One of Northern Brittany's Many Jewels is Worth a Wander
A lot of Irish people who holiday in France in the summer tend to skip past Brittany at top speed and head straight for the sunnier parts further south. Brittany, it seems, reminds them too much of Ireland. There’s a certain amount of truth in that: Brittany’s weather seems similar, the people look quite similar… even the houses look more Irish than French with their dark slate roofs.
But to skip Brittany is to miss out on a unique part of France and one where you’ll encounter a lot of knowledge of and affinity towards Ireland of the sort that you won’t get in other parts of the country. In other words, they’re even more knowledgeable about Ireland and more accommodating than your average French person… which is no bad thing.
There’s also something cool about Brittany. The Bretons are inclined to be viewed by the rest of France as a little bit wild and Celtic; the type of people who like a drink and a bit of fun – rather like the inhabitants of that famous Gaulish village in The Adventures of Asterix the Gaul. In the last 20 years or so in particular, there’s been a strong swing towards the popularity of a strongly Celtic brand of raucous beer-swilling music too. I put it down to the immense popularity of The Pogues, but to paraphrase a line from The Commitments, the Bretons are the Irish of France and Malouins are the Irish of Brittany.
St Malo is on a stretch of the north coast of Brittany that is known as the Côte d’Émeraude (the Emerald Coast). The name was given to this stretch of coastline by the lawyer and historian Eugène Herpin on account of the sometimes emerald green hue that the water takes on. He was a native of the town himself.
The Old Town is a real gem – the cut-stone mediaeval bastion is best entered by foot. There’s a large car park beside the marina, allowing you to park up in safety and stroll through the city gates.
If you find that the place is in superb condition and appears to be immaculately preserved, it’s partly because the town suffered from extensive damage during WWII, during which over 60% of the town was reduced to rubble. It took quite a post-war effort to get it looking the way it does today, but you’ll have to agree that it was worth every centime and every drop of sweat.
It’s worth remembering too that you are not the only Irish person to enter the city. Not counting the many thousands of fellow countrymen and women that visit St Malo every year, it is believed that the origins of the town go back to a monastic settlement founded by St Brendan. The impressive fortifications and the town’s commanding position on the promontory at the mouth of the Rance Estuary made it a redoubtable fortress and St Malo developed something of a reputation for staying defiantly independent and cocking a snook at authority in general. It was also a place where pirates were given refuge and it’s easy to get a sense of that when you enter the well-protected cauldron atmosphere on a weekend evening on the Place Chateaubriand.
You might be tempted to sit down, put your boots up and have a large tankard of grog, but before doing that, it’s best to have a wander. The streets of St Malo are perfect for losing yourself – tiny alleyways, magnificently austere old places of worship, proud friendly locals, chintzy art shops and souvenir outlets, studios and Breton cafés. It’s not that big and it’s enclosed by solid fortifications the whole way around, so you simply cannot actually get lost. You can also walk the ramparts all the way around – a fun experience in itself offering splendiferous views from every compass point.
Back at Place Chateaubriand is where life seems to centre and it’s the best spot to sit and eat or sip some refreshment while watching the theatre of life unfold.
The other great attraction of St Malo is the magnificent beach that stretches on for several kilometres to the east of the old cité. All along here, a newer town has sprawled in a largely agreeable fashion, forming a rather laid-back 19th-century town in its own right that is completely different in character to mediaeval St Malo.
Right on the waterfront, there are many B&B’s, hotels and holiday apartments. The beach is very popular with the surfing set, but in the summer there are truly every imaginable subgroup of people who love the sea and the sand and all forms of activity seem to be catered for.
The combination of huge seaside resort coupled with the rumbustious Breton elegance of the mediaeval town make St Malo a place that just about anyone can feel at home in. It’s Curracloe Beach, Lahinch, Tramore, Salthill and Kilkenny City all wrapped into one, sweetened, warmed up slightly and improved upon, with an infusion of the scent of crepes and French seafood.
Where to Eat
There’s plenty of choice here and the standards are very good. For a good-value meal with old-world laid-back charm in a turn-of-the-century setting overlooking the heart of the town, try Le Chateaubriand on Place Chateaubriand. Generally speaking, you get a wider choice of cheaper eateries as you head further east.
Where to Stay
To get a luxurious feel of seaside, the Grand Hotel des Thermes offers magnificent splendour in a cracking location. Even if the weather is a little too inclement for the seashore that is literally on your doorstep, their heated indoor seawater swimming pool and spa is a world-renowned facility.
For a smaller budget, get the more down-to-earth fish-and-chips feel at the two-star Hotel Alpha Ocean. You’re right by the seashore with access to the beach and long promenade. A pub on the corner overlooks the ocean while a genuine British Fish-and-chip shop (if that’s your thing) is on the other side of the hotel.