Brittany, located in northwestern France, stole my heart a decade ago and I’m still returning to discover more of its coastline and countryside. Visitors tend to start and stop with St-Malo, which admittedly is a must-see, but there is more to explore and enjoy: Dinan, for instance.
“I’d like to cruise up the River Rance,” I tell my husband after a long day in St-Malo. “I think there’s a boat tour.”
“Yes, there is,” he replies, firing up his computer.
I gaze across the wide Rance estuary from Dinard, the seaside town opposite St-Malo, and sniff the salt air. Yachts weave through mooring buoys, sea shuttles ply between the two towns, and wet-suited sailors pull dripping Hobie cats up the boat ramp.
“But not on Wednesdays,” James sighs a few minutes later. “It’s the only day the cruises don’t run. But there is a bus to Dinan.”
I make a face—tomorrow is Wednesday and our last day.
“Let’s go anyway—you’ll love Dinan,” James urges. “It’s a medieval town above the Rance. There’s a little port too.”
Early next morning at the bus loop in Dinard, I’m expecting a local bus of indeterminate age, but a small, modern coach pulls up on time—it’s even air-conditioned with reclining seats. The €2.80 fare for the thirteen mile (21km) trip is a bargain. We roar along the country roads, stopping at villages and passing stone Breton houses with steep, slate roofs. Roses bloom in the cottage gardens and the second cut of hay is already baled in the fields.
The centre of old Dinan is a short walk from the bus stop. “Why didn’t you tell me it’s so beautiful, so well preserved?”
James grins, “Break out your Nikon! It gets better.”
Dinan perches on the rocky hill where it took shape in the 11th century, a time when a defensive position was vital to survival. The ramparts, built two centuries later and mostly intact, still encircle the old town. Visitors can stroll atop the walls to enjoy sweeping views of the Rance valley and visit the castle with its keep and drawbridge on the southwest corner.
Within the ramparts, Dinan looks much like it did in the 1600s. If I close my eyes in the Place des Merciers, I can see wealthy merchants striding along about their business, farmers’ wives gossiping and carrying baskets full of live chickens, and almost smell the hawkers’ hot meat pies. Centuries ago, these buildings were occupied by tradesmen and craftsmen, their workshops at ground level and homes above. The street names remind me who they were – rue de la Lainerie (wool workers), rue de la Poissonerie (fishmongers), rue du Petit-Pain (bakers). The butchers, cobblers, weavers, and tanners are not forgotten here either. Dinan was not only a strategically placed town then, but also a prosperous one.
Today Dinan’s narrow cobbled streets, still with drainage channels down the centre, wind higgledy-piggledy in all directions; half-timbered houses lean towards each other across the lanes; geraniums trail from window boxes; and cafés overflow into the small squares. The town is full of visitors speaking many languages, all with overheated cameras; buskers entertain at every corner. The stores are small: some funky and many touristy. We snag a table for lunch in the shade, sip on local beer, and eat a superb grande salade.
The meal renews my energy for the long walk downhill to the river. Rue du Jerzual is steep from the get-go and I watch my footing on the ancient cobbles. The wealthy built their homes on both sides of this street, and all are magnificently restored. Many half-timbered facades are painted in jewel tones and the ground floors now house up-market art and craft studios, boutiques, and tiny cafés. Behind small gates, gardens are crammed with rambling roses and sky-blue agapanthus.
Tourists struggle up the hill and rest often; dogs lie panting on the cobbles; I’m grateful to be going the other way, but hug the shade. Halfway down we pass through the Jerzual Gate onto rue du Petit-Fort with the ramparts looming to our left and the imposing Governor’s House (1620) on the right. To our relief, the Rance appears and we wander over the stone bridge and along the river taking photos all the way.
The vieux port shows little evidence that it was once a working harbor on a navigable river. This afternoon, pleasure boats ply its serene waters and vedettes, ferries, deliver tourists from St-Malo and Dinard to the riverside restaurants and shops in picturesque buildings. But here, too, are footpaths into the countryside that lead nature lovers to explore the Rance valley on guided tours and towpaths that allow cyclists to ride along the river bank to other villages.
We people-watch as we drink thirstily from a tall bottle of water served in a child’s seaside pail instead of an ice bucket. The truth is we’re dreading the climb back to catch our bus departing at 5:00p.m.
“I’ll order a cab,” James decides, but he quickly learns they don’t come down here.
In the end we have to squeeze onto the little tourist “train” that judders back up the long way and hurry to the bus loop. French buses, like their real trains, run on time. Within the hour we’re back in our Dinard hotel, tired and longing for a shower.
Over dinner James and I discuss returning to Dinan. One day proved too short to see the English Gardens, the basilica, the museum and many other historic places, to say nothing of the countryside of the Rance Valley. We promise each other that next time we will arrive by water on any day but Wednesday.
“Maybe we could stay a few days,” I suggest.
IF YOU GO
Rance River cruises from Dinard to Dinan. €30 return or €24 one way (takes 2 hrs 45 mins). Departure and return times vary d/t tides. If you take the return cruise, you will have no time to see the town, so ride the bus one way – excellent service to/from Dinard and St-Malo.
Local bus service. (English version) Dinard bus #11.
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Dinan, France: A Brittany Must-See was written by and photos by Julie H. Ferguson for EuropeUpClose.com