Once the feared base of pirates (corsairs), heavily fortified against Norman (or English) attack, today’s Saint-Malo is one of the top tourist draws in Brittany. The citadel, also known as the Old Town or intramuros (“within the walls”), was originally built on a rocky island at the mouth of the Rance estuary. This strategic position allowed control of both the sea and any trade heading into the interior of Brittany, helping to shape the stormy and often dark history of the city.
The star of the show is the walled city (intramuros), largely destroyed in the second world war it has been painstakingly reconstructed. The modern towns of Parame and Saint-Servan lie outside the walls. During the day everyone hits the beaches and at night they come to the intramuros to eat and party until late in the night. They have free concerts every night just to the right of the picture, artists doing sketches and lots of little stores, restaurants and bars.
François-René Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was a French writer, politician, diplomat and historian. He is considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature. Born in Saint-Malo, the last of ten children, Chateaubriand grew up in his family’s castle in Combourg, Brittany. When the French Revolution broke out, Chateaubriand was initially sympathetic, but as events in Paris became more violent he decided to go to North America in 1791 where he stayed for a year. This experience would provide the setting for his exotic novels Les Natchez (written between 1793 and 1799 but published only in 1826), Atala (1801) and René (1802). His vivid, captivating descriptions of nature in the sparsely settled American Deep South were written in a style that was very innovative for the time and spearheaded what would later become the Romantic movement in France. Lord Byron was deeply impressed by René. The young Victor Hugo scribbled in a notebook, “To be Chateaubriand or nothing.”
His political thought and actions seem to offer numerous contradictions: he wanted to be the friend both of legitimist royalty and of freedom, alternately defending which of the two seemed most in danger: “I am a Bourbonist out of honour, a monarchist out of reason, and a republican out of taste and temperament”. He was the first of a series of French men of letters (Lamartine, Victor Hugo, André Malraux) who tried to mix political and literary careers. “We are convinced that the great writers have told their own story in their works”, wrote Chateaubriand in Génie du Christianisme,”one only truly describes one’s own heart by attributing it to another, and the greater part of genius is composed of memories”. This is certainly true of Chateaubriand himself. Of course, he coined the name of a dish made from a cut of tenderloin (the Chateaubriand steak). He was buried on an island (called Grand Be) near Saint-Malo, only accessible when the tide is out.
In one of the main squares, just inside the city gates you find this great little hotel named after him. Trip advisor gives it good marks although the UK visitors like it better than Americans who are used to bigger rooms. Sea views, great location and air conditioning, 4 stars. There are plenty of other hotels.
Here is a picture if the town hall which is located next to the town museum. The fortress seen in the distance is part of the town defenses when it was part of Brittany. Fort Royal was built in 1689 by Jean-Siméon Garangeau based on the plans of the great architect Vauban to protect the port of Saint Malo on the order of Louis XIV. The fort was the largest of the three island forts immediately to the north of the town. A large cistern was used to collect rainwater for the garrison. During the French Revolution the name Fort Royal became unacceptable, so it was changed to Fort National, the name it has retained to this day.
Here is a picture of the fort at low tide.
Here it is at mid tide.
Finally here is the same fort at high tide. It was historian and lawyer Eugene Herpin, a native of the region, who named the “Emerald Coast” because of the particular colour of the sea that you see in the pictures. The tides along the emerald coast are some of the highest in the world, averaging 26 feet, with spring tides as much as 45 feet. They have a power generating system based on these high tides.
The Rance Tidal Power Station is the world’s first tidal power station and also the world’s second biggest tidal power station. The facility is located on the estuary of the Rance River, in Brittany, France. Opened on the 26th November 1966, with a peak rating of 240 Megawatts, generated by its 24 turbines, it supplies 0.012% of the power demand of France. Electricity production costs are lower than that of nuclear power generation (1.8c per kWh, versus 2.5c per kWh for nuclear). In the picture seen above, you can see that they have built a dam across the Rance river, with the turbines on the right. As the tide goes up and down, the turbines turn the power of the moving water into electricity.
There are more forts scattered around the little islands, this one is quite a distance from the shore.
The Old Town fortress has beautiful picturesque everywhere you look with lots of flowers all through the town.
There is large marina which you can visit. St. Malo is known for its castle, the cathedral of Saint Vincent and its 14th century ramparts which overlook the sea. The spire of Saint Vincet can be seen from almost anywhere in town. St Malo was named after MacLaw, a Welsh monk and bishop who fled to Brittany in 538, living as a hermit on an island. The 44-acre fortified city became really famous in 1590 when its inhabitants declared their city an independent republic. Their motto was “Neither French nor Breton, but a Malouins am I”. This situation did not last more than four years but local people acquired a strong reputation as warriors. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Malo derived prosperity from its navigators, traders and mainly privateers. Malo became a city of millionaires thanks to the trade by vessel done between the Americas and Europe and its boats called “Newfoundlanders” that fished for cod on the East Coast of Canada. But their most lucrative business was capturing merchant English or Dutch vessels with the King of France’s approval.
The huge stained-glass window commemorating Jacques Cartier’s blessing before discovering Canada in 1534, with the castle and a ship in the background. This is a reproduction of the original lost in the destruction in 1944. Dedicated again in 1958. His name and the date are on the draping banner below. Jacques Cartier was born in 1491 in Saint-Malo. Little is known of Cartier’s early life, though it is believed he accompanied the Florentine explorer Gionvanni da Verrazzano in 1524 on a trans-Atlantic voyage initiated by the king of France. On April 20 1534, Cartier set sail under a commission from the king, hoping to discover a western passage to the wealthy markets of Asia. In the words of the commission, he was to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found”. It took him twenty days to sail across the ocean. He is buried in the church.
Starting on May 10 1534, he explored parts of Newfoundland, the areas now the Canadian Atlantic provinces and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As a result of his voyages, he claimed what is now Canada for France. Cartier was the first to document the name Canada to designate the territory on the shores of the St-Lawrence River. The name is derived from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata”, or village. On his second voyage, Jacques Cartier left his main ships in a harbour close to the Iroquoi Stadacona village, and used his smallest ship to continue up-river and visit Hochelaga (now Montreal) where he arrived October 2, 1535.
They were practicing for a concert when we were visiting, so I didn’t take a lot of pictures of the interior of the church. The cathedral was created in 1146 when Jean de Châtillon, Bishop of Aleth, transferred his bishopric to the growing town of Saint-Malo on a more secure site across the river dedicated to St Vincent of Zaragoza.
Notice the cool stringed instrument above, which I believe is an Archlute or Theorbo. A theorbo (French: théorbe) is a plucked string instrument. As a name, theorbo signifies a number of long-necked lutes with second pegboxes, such as the liuto attiorbato, the French théorbe des pièces, the English theorbo, the archlute, the German baroque lute, the angélique or angelica. Theorboes were developed during the late sixteenth century, inspired by the demand for extended bass range for use in opera. In France, theorboes were appreciated and used in orchestral music just as well as in chamber music, until the second half of the 18th century.
Here is a picture of the rose window on the left, and a grouping of Saints Malo, Guillaume and Samson. There is a very old pilgrimage called the Tro Breizh (tour of Brittany), where the pilgrims walk around Brittany from the grave of one of the seven founder saints to another (the red stool the saints are standing on has the words Tro Breizh). Historically, the pilgrimage was made in one trip (a total distance of around 600 km) for all seven saints. Nowadays, however, pilgrims complete the circuit over the course of several years. For instance an Irish saint, Briocus (Brieue), who died at the beginning of the sixth century founded in honour of St. Stephen a monastery which afterwards bore his name, and from which sprang the town of Saint-Brieuc. All of the saints were Celtic monks from Briton from around the 5th to 6th century.
To close this up I will just say a few things about the food in Saint Malo, which is great but not quite the same as the rest of France. They have a special salty buckwheat pancake called a galette which they eat at any time of the day, washed down with beer. They eat them with butter, ham and cheese, mussels, eggs and whatever. Really tasty. Oysters are a specialty of Saint Malo which they get from nearby Cancale. Famous figures with a past predilection include Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. They also have mules et frites (mussels in butter-creme sauce with French fries) on every menu, also tasty.
Here is a map to help you see where Saint Malo is. It is close to Britain and about 40 km from Mont Saint Michele located close to the border between Lower Normandy and Britanny. It is a three hour train ride from Paris. If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on Jacques Cartier and French Corsaires.