Saint-Malo Beach
Fort National, Saint-Malo
Dinard, France
Saint-Malo walled city
Saint-Malo Musicians
Saint-Malo seafood bounty
Saint-Malo artists
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Holiday like the French in this scenic walled city by the sea

After a few brisk days of seeing the sights in Paris, I was whisked away to the Northwest of France, to the coast of Brittany, to visit friends. By train, we passed through the French countryside in a brief two-and-a-half-hour journey to the historic city of Saint-Malo to vacation like the French do – by the sea. Passing through wheat fields and cornfields, I was reminded of similar landscapes in Canada, where the fields lay on land so flat you could see miles ahead.

The region of Brittany is the breadbasket for France, providing it with most of its produce.

The unique landscape also lends to the history of the region, as the flat land and the tidal changes create long sandy beaches at low tide and magical islands at high tide. Between the peace and serenity of the countryside, the vibrant history of its surrounding cities, and the allure of sun-filled beach days, Saint-Malo was a triple-treat holiday destination.

The modern city of Saint-Malo dates to the sixth century when two monks decided to build a monastery in the area. Yet the city and its heritage can be traced further back to the first century BC, in an area further south. There a fort was built to guard the entrance of the Rance River, which flows through Brittany from the English Channel, right between the cities of Dinard and Saint-Malo.

Saint-Malo’s inhabitants have always carried an independent streak, with a history of refuting French and local Breton rule. This could be attributed to the fact that the city had long been a home for corsairs, privateers and even pirates. The fame of Malouin sailors can be seen in the many statues and street names around the old city of Saint-Malo. One icon that I recognized was Jacques Cartier, who was the first European to sail down the St. Lawrence Seaway and to land in what is now known as Montreal, Quebec.

The greatest tragedy to befall Saint-Malo happened late in 1944 during World War II when American bombing and British naval gunfire destroyed over 80 per cent of the city. From 1948 to 1960, extensive rebuilding work commenced to bring it back to its former glory. Now more than seventy years later, Saint-Malo’s walled city stands as a testament to the perseverance and strength of this region.

The old city of Saint-Malo, or the walled city as it’s also known, lies at the mouth of the Rance River overlooking the English Channel. Rebuilt to resemble the former structures of the city, it is surrounded by high walls with multiple gates and entrances for tourists and cars to pass through. Within the walls lie cobblestone roads and small boutique shops and cafes. The city itself is relatively small and easy to navigate. Simply walk in any direction towards the wall and you will find an exit. The wall itself is a marvellous walking trail; approximately one hour will take you all the way around. The views are stunning, as the wall overlooks the coastline and a few well-visited beaches. If nothing else, the walk on the wall makes this a worthwhile visit as you watch sailboats set off for deeper waters or admire the neighbouring city of Dinard.

On weekends, the city is full of life as street musicians and artists set up shop for the day, bringing a touch of Paris to this coastal city. Numerous restaurants offer seafood; fresh oysters are brought from the nearby town of Cancale, and mussels with fries are served everywhere. Of course, Nutella is a staple amongst the cafes too, served on crepes or in doughnuts and waffles. Or you can try a savoury galette made with buckwheat flour served with a wide variety of toppings. More traditional to the region is the Kouign Amann, a round cake made with layers of bread dough, butter, and sugar, on offer from a shop of the same name. In the walled city, there is never a shortage of culinary experiences.

Once you have eaten your fill within the walls and walked along the walls, undoubtedly your eyes will be drawn to one of the many islands or beaches that encircle Saint-Malo. The largest beach of them all is Plage du Sillon, which includes three beaches that stretch three kilometres between the city and the suburb of Parame. The beach is impressive not only for its length but also during low tide the beach widens considerably, creating a stunning white sand beach that seems to stretch on endlessly. Running parallel to the beach runs a road and a walking path that stretches over 1,600 meters. On either the beach or pavement, walking from one end to the other can take up to an hour, so bring a friend and enjoy a romantic walk along the beach at sunset.

The second beach that attracts tourists and locals alike is Plage de Bon Secours, where the Piscine de Bon is located. A much smaller beach in comparison to Plage du Sillon, this beach has an outdoor saltwater pool that can only be fully seen during low tide, with nothing but the diving board to prove its existence during high tide. The pool itself was built in 1937 by Rene Lesaunier, who cleverly capitalized on its location and the steady stream of visitors to the beach. Still popular amongst beachgoers eighty years, later the beach and the pool provide an excellent spot for boat watching. Be warned though; there are no change rooms or showers at either beach, so come prepared.

Amongst the islands that dot the coastline of Saint-Malo, a few have fortifications built on top. Between Plage de Bon Secours and Plage du Sillon is Fort National, which can be accessed by land only during low tide. Built-in 1689 by Vauban and Garangeau to protect the city against the English, it has remained steadfast for all these years. Although intriguing, it does cost five Euros to visit, so I chose to admire it from a distance.

Other islands around the city include the Grande Be and Petit Be. In 1848, Grand Be became the burial site of the French politician and writer, Chateaubriand, who asked to be buried near his hometown. The latter smaller island holds another Vauban fortress built in the seventeenth century, open only during low tides. It includes an exhibition and an unobstructed view of the Bay.

Both within and without the walled city, Saint-Malo carries a sense of beauty and wonder, yet the surrounding region holds so many more surprises. Across the Rance is the neighbouring city of Dinard, with its own restaurants and old Victorian-style homes. A short drive away is the city of Cancale, famous for its oysters, which are exported all over France. There you can find not only seafood restaurants, but you can buy oysters fresh from the farms, ready to eat with a splash of vinegar and lemon. If you are curious about what Saint-Malo may have looked like before WWII, head down to Dinan, a perfectly preserved historical city located at the end of the Rance River far beyond the coast.

With these cities and the many small beaches that dot the Brittany coastline, it’s easy to understand why so many French go to Saint-Malo every summer. Even from Paris, it is an easy weekend getaway by train. On this first visit to beautiful Brittany, I left feeling thoroughly relaxed and rested, regretting only that I had not eaten more of the deliciously fresh and locally harvested mussels when I had the chance to.