I became obsessed with visiting Saint-Malo, a seaside city in northern France, after reading Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See. It tells the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in Saint-Malo during WWII. The story is riveting, but it’s the author’s description of the ancient walled city, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the English Channel (la Manche) that totally captivated me. Saint-Malo was my most anticipated stop on our cycling trip in northern Brittany and it did not disappoint.
We approach Saint-Malo from the resort town of Dinard where we load ourselves and our bikes onto the ferry for the short trip across the mouth of the Rance (river). I’m so excited as the fortified city gets closer. Its cathedral spire soars over the surrounding buildings just like I remember it from the book cover.
I’m well aware that Saint-Malo is one of Brittany’s biggest attractions and I try to temper my expectations. We pass through the impressive Porte Saint-Vincent, the main gate of eight entry gates to the fortified section of Saint-Malo, known as Intra-Muros (within the walls). It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday in mid-September and the place is bustling with visitors. People are lined up for ice cream, crammed into outdoor cafés, and they jam the narrow cobblestone streets. We dismount our bikes to avoid the cheerfully oblivious throngs. It’s not exactly the picture I had in mind but I can’t help being swept up by the vacationers’ last hurrah to summer. I shudder to think of what it’s like in peak holiday season.
We drop off our bikes at our guesthouse and climb the steps to the ramparts where we find a peaceful scene. While the crowds are eating and shopping in town, there are surprisingly few visitors strolling on the majestic wall that forms an almost two kilometre loop around the old city. Saint-Malo’s ramparts must surely be one of the top urban walks in France. On the ocean side, a string of dazzling beaches give way to stunning views; on the city side, the arresting architecture and historic monuments capture my imagination.
Saint-Malo’s roots go back to before Roman times and its original ramparts were born as early as the 12th century. After the great fire of 1661, the granite wall was completely rebuilt. It was enlarged in the 18th century by Garangeau, the engineer-architect and disciple of Sebastien Vauban, Louix XIV’s royal architect.
From the ramparts, we spy a beach bar overlooking the glorious Plage de Bon Secours. There are still tables available. We can’t believe our luck. We drink wine and bask in the late afternoon sun that casts a golden glow on the wall and buildings.
The swimming pool at Bon Secours beach is sublime. At high tide it’s barely visible save for the diving board platform; at low tide the water recedes from the beach and remains only inside the pool’s retaining walls. It looks so inviting that we go for a dip the next day. The water is darn cold but we love every shivering second.
The swimming pool isn’t the only thing that disappears at high tide; so do the sand spits that connect the city’s two offshore forts—Fort National and Fort du Petit Bé. Both forts are part of the defences that Vauban designed in the 17th century to protect Saint-Malo from British and Dutch fleets.
I’m drawn to the distinctive architecture of the buildings that border the ramparts—the uniform sand-colour granite, the attractively austere lines, and the steep roofs. We learn that some of them are historic mansions originally built by Saint-Malo’s notorious corsairs (pirates operating on behalf of the French Crown). The city’s importance as a seaport developed in the 16th century when piracy was an accepted part of warfare on the high seas. The corsairs regularly pillaged foreign ships in the English Channel, and many of Saint-Malo’s corsairs became wealthy men thanks to the spoils of piracy.
We find the best wide-angle view at the end of the city’s long jetty where locals are fishing and drinking beer. To the right of the jetty is what’s known as Corsairs’ Row or Maisons de Corsaires—a string of buildings originally owned by the Saint-Malo pirates.
Pirates are not Saint-Malo’s only famous seafarers. Perhaps some of my Canadian readers are up on their history more than I am. It turns out that the explorer Jacques Cartier is a Saint-Malo native son. He’s credited with the discovery of the Saint Lawrence estuary and in 1534 he claimed what is now Canada for France.
As fascinating as Saint-Malo’s pirates and explorers may be, I’m even more intrigued by its WWII history that caught my attention in Doerr’s book. In the chilling climax, the two main characters are trapped inside the walled city as it is ravaged by Allied Forces bombing in August 1944 (I won’t give away more). The Germans had occupied the city since 1940, and although by the end of the war less than 100 troops remained, the Allies believed the Germans had major armaments built up within the city walls. As a result, Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by American shelling and British naval gunfire. 80% of the historic old city was lost.
What happened after the war is astounding. Over a 12 year period from 1948-1960, the city was rebuilt brick by brick. Instead of modernizing the style of architecture, it was meticulously restored to its original aesthetic—the ramparts, cathedral, castle, mansions all replicated exactly. It’s hard to believe that most of what I’m seeing is not the original, and just a mere 60 years old. I’m in awe of the resolve that must have been needed to accomplish this feat. Saint-Malo’s striking natural beauty and location make it an enticing spot to visit, but it’s the city’s storied history that now places it among my most memorable European experiences.
If you go:
- If possible, avoid peak summer season and book in advance.
- Saint-Malo has plenty of accommodations both inside and outside the walled city, but for the most atmospheric stay book a place in Saint-Malo Intra-Muros (within the walls).
- Spend at least two full days in Saint-Malo and more if you want to explore the surrounding area.
- The passenger-only ferry to Dinard is a nice little excursion and offers great views.
- Saint-Malo makes a good base for discovering other attractions like Mont-Saint-Michel, Dinan, Cancale…
Next Posts: More highlights from our cycling journey from Morlaix to Mont-Saint-Michel: Cap d’Erquy, Pink Granite Coast…