Saint-Malo, the call of the wild!

Like a dream made of stone, Saint-Malo is a true frontier between the mineral world and the ocean – but it is much more than that. When sailors see the city from the sea, as they approach the famous ramparts, they see its most prominent features and try to unravel its countless mysteries.

Breakwaters of the cité corsaire

An unusual palisade of oak trunks, planted in the sand of the Plage du Sillon beach is the first thing to intrigue them. Eroded by angry winds and the repeated onslaught of the tides, these breakwaters have protected the cité corsaire since the 17th century. Reaching 7 metres in height, these strange totem poles form part of the coastal silhouette of Saint-Malo’s coast. Nearly three thousand of them proudly stand up to the sea, spanning over 3 kilometres, from the Cale de l’Éventail to the Dyke of Rochebonne. No one would ever dare doubt their usefulness.

Like sentries, they are proof of the city’s rich past, while protecting its descendants. At low tide, as you wander among these breakwaters, you can linger on their knots, crevices, and the corroded wood, some of which have been shaped by the elements for over half a century. Certain visitors see contemporary sculptures or imaginary creatures scanning the horizon. Artists and creative spirits have never tired of the inspiration they provide.

High tides choreography

At high tide, the view from the dyke – a sort of balcony that opens onto the ocean – is just as fascinating. For, in Saint-Malo, here where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Channel, the tides can be particularly impressive (the tidal range can reach 12 metres/40 ft!) especially during the spring and autumn equinox. When the tide rises, powerful waves crash down on the ramparts in a choreography both majestic and thrilling. 

These one of a kind breakwaters are reason enough to visit Saint-Malo. But it would be a shame not to take a tour of the ramparts (1.8 km), “le tour des murs” – or “the walls”, as the locals call them. In fact, it is even advised to walk around them several times to admire the seascape changing depending on time and tide. Whereas, looking inward, visitors can appreciate the austere architecture of the many granite mansions. Both are wonderful ways to get to know this fortified city, and birthplace of Chateaubriand as well as famous sailors, explorers or pirates: Jacques Cartier, who discovered Canada; Duguay-Trouin, who captured Rio de Janeiro; Mahé de la Bourdonnais, governor of Les Mascareignes; and the intrepid Robert Surcouf. Public squares and streets bear their names. In the winter, when the gusts of salty wind whistle through the narrow streets, surrounded by the high ramparts, Saint-Malo rediscovers its fortitude and the atmosphere of a corsair city.

“Neither French, nor Breton, I’m a Malouin”

Built between the 16th and 18th centuries by the Dukes of Brittany, the castle also merits a visit, since it houses the city’s history museum (i.e., Le Musée d’Histoire de la Ville et du Pays Malouin). Legend has it that Duchess Anne of Brittany supposedly “wanted to make the castle her ideal carriage. The four towers represent four wheels. The grand donjon is the cab, and the galley is the tiller.”* Inside, naval paraphernalia, model ships, and paintings evoke maritime trade, major local figures, and the great era of the Terre-Neuvas fishermen. Here, you will learn how Saint-Malo has been fighting a bitter battle to preserve its identity since the Middle Ages. Invasions by the English, rule under the Duchy of Brittany or the kingdom of France – none of these could break the diehard Malouins, whose motto remains to this day: “Neither French, nor Breton, I’m a Malouin” (“Malouin”, of course, being the term to describe a citizen of Saint-Malo).

There are few places in the world where one feels the power and wealth of a culture and its struggle, all in such a concentrated area. In nearby Saint-Servan, the impressive Solidor Tower is home to the Musée du Long-Cours Cap-Hornier, which marks the invisible limit between two worlds: the sea and the Rance river. This antechamber to an agitated coastline is a silent territory flaunting colours ranging from blue-grey to jade green in Dinan, and has always offered natural shelter for humans and their boats. 

Everything here attests to this vocation to provide refuge: from the paleolithic encampment (near Saint-Suliac) to the vast Viking camp that hosted eighteen drakkars (at the foot of Mont Garrot), by way of the opulent homes that once belonged to Malouin ship-owners and explorers who, once they had made their fortune, built these tiny neo-classical (late 17th c.) castles known as “Malouinières”. There are roughly sixty of them in this inland region, which is adorned with rural harbours, waterlogged pontoons, sleepy docks and villages nestling in little inlets. 

Further to the east is Mont Saint-Michel, emerging from a bay of sand, offering another face of Brittany. This thousand-year-old hymn to spirituality is also known as the “Wonder of the Western World”. One is immediately struck by the beauty, balance, and madness of this medieval feat of engineering (157 m / 515 ft. tall) built by several monks attempting to conquer gravity. And the colour of the sky, the racing clouds and the grey of the sea, all make this architectural miracle that much more theatrical!

*Saint-Malo, histoire générale by François Tuloup, Éditions Klincksieck
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