I glimpse St-Malo from the sea just as her intrepid seafarers did over the past five hundred years. The old town is encircled by medieval ramparts and towers, behind which rise stately granite mansions built in the 17th century and the cathedral’s graceful spire. It’s hard to believe this jewel located on the English Channel in northeast Brittany is not the original. St-Malo was severely bombed during its liberation in World War Two and rose again, painstakingly restored stone by stone by the determined Malouins.
I’m on the early morning ferry from Dinard, sailing across the Rance estuary dotted with hundreds of sailboats tugging at their buoys. I spy St-Malo’s outer islands – the fortified Petit-Bé and Grand Bé – that are accessible on foot as the tide ebbs. The forty foot tides will soon expose the causeways and sandy beaches, which spread around the town’s seaward side like yellow skirts. The ferry slips inside the long breakwater and we dock opposite the Porte de Dinan, one of six gates in the ramparts, that leads to St-Malo’s main street.
A white-haired French woman approaches me in the Place Chateaubriand as I sip coffee and watch the bustling art market.
“Are you English?” she asks.
“Non, Canadienne,” I say and order her a coffee. I’m hoping she lived here in August 1944.
“Oui,” Heloise nods. “I was eighteen.”
My eyes widen. Out of the blue, an eye-witness to the horror of that week in 1944 has materialized. And she lived through the reconstruction.
The Nazis occupied greater St-Malo in 1940 and heavily fortified it as part of the Atlantic Wall. After the Normandy Landings of D-Day, some of the American army headed west to dislodge the Germans in Brittany.
Heloise continues, “The Americans thought there were thousands of Nazis defending St-Malo. They didn’t believe two brave citizens who crossed the lines to tell them there were only seventy. And the hundreds of residents who had not evacuated. The Nazis locked the old gates to keep us in.”
Her eyes lose focus as she delves into her memory. “They imprisoned my father with all the men, and my mother and I sought safety in the deep cellars that once stored the corsairs’ (privateers) booty. Ten days later eighty percent of the buildings, including the cathedral, had been destroyed.” She dabs her eyes. “We were homeless, but happy les Américains released my father.”
If the Nazis had surrendered, St-Malo would have escaped damage; Hitler insisted they fight to the end. The Americans poured incendiary and high explosive bombs into the town. Fires gutted the buildings that bombs didn’t flatten. Nearly a million tons of rubble were cleared after the small Nazi force finally gave up on August 17.
“Merci beaucoup,” I stammer when Heloise finishes, wishing I could do more in appreciation.
My new friend says, “Mon plaisir.” Smiling sweetly, she gathers up her shopping basket and shakes my hand. “Au revoir!”
I sit awhile processing the conversation before following in her footsteps.I climb towards the town centre along streets lined with bistros, bakeries, and boutiques where a matelot shirt calls my name reminding me of St-Malo’s seafaring heritage. Buskers entertain at every crossroad; delicious aromas waft from cafés. Tourists with bulging shopping bags pack the pedestrian-only routes, stopping to take photos every few yards, and make me wonder how many know the story behind their images The Malouins pick their way through the throng, their baskets overflowing with produce from the market.
Heloise said I’d find more of the story at the cathedral and its spire leads me onward. Cathedrals have always been the heart of their communities and hold the collective memory of calamities the world over. St-Vincent’s does not disappoint.
Its spire was the first target in the bombardment and it fell, squashing much of the building. Outside today the sandstone glows in the sun; small stores are built into the church’s base; and a huge rose window promises magnificence within.
St-Vincent’s occupies high land that has been sacred since 370 CE. Looking down the nave, I identify remnants of Norman architecture carefully copied and soaring gothic columns and windows rebuilt as they were. The tombs of eminent citizens look new. At the crossing stands a stunning ultra-modern altar consecrated in 1991 that completed the reconstruction.
On the south wall is a stained glass window back-lit by the morning sun. It depicts the Bishop of St-Malo blessing Jacques Cartier before his first voyage to the New World. Cartier, who discovered Canada in 1534, kneels in his armour with a scarlet cloak rippling from his shoulders; the bishop in his mitre raises a hand in benediction. Nearby Cartier’s simple tomb, rediscovered beneath the rubble, has fresh flowers today.
Those in charge of St-Malo’s reconstruction planned it to be as close to the original as made sense. The mansions now have identical facades of granite and a 60 degree pitch to their grey slate roofs; the hospital and prison were relocated outside the walls; and only a few half-timbered houses of the 1600s were retained. The ramparts, the castle (now city hall), and the cathedral were replicated exactly. The Malouins did well – the result is a national treasure, stunning both from the sea and from the streets.
Inside the ramparts, St-Malo is compact and can easily be seen on foot in a day, but two provide more in-depth exploration, and three will allow visits outside the walls. I noticed no sign of obvious modern construction as I roamed the town. The back streets that few tourists explore are worth seeing – small, shady squares and tiny gardens await discovery. Across the rue des Ramparts a second floor, half-timbered bridge links two medieval buildings that were once a convent and a monastery.
I hunt out a crêperie for lunch as I love the paper-thin Breton pancakes, both sweet and savory. It doesn’t take long as St-Malo has the most restaurants per square mile in France. Seafood is king here, so I order a fresh calamari crêpe and salad. I visit the chef making the crêpes and try my hand at swirling the runny whole-wheat batter on the griddle with a wooden scraper. It’s not easy to spread it tissue-thin before it cooks.
After lunch I climb one of the many stone staircases to the top of the ramparts to walk off my meal. The stiff sea breeze energizes me and I maintain a brisk pace all the way round. Everyone should complete this circuit to enjoy the views out to sea, across the estuary, and down into the town. It’s from this vantage point that visitors can truly appreciate St-Malo’s exquisite restoration intra-muros.
If you go to St-Malo:
- Best months to visit: May, June, and September. July and August are overcrowded.
- Weather – unpredictable, even in summer.
- Transportation to St-Malo: Fly into Paris and take the high-speed SNCF train (Train Grande Vitesse) from Charles de Gaulle Airport to St-Malo.
- Nearest airport: Dinard, which has RyanAir flights from/to the UK.
Ferries from UK and Channel Islands sail to/from St-Malo. Brittany Ferries and Condor Ferries.
Dinard-St-Malo ferry takes 10 minutes: Companie Corsair; €6.90 return. This company also offers good local cruise tours.
St-Malo intra-muros (section for history buffs):
St-Malo Museum, Musée d’histoire de la ville (outside the walls.)
More information about the destruction and rebuilding of St-Malo can be found at Mémorial 39-45 (Fort de la Cité d’Alet), in the former Nazi headquarters in St-Servan, outside the walls. (No website.)
Where to stay in or near St-Malo
Hotel Printania in Dinard occupies four buildings and two restaurants – fine dining and a bistro below – and is next door to the ferry to St-Malo. It is very friendly and comfortable.
Hotel France et Chateaubriand
I have also stayed at the Hotel France et Chateaubriand (seen in the image above.) Lovely hotel packed on the Place Chateaubriand, with authentic antiques, and our room looked over the ramparts at Fort National. it was noisy with open windows in summer. The restaurant is very good.
Written by Julie H. Ferguson and color photos by © photos by Pharos 2011 for EuropeUpClose.com
Sepia photos by © St-Malo Carnets d’intra-muros Used with permission