St-Malo, France: Then and Now

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.

Sun lights up the old town from the early morning Dinard-St-Malo ferry

Sun lights up the old town from the early morning Dinard-St-Malo ferry

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.

Place Chateaubriand where I listened to Heloise’s story

Place Chateaubriand where I listened to Heloise’s story

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.”

St-Malo’s restored St-Vincent cathedral

St-Malo’s restored St-Vincent cathedral in late afternoon sun at the top of a main pedestrian street. © James S. Ferguson

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.

The bombed-out mansions within St-Malo's walls, below which are interconnected cellars where the women and children hid. © St-Malo Carnets d’intra-euros

The bombed-out mansions within St-Malo’s walls, below which are interconnected cellars where the women and children hid. © St-Malo Carnets d’intra-euros

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.

a very poor photo of the cathedral after it was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944

a very poor photo of the cathedral after it was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944 © St-Malo Carnets d’intra-muros

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.

The magnificent stained glass window that shows the bishop blessing Jacques Cartier before he claimed for France what was to become Canada

The magnificent stained glass window that shows the bishop blessing Jacques Cartier before he claimed for France what was to become Canada

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.

A half-timbered bridge in a back street reminds us of a much older St-Malo

A half-timbered bridge in a back street reminds us of a much older St-Malo

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.)
St-Malo Tourism

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. Very friendly and comfortable.

Hotel Printania in Dinard

Hotel Printania
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

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Comments

  1. says

    Lovely post. I was in St Malo, oh about 35 years ago, and even then it was thriving. Things I remember – the warm hospitality of the people and wonderful seafood. thank you for bring back such great memories!

  2. says

    Thanks, Ruth. This was a fun piece to write – the woman who presented herself to me was an amazing bonus. A miracle really!! I usually offer 2 min videos to go with all my pieces – not all markets take them, but many do.

  3. julie ferguson says

    Thx, Linda. St-Malo today is gorgeous to visit. Want to return for longer. Happy to be able to bring back good memories for you…

  4. Anonymous says

    Wonderful! I thoroughly enjoyed your essay and the slide show (and great choice of music). Even though I lived in Dinard as a child, I have so much more to learn about the area. This makes me want to go back. Thank you!

  5. Jack says

    I especially enjoyed reading and viewing this piece after reading “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr. It features a teenage woman in Saint Malo in 1944, along with a teenage German soldier. Fascinating book in a dramatic historical and physical setting.

  6. Judith Hambleton says

    Just started reading the book by Anthony Doerr! So glad to have found this information!

  7. D. Minson says

    Just finished my second readin of Anthony Doerr’s book about St. Malo and was so touched my the story he wove. Made me want to visit a place so touched by the war and those who survived it.

  8. Karen Takeno says

    My husband and I enjoyed a recent visit to St. Malo with our adolescent grandsons. It was such fun to walk along the promenade and see all the renovated seafront houses — most of which are now small hotels. I knew that the northern French coastal towns had suffered greatly but hadn’t realized to what extent St. Malo had been crushed. And today the signs of war have pretty much disappeared. And it sounds as if nothing has changed since your visit as the welcoming people and wonderful food are still there!

  9. says

    To Karen Takeno:
    St-Malo is a wonderful place to visit. I keep going back.
    So glad you enjoyed my article about this very famous place. May I recommend Doer’s book “All the Light You Cannot See” that has recently won the Pulitzer and tells the story of the town’s occupation and liberation from a most unusual perspective.
    Thank you.

  10. Margo Endlich says

    I just finished reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See. It is a riveting story of the devastating attack on Saint Malo towards the end of WW II. Visiting Saint Malo is now on my bucket list!

  11. Beverly DeWyze says

    I spent two months in France in 1965 with the Experiment in International Living. The first month I lived with a family in Nantes, and those of us in Nantes had an excursion to St-Malo. When I returned home there were 3 cities I vowed to visit again, including St-Malo. I was fortunate enough to do so in 2006. I was told about the rebuilding the first time I visited, but time has made me better appreciate how totally remarkable that is. I, too, just finished “All the Light We Cannot See”, and I’ m reminded of how much I love that city.

  12. Fred says

    Was here just a few weeks ago and loved every minute of my visit. My mother grew up here and experienced the bombing in August 1944. What a beautiful and fascinating place!

  13. Judy P. says

    I have an upcoming trip to France next June & will visit Saint Malo. Very much a history buff, I enjoyed reading ‘All the Light we Cannot See’ & can’t wait to visit this walled city. I wonder if I could rent a bike there & roam around Saint Malo on a bicycle? Very much enjoyed reading your article, you provided lots of great insight!

  14. Jenny Masters says

    Thank you for this article. My bookclub in MA., USA just finished “All the Light….”and this added great insight into the whole experience of what St. Malo went through in the last days of WWII. Thank you again!

  15. Julie H. Ferguson says

    Thank you, Jenny! As an author of history books, I believe “All the Light…” is one of my top three books I’ve ever read. Brilliant in so many ways!

  16. Julie H. Ferguson says

    To Beverly, Fred, and Judy:
    Thank you all for your kind words.
    Judy, seeing the walled city of St-Malo is better on foot, I believe. It’s small and you will be able to enjoy it in some depth, including the ramparts, in a day.
    Fred, I would have looooved to talk to your mom as I was working on this article.
    I too, Beverly, think St-Malo is unique so I still visit when I can and discover more and more about its history and the present.

  17. Sharon Rockwood says

    My book group in Seattle is discussing “All the Light You Cannot See” this week and I enjoyed your article about St Malo. Perhaps I’ll see this historic site in person some day. Thanks the information and photos.

  18. Julie H. Ferguson says

    I hope you do get to visit St-Malo sooner than some day. You won’t be disappointed. Also thanks for your kind words about my article and images.

  19. Sally V says

    Thank you for this wonderful piece on St-Malo! My Grandmother grew up here raised in the convent. She immigrated to the US in the 20’s and was so sad when the town had been destroyed during WWII. Throughout my child hood she spoke often of this town and her love for it, sharing what it was like to sit on the ramparts looking out at the sea and singing in the choir at the Cathedral. She was always amazed that the choir loft was not destroyed during the bombing. I have a photo of her on one of her return trips there with my father and uncle standing on the beach. I have since traveled there many times taking with me my own children and taking a picture in this same spot. It is a magical place that is a must to visit. I agree that spending more than a quick visit is well rewarded. To take the time to stroll and go to the ramparts to watch the sea at low tide as well as high is a most impressive experience. My favorite time to visit is during March when the tide change is the most prominent. Again thank you for your piece it was wonderful.

  20. Barbara H Sutherland says

    Just finished “All the Light…” last evening and looking for something visual to compare with my mental constructions inspired by Doerr’s amazing prose descriptions of St. Malo.
    Your website was the first one I found, thank goodness. I’m going to go…soon. I’m getting on; not much time left. So much to do, see, experience and you are right. St. Malo is a MUST. Julie thank you so very much.

  21. says

    Barbara, your words mean much to me. Thank you. I think “All the Light…” is probably the best book I’ve ever read. I hope you visit St-Malo soon and love it as much as I do.
    Julie

  22. says

    Barbara, After reading all these wonderful reviews I am looking forward to our book club this Sunday to see how we review the book. Seeing the pictures, makes me want to go visit St-Malo, thank you. Diana

  23. Sandy Geer says

    I am on my third reading of “All the Light…” And at each reading I have found additional things to appreciate in this wonderful book. Would love to visit St. Malo. Have visited it in my mind and heart.

  24. Julie H. Ferguson says

    Sandy Geer: I too love “All the Light…” Don’t put off visiting St-Malo, it is enchanting, as is the region around it. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Julie

  25. says

    WIlliam: All my sources speak with the understanding that they remain confidential. But in this case, I didn’t meet a “girl”, so perhaps you’re mixing this story up with another.

  26. Helen Lindstrom says

    I, too, am reading “All the Light…..” and I found your article and its supporting photos and video, very informative and interesting. There was just one point which rather concerned me Julie and that is your comment that “Jacques Cartier discovered Canada.” He did no such thing. Canada (as it is now called) was well and truly “discovered” by its traditional, indigenous people long before Jacques Cartier set off. Canada’s indigenous people (like the indigenous people of Australia where I live) have been displaced, disenfranchised and subject to ongoing racism and genocide. Unlike the inhabitants of St Malo, no-one seems to be coming to their aid.

  27. says

    Helen Lindstrom:
    I understand your concern and I meant absolutely no disrespect to our First Nations people in Canada. However, apart from the Vikings landing in present day Newfoundland in the 11th century CE, Cartier was the first European to arrive in what was to become Quebec. As he was a son of St-Malo, I endeavoured to give him both the credit as a seafarer and a voice in this piece.

  28. Barbara says

    I also enjoyed your article and photos. Thanks. I am 60% through “All the Light…” and wanted to see pictures and a map of the town to enhance my reading. William Lasswell may be asking for Marie-claire” address from the book: 4 Rue Vauborel (not the address of your elderly chance encounter). Just thinking.

  29. Julie H. Ferguson says

    Barbara, that’s a good point that hadn’t occurred to me. William may have been talking about the protagonist in the book. Thank you for commenting for him.
    Also my thanks for your kind words. J

  30. Kristi Gibson says

    I was inspired to look up the phrase intra-muros (though I should have known its meaning) and Websters asked “Please tell us what caused you to look up this phrase.” Since it asked so politely I decided to respond. Please see my response below. Your post was very meaningful to me as I near the finish of my book (book club meets tonight). My daughter was stationed in the town of Chateaubriant when we went to visit her for Christmas 2005 and she took us to St-Malo for one night before we visited Mont St-Michel. The memories now come flooding back. No one told me the meaning of the window in the cathedral but I’ve just returned from a visit to Canada so I’m glad to know. Here’s what I posted to Websters:

    In a post about St-Malo, France, I found online while looking up the Hotel of Bees from the novel All the Light We Cannot See, to see if the hotel was real. I learned that the hotel was from the author’s imagination but when I visited St-Malo in 2005 I stayed in l’Hotel Ibis (pronounced hotel ee-beess) and I marveled at the cathedral the writer describes. http://europeupclose.com/article/st-malo-france/

    Sent from my iPhone

  31. says

    Kristi, I was delighted to read your comment this morning. Writers gain so much from readers’ feedback and I’m grateful you took the time to write about my article. I hope you get the opportunity to re-visit St-Malo for longer. It’s worthwhile, too, to spend time in the surrounding area like Dinard and Dinan, for example. Happy travels!

  32. Joanna church says

    According to an article from the Historical Review, on August 6 a German minesweeper shelled the cathedral spire and it fell. The Germans also destroyed harbor installations on August 7.

  33. says

    Joanna, thank you for your comment.
    I’m interested in knowing which Historical Review, please, and what was the date of issue. That is not what I read in the archives. The Nazis had been reduced to about 70 in St-Malo after D-Day forces had pushed them back from the beaches of N. France.

  34. Neil Maidment says

    In the summer of 1947 my parents decided on a holiday in Brittany-where they had spent many happy times before the war with local French friends. We went by train from Oxford to Southampton and took the overnight ferry “La Falaise” to St Malo. I was 10 years old at the time.
    I well remember our arrival in the early morning – St Malo harbour was a tangle of submerged and half-submerged ships sticking out of the water at all angles. The town was a mass of ruins. Our ferry picked its way very slowly through the wreckage. When we got on the dock I could see only bombed-out buildings, some with half of the structure left so that you could see into the bedrooms and living-rooms of the inhabitants, like a cross-section. I’m now 78, resident in Asia since 1960. I have never seen such awful destruction to a beautiful city as I saw in 1947. It remains vivid in my memory. I returned once in 1997 for an overnight stay. The transformation is a triumph of human resilience and Breton determination.

  35. says

    Neil Maidment: Thank you so much for taking the time to fill in some of the blanks of this story. I was only two in 1947 and did not get to St-Malo the first time until 2005. The St-Malouins did a magnificent job — so glad you got to see the town recently. It’s one of my favourite places in France.

  36. Dorothy Howells says

    I found this page when researching the background to the story in All The Light of the Old Ladies Resistance Club. I came to the book by chance when a friend and I were discussing methods of narrative in writing stories and she had just finished reading Doerr’s book. We were both fascinated by the way the book moves from one scene to another in a totally different environment with the scene changes seeming entirely natural.

    I visited St. Malo for the first time in 1957 while studying A Level French, a time when the memories of the Occupation were still raw in the minds of those who grew up in the duration. This book brought to into sharp focus the cruelty of that period but also the life affirming love and friendship the characters have for one another.

  37. Julie H. Ferguson says

    Thank you, Dorothy, for commenting on my article about St-Malo. All the Light is one of my top 5 favorite novels. As an author myself, I marvel at Doerr’s craft.
    I hope you get back to see St-Malo again.

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