Explorers and privateers once sailed from the Channel port of Saint-Malo but its old walled city now holds attractions for modern-day travellers, as Toby Shergold discovered
The best way to visit the ville intra-muros, the old walled city of Saint-Malo, is to take E.M. Forster’s advice in A Room With a View by throwing away your guidebooks and getting lost in the narrow lanes in order to soak up the atmosphere. Unlike Florence – the setting of Forster’s novel –Saint-Malo is resolutely northern European, a bastion of grey stone battered by the sea and foreign forces right up to the end of World War II.
In summer, Saint-Malo is inundated by tourists and the population can almost double. It is the most visited place in Brittany, particularly by British travellers passing through the ferry port and bookending their holiday with a stopover. However, I am here in March and while the sun is in short supply and the wind is plentiful, it is the perfect time to breathe in the city at its briny best.
Defence against raiders
As we approach the terminal on the car ferry the ville intra-muros is a spectacular sight and with the tide at its highest, the waves are rolling up against its impenetrable walls. The city is built with the same grey granite Breton stone as another even more famous citadel around 50 kilometres down the road, Mont-Saint-Michel. The rocky island on which the ville intra-muros stands has guarded the mouth of the River Rance and the open sea beyond since before the time of the Romans. Saint-Malo was built up when local people moved here to defend themselves against Viking raiders, and the solid ramparts seen today were built in the 12th century.
Walking into the citadel means passing through either of the two main gates on the sea-facing side, La Porte Saint-Vincent or La Grande Porte. Nowadays these two massively fortified entrances overlook the port and a sailing marina, but in earlier times they could be entered directly only from the sea by boat. I pick La Grande Porte, the oldest and most imposing of the city’s gates; to its right is the Ch�teau de Saint-Malo, housing the Mus�e de la Ville where exhibits cover all elements of the city’s past, including piracy, colonialism and slave trading, in unflinching detail.
After this quick introduction, it is time to throw away that guidebook and lose myself in this old section of the city, which is quite difficult to do when it is no more than a kilometre across. Behind the ch�teau, the crooked lanes and roads climb and switch back up the steep rise of the rocky foundations. Building in such a restricted space means the houses are jammed in and piled high, reaching up to seven or eight storeys of imposing grey stone. This is offset by the wooden features of carved doors and ancient balconies.
Persevering up the almost claustrophobic cobbled streets is worth the effort because I suddenly find myself on the ramparts, surrounded by the sea on three sides and ringed by rocky islets and outcrops, many topped with small but redoubtable-looking forts, such as the �le du Petit B� and the Fort National. Walking the ramparts, it is possible to enjoy a view out to sea experienced by generations of Malouins (natives of Saint-Malo), including the explorer Jacques Cartier, whose statue has a prominent place on the walls. On three journeys between 1534 and 1542, he set out from Saint-Malo and navigated the Saint Lawrence River, claiming for France the lands that he named Canada.
Others to strike out from Saint-Malo were the first colonists to settle the Falklands, hence the islands’ Spanish name of Las islas Malvinas, which derives from Malouins. The city has long been home to a tough breed of mariners; in particular the notorious corsairs, 18th and 19th-century privateers who forced English ships passing up the Channel to pay tribute. Malouins are renowned for being fiercely independent: for four years from 1490, Saint-Malo even declared itself to be an independent republic, with the motto “not French, not Breton, but Malouins”.
Earlier, waves had been crashing against the walls of the citadel, but now at low tide, the scene is far more benign. A long beach has been exposed that runs along the bottom of the walls and reaches out to the likes of the �le du Grand B�, which houses the tomb of the Breton writer Chateaubriand. In the summer, the beach is packed with holiday-makers but at this time of year my blustery walk is shared only with dog walkers, a pair of joggers and a kite flier.
I walk back inland and eventually find at its centre the Cath�drale Saint-Vincent, its sharp spire acting like a spoke in the great stone wheel that is the ville intra-muros. Dating from the 12th century, its architecture is a mix of styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. It is a dark and musty old church surprisingly uplifted by the coloured light from a large and beautiful rose window.
Riches from the world
Continuing south, the island flattens out and I pass through the centuries from the idiosyncrasy of earlier times to an ordered and more recognisably French style – well laid-out roads, high roofs and tall chimneys. These were the 18th-century Baroque mansions built on the riches brought back from around the world by merchants such as Fran�ois-Auguste Magon, a director of the French East India Company, and by others whose privateering was far less reputable. Magon’s house in Rue d’Asfeld has been restored to its 1725 heyday and is open to the public as the Demeure de Corsaire, or the Privateer’s House.
From here it is a short walk to the Rue Jacques Cartier which completes the circuit of the old town. This is the hub for the city’s restaurants, with a string of businesses cut into the inside walls of the ramparts. While there is the usual cheap and cheerful offerings of galettes and cr�pes, Saint-Malo is renowned for its seafood; everything from a humble pile of moules frites for €10 to a plateau de fruits de mer for more than €110. Dipping a chip into the last of my soup of moules marini�res makes a perfect and literal way to soak up the essence of Saint-Malo’s sea-drenched ville intra-muros.
Toby travelled with Brittany Ferries on its overnight service from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo.
Tel: 0871 244 0744
WHERE TO STAY
H�tel France & Chateaubriand
35412 Saint-Malo Tel: (Fr) 2 99 56 66 52
Hotel in the late-19th century Napoleon III architectural style, at the entrance to the old walled city. Double rooms from €52.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Le Yacht Club
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 88 53 97
Situated next to the marina; lunch menus from €15, evening menus from €24.
Le Bistro de Jean
6 Rue Corne-de-Cerf
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 40 98 68
Breton cooking with menus from €19.
Restaurant Porte St-Pierre
2 Place du Guet
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 40 91 27
Family-run restaurant and hotel with old-school French attentive service.
Saint-Malo tourist office
Tel : (Fr) 8 25 13 52 00