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Saint-Malo in Brittany

Fortress against the waves

It’s quarter past seven in the morning, ship’s time, aboard Brittany Ferries’ mv Bretagne out of Portsmouth. Suddenly the cabin radio speakers, of their own accord, burst into what must be nobody’s favourite piece of music at a volume level that no amount of blocking with pillows, blankets, and baggage will permit further sleep. You are being advised that in one hour’s time the ship will be docking at your destination port, the granite-walled fortress town of St-Malo. By the time you have showered, dressed, and vacated your cabin, Bretagne is already manoeuvering up to the dock, and as you gulp down a coffee and croissant you have a splendid view over the imperious ramparts of the town with its tall, austere houses peering over them onto a broad apron of sandy beach.

 St-Malo presents its most imposing face to the sea, and it would certainly be worthwhile on your next crossing to set your alarm a half-hour earlier and to go up on deck and watch its sombre façade materialize and grow in the early morning light. Constructed from the same grey granite as the famous abbey at Mont-St-Michel, the town walls reflect a rugged history of fierce independence and derring-do, best expressed in the local saying “I am not French, nor Breton, I am Malouin!” This spirit led the town to declare itself an independent republic in the 16th century, by which time its sailors were already rampant on the high seas as privateers, slave-traders, and colonialists. Jacques Cartier sailed from St-Malo on his voyage of discovery to Canada, and Malouin sailors ranged as far as the Falkland Islands, which in the non-English-speaking world are named after the town and its explorers: Las Islas Malvinas, or les Malouïnes. The interesting Musée d’Histoire de la Ville, located in the town castle, details these various often less-than-salubrious activities and the prosperity they fostered; the piracy (mainly on English shipping) was officially sanctioned in the 1660s by Louis XIV, and by 1689 the great engineer Marshal Vauban was engaged to fortify what had become France’s most important commercial port.

A walk around the resulting ramparts affords splendid sea views and overlooks a number of small islands, often with fortifications built against mainly English attempts at retribution for the Malouins’ privateering. The old citadelle within the walls, or “Intra-muros” as it is called, is a labyrinth of narrow streets winding among tall houses, and is a remarkable achievement of reconstruction. In 1944 St-Malo was bombarded by the Allies attempting to extricate several thousand German soldiers who had taken up a position fleeing from the US advance, and 80 percent of the old town was destroyed. After the war the town was rebuilt in the original style and using as far as possible the original stone, a labour completed in 1971, and celebrated by placing a stone cross atop the Cathédrale St-Vincent.

St-Malo has retained its character, but shows as well a modern face to the world, and welcomes its visitors with a great variety of restaurants (specializing in seafood, of course, especially oysters), cafés, theatres, and shops devoted to Breton gifts, books, and food. There is a lively café scene in Place Châteaubriand near the main town gate, the Porte St-Vincent, and markets several days per week. Hopefully, viewed once more from the decks of Bretagne as she sails for Portsmouth, the town ramparts, whilst not bathed in the nostalgic light of sunset, will take on a less forbidding aspect than on arrival.

Getting there

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Leaving St-Malo, mid-morning

Islands just off St-Malo

Brittany Ferries' Bretagne'

Islands just off St-Malo

Pristine decks


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