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I’m being blown along the ramparts of Saint-Malo on a dull January day by a damp, brisk wind when I hear him calling. “Madame, Madame,” his voice sails atop crisp airways. I glance over my shoulder to see a dapper gentleman, shopping basket in hand, approaching me. The ramparts are empty except the two of us.
He assumes because I am Canadian, that I am fluent and so, at a galloping speed, the conversation proceeds. His carefully enunciated words are delivered with flowing rhythm.
Despair sets in with a click of the tongue when he realizes that he has lost me part way. With pride and insistence, he leads me to the oldest door in the city. The intricate carving tells its story; the exact historical significance lost on me.
Perhaps it is that this door survived the flames in August 1944 when most of the city was destroyed.
At the time, the Americans shelled and bombed the city believing it was full of enemy troops, when in fact there was just a small number. The Germans had locked the gates and the inhabitants were trapped as fire ripped through Saint-Malo.
Perhaps German troops hammered on this door, during WWII, as they rounded up the men of Saint-Malo and imprisoned them at nearby Fort National.
Or perhaps this door was hand-carved back in the swashbuckling days when Saint-Malo’s ship owners were privateers that could fight enemy vessels in the name of the King of France. (Pirate style – non?)
These Malouins, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo, have an independent streak, seafaring bravery in their blood and a natural pride to share their history.
With a polite “Au revoir,” we part ways. I am left to marvel at this walled city.
Saint-Malo has been painstakingly rebuilt one stone at a time to recreate its beauty pre-1944.
soaring to its original height
while the Château de Saint-Malo, which now houses the museum, is once again captivating in its imposing grandeur.
An ambience of wonder washes over me. I feel drawn into the story of this place.
Is it the fact that Jacques Cartier, a Malouin, set sail on his voyage of discovery to Canada in 1554?
Or that a favourite novel of mine, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is set here. Marie-Laure the brave, young heroine blindly finds her way to the bakery and back to her uncle’s tall skinny house. How did she do that, blind and all alone during WW II? I start counting the grates on the cobbled roads.
Fragments of the story echo in my mind’s eye. It was a true story – right? I imagine Marie-Laure making her way through the city gate, down the concrete steps to the beach. “Twenty-two paces to the intersection with the rue d’Estrées. Forty more to the little gate. Nine steps down and she’s on the sand and the twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her.” (p.241)
Those same twenty thousand sounds of the ocean cast a briny spell over me.
The whistling salty wind turns my hair into a bird’s nest.
Tide pools ripple brimming with impossibly minuscule sealife.
Squawking gulls soar filling the grey-blue yonder.
And the sea slithers over wet sand.
Saint-Malo, being home to the highest tides in Europe, is skirted at low tide by a sweeping golden expanse that invites exploration.
I have company on my subsequent visits to Saint-Malo. My niece’s indestructible wonder and curiosity require endless beach wanderings, all the while the spire of Saint Vincent is watching.
We march to the sea’s edge, our fingers whisk in tide pools, they unearth rocks and they select only the most precious of jewels (sea glass) to carefully treasure forever.
Ancient doors, compelling stories, intriguing history and clear-eyed childhood wonder. In Saint-Malo, time is standing still for this instant.
“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”
When You Go…
Saint-Malo is easily accessed by ferry, train and plane. This link has all the information on how to get there.
Buses also will get you there! The journey will be longer but significantly less expensive.
Ferries from Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth, Guernsey and Jersey arrive at the ferry port which is walking distance to the walled city.
Trains from Paris with a transfer in Rennes take about 2 and a half hours. The high speed train to Rennes is about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
You could get off in Rennes, explore and then take a later 45-minute train to Saint-Malo.
The airport is located 14 km from Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo has A LOT of restaurants and cafés. Be sure to try the local specialities such as moules et frites and galettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour) both savoury and sweet. Breton cider is crisp, refreshing and oh so inexpensive.
And as always in France, the boulangeries have divine baguettes and croissants for a beach picnic.
How Long Is Needed To Visit Saint-Malo?
How long? In one day you can easily visit the walled town (intra-muros) and the beach but a few days will give you a chance to explore deeper and further.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Saint-Malo?
Best time of the year: Saint-Malo is a very popular destination and bustling in the summer. In the shoulder and off-season, you may also find that time stands still.
Day Trips From Saint-Malo?
Based in Saint-Malo, there are day excursions within easy reach, such as Mont-St-Michel.
Dinard and Cancale provide seaside visits and the chance to eat the freshest moules and frites!
Don’t miss Dinan’s medieval charm if you are in the area.
Following in the Footsteps of Marie-Laure:
If you loved “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, check out this guide to follow in Marie-Laure’s footsteps!
Where have you felt time stand still? What is your favourite seaside town?