One might always expect glowing praise, glossy photos, and romantic text from the French Government Tourist Board. Yet their description of Brittany is spot on. It reads, “Brittany is as wild as the gales blowing in from the Atlantic which chew on granite cliffs and bend the backs of fishermen who are tougher than oyster shells."
You might agree that this paints quite a vivid picture, even for an armchair traveler. And to these descriptive words you might add your own verbal impressions. Or take time to sketch a grassy hill so typical of the Brittany countryside. As a modern day memory maker you could scan the horizon with your camcorders or snap a pic with a panoramic lens. Some visitors simply let the images plant indelible seeds in their mind's eye. But everyone who visits Brittany comes away with powerful impressions, lifelong portraits, and pictures one can call up at the simple mention of a name, like St. Malo.
Turned Toward The Sea
Protected by mighty grey granite walls, St. Malo looms with her face toward the rugged waters of the Gulf of St. Malo, looking toward the town of Dinan just across the Rance Estuary. Further out to sea, one hundred or so miles across the English Channel, lies the English coastline. Brittany's inhabitants are Celts and as such are hearty souls who have long lived off these bountiful waters.
Learned historians tell us that St. Malo's early settlements were built up on a fortified island strategically located along the Rance River. This was done so her citizens could exert their dominance not only over the regional waterways but also the expanse of open water to the north. Bolstered by this superior position the local seamen, who had a slight eye toward piracy, demanded pay-offs from ships sailing through the Channel, particularly the English ships. In time, these payments funded a class of mariners who acquired sizeable fortunes.
Even so, the English still arrive daily by ferry from their homeland. And today the tide has turned, so to speak, as the English are the welcomed guests of St. Malo's hospitable citizens.
The Heavy Hand Of War
In August of 1944, German soldiers were entrenched in the town of St. Malo. The American forces attacked them with their full fury. While the city suffered damage, the remarkable ramparts that dated back to the 13th and 14th centuries, remained standing. Therefore, today's visitors can still walk these walls of the city's famous Citadelle. Porte St. Vince is one of this Citadelle's most important features, along with the Grande Porte. Inside the castle is the town museum, which displays memorabilia from earlier pirating days, as well as items from the Nazi occupation.
Mont St. Michel Looms
Carved from and perched upon the same grey granite that provided the stones for St. Malo's ramparts, Mont St. Michel is like no other "island." As Venice stands alone in its unique beauty, so does Mont St. Michel. It rises up from the sea like a shrine to Christendom; a monument to the Archangel Michael who brandished a mighty sword to ward off the evils of the world.
Today, this island is connected to the mainland by a motorway. In years gone by, however, it knew only extreme isolation and endless suffering. Monks passed bone-chilling yet silent years here, as did prisoners sentenced to this exile. The monks were even forced to relinquish their living quarters to the prisoners at the "request" of the government.
Currently, the French government is pleased that thousands of tourists arrive annually to visit Mont St. Michel and, unlike the French prisoners who languished there for years, visitors may come and go. But, they pay dearly to make this pilgrimage. Some even overnight in one of the island's few inns. Among those famous figures that have walked these streets are Leon Trotsky and Margaret Thatcher.
The Benedictine Abbey, which is the island's centerpiece, was founded in 708 by Saint Aubert. This Gothic masterpiece, known as the Merveille, inspired not only all who witnessed it throughout the centuries, but continues to do so to today’s visitor. It so inspired the French author Guy de Maupassant that he wrote,
"I reached the huge pile of rocks which bears the little city dominated by the great church. Climbing the steep narrow street, I entered the most wonderful Gothic dwelling ever made for God on this earth, a building as vast as a town, full of low rooms under oppressive ceilings and lofty galleries supported by frail pillars. I entered that gigantic granite jewel, which is as delicate as a piece of lacework, thronged with towers and slender belfries which thrust into the blue sky of day and the black sky of night their strange heads bristling with chimeras, devils, fantastic beasts and monstrous flowers, and which are linked together by carved arches of intricate design."
To scale the rugged climb, one must be fit and sport shoes with grip soles. The view, your reward. Others may remain below and drink in the glory that is Mont St. Michel. For many, this is quite enough.
For still others, a stay in St. Malo is also its own reward.