Day 12 |
Jun 01, 2010

Saint-Malo, France

By Rich Pagen, Ornithologist

Coordinates: 48° 39'N and 02° 00’W

Weather: Overcast, intermittent rain

Last night, we left the pasties and clotted cream of Cornwall behind and by morning, we had arrived off of Saint-Malo, which has one of the highest concentrations of seafood restaurants in all of Europe. We ate breakfast early so we’d be ready to watch Captain Luigi Rutigliano maneuver the Prince Albert II through a lock and into the protected harbour at Saint-Malo.

During the Middle Ages, Saint-Malo was a fortified island at the mouth of the Rance River, controlling not only the estuary but also the open sea beyond. The city has had a tradition of asserting its autonomy in dealings with the French authorities and even with the local Breton authorities. From 1490–1493, Saint-Malo declared itself to be an independent republic, taking the motto "not French, not Breton, but Malouins". Jacques Cartier, the explorer who is credited as the discoverer of Canada, lived in and sailed from Saint-Malo, as did the first colonists to settle the Falklands – hence the islands' French name Îles Malouines, which gave rise to the Spanish name Islas Malvinas.

After clearing customs, we disembarked the ship and entered through the massive stone walls of the city to explore its narrow cobblestone streets. Cafes featured the local savoury buckwheat crêpes called galettes, while the bakeries had specialties like kouign amann. The name of the latter derives from the Breton words for cake ("kouign") and butter ("amann"). After the first bite, it became immediately clear that this pastry is very aptly named.

In early afternoon, we boarded buses for a tour of the area. Some of us travelled to Montmarin and the grounds of the Malouiniére, an elegant estate constructed on the banks of the Rance River in 1760. Wealthy ship owners or merchants from Saint-Malo used this beautiful retreat as a summer residence.

Others headed east along the coast into Normandy to visit Mont Saint-Michel, a small tidal island dominated by a spectacular walled-in abbey. The island was originally connected to the mainland via a thin natural land bridge, which, before modernization, was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. The tremendous tidal range at Mont Saint-Michel (roughly 14 meters/46 feet) resulted in medieval pilgrims nicknaming it “St. Michael in peril of the sea” due to the hazard of travelling there across the tidal flats.

We climbed the many steps up to the top of the abbey and were rewarded with views in all directions out across the exposed mudflats. We wandered through the maze of passageways, pausing in various rooms along the way to ponder what life must have been like in the this massive stone fortress.

We then travelled to the walled Breton town of Dinan, a picturesque settlement along the Rance River. The old part of the town, constructed as early as the 13th century, is located down along the meandering river, with a quaint stone bridge spanning the river’s turbid waters. A few steep winding streets connect the river area with the majority of the town’s buildings, which are perched high up on the steep hillsides. We visited the clock tower and the church before stopping at one of the many sidewalk creperies for an afternoon snack and a beer.

A scenic drive through the green countryside terminated back in Saint-Malo, and at the Prince Albert II. We shared stories over dinner before going outside to watch the ship pass back through the lock and head out to sea in the direction of the Channel Islands.