocky outcrops in the sandy foreshore. Also revealed is a swimming pool set in the beach, retaining the tidal waters as they retreat.
The nearest islets visible to the west are those of Grand-Bé and Petit-Bé. Grand-Bé, on which the noted local writer Chateaubriand is buried, can be reached on foot by a causeway only when the tide is out, and the unwary are sometimes trapped there for an uncomfortable few hours. On Petit-Bé stands a very imposing fort, which unfortunately was not open to be visited when we were there.
Another fort, rather a fine example of Vauban's work known as the Fort National, stands on another islet further round to the north, and can be visited. The guided tour (unfortunately, you are not allowed to wander round unguided) costs 4€ (c £3) and is excellent value for anyone with an interest in fortresses.
Before reaching the point on the circuit where you can go out across the beach to the fort you will have passed another bastion, the Tour Bidouane, which houses an interesting little maritime museum. On your return you will quickly arrive at the imposing Chateau, which doubles as the Town Hall and in which is another museum about the history of the town.
Beyond the Chateau, you are facing inland, though it hardly feels like it, because the space below the walls is filled by a series of artificial "bassins" that between them constitute St-Malo's marina and docks. Most of the space is nowadays taken up by yachts, though St-Malo is also a serious cargo and fishing port as well as a ferry terminal. This dockland view prevails as you pass another fortified gate and bastion back to your starting point.
* Within the walls *
Original or reconstructed, the heart of St-Malo is still 'Intra-Muros' - the old town 'inside the walls'. This covers just a quarter of a square kilometre, but you can easily lose your way wandering round the mazy cobbled lanes.
The most animated spot is the Place Chateaubriand opposite the chateau. The long narrow square is squeezed narrower still by being lined with cafés and restaurants, all with terraces spilling out under awnings, full of customers sipping drinks or digging into platters piled with seafood. This is often a place where street performers ply their trade, so it can be noisy, as well as crowded with visitors. The streets leading back from it towards the middle of town are likewise busy, and full of souvenir and curio shops, many of them tasteful, even artistic, but they do rather betray the nature of St-Malo today. Nevertheless, ambling round can be a pleasure and there are less frequented corners to be found.
Among the notable sights are the Cathedral, which was extensively rebuilt after the war and now integrates some well-judged modern features including stained glass in vivid shades, and the Place de la Poissonnerie, the old fish market square, which bustles with stalls and buyers on Tuesdays and Fridays. The nearby Halle au Blé, however, a beautiful building in an archetypal French style, seems no longer to be operating as a market.
* Around and about *
To me St-Malo is essentially 'Intra-Muros' together with the port and fortifications. Those who like resorts to have a beach and promenade, though, will find exactly that stretching away to the east through the suburb of Paramé to the adjacent village of Rotheneuf. St Servan, to the south, is largely an industrial and residential area, but it too has some interesting fortifications, including a 14th century tower, the Tour Solidor, in which there is now a museum devoted to the exploration and navigation of Cape Horn. Also to the south of town is a modern Aquarium with a good reputation, which I haven't visited.
Further afield, you can take a boat-trip over to Dinard, a less ancient town than St-Malo, but one with some elegant belle époque villas dating from its heyday as a resort at the end of the 19th Century. A longer boat-trip down the Rance will take you to the Dinan, a fascinating mediaeval city to which it is worth devoting more time than is possible in a day-trip. And Mont St Michel is not far away.
* Getting there *
Best by sea, as advised above. Brittany Ferries run from Portsmouth, but it is rather a long run. Condor Ferries run fast craft from Poole and Weymouth. We went from Poole, and the crossing took about five hours, including a stop at Guernsey en route. The time passed pleasantly enough. Or you could cross the Channel by another route and drive.
There is a railway station at St-Malo, but it is not on the TGV network; to reach it from Paris you'd have to change at Rennes, with a total journey time of nearly five hours.
If you are determined to fly, BMI Baby offer cheap flights direct to Dinard/St-Malo from London Stansted and East Midlands airports.
* When to visit *
Don't, if you can possibly avoid it, visit St-Malo in midsummer. We most recently went at the very end of August, after the "rentrée" weekend when the French traditionally all surge home en masse from their holidays, and it was still crowded. We would have done better to have left it till September or even October. April, May or early June would be good. Winter might be rather too bleak.
* Where to stay *
Need I say that St-Malo - the most visited tourist attraction in Brittany - is teeming with places to stay of all types and price-brackets?
We were tempted by two of the hotels in the old town: the classy-looking but not excessively-priced Chateaubriand fronting onto the square of the same name, and the Porte St Pierre, which faces the ramparts with sea-views from the upper rooms. But, perhaps in a rather craven way, we were deterred by the difficulty of parking in the centre and settled for the Hotel La Grassinais on the outskirts. This has been converted from an attractive old farmhouse, has an outstanding restaurant and is good value for money. The catch is that an ugly retail park has recently sprung up around the hotel, so compared with the old town the location is more than a little depressing.
In the past we have also stayed at the campsite atop the Alet hill opposite the harbour, a superbly-situated spot with great views, but very much in demand and usually crowded.
* Recommendation *
A cynic might say that Saint-Malo today is a bit of a tourist trap, and being something of a cynic myself I wouldn't entirely dispute the description. But it is so dramatically situated, retains such an individual atmosphere and encompasses so much of interest locally that it seems to me a trap one shouldn't go out of one's way to avoid. The bait is tasty, and well worth taking.