Located on the very fringes of France and straight out of the history books, Saint-Malo definitely shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Brittany… A windswept, walled city, St-Malo was founded as early as the 1st Century CE by the Gauls. It soon came to be known as Reginca or Aletum by the Romans. With its easily protected and fortified position, the area was the site of a prominent Roman fort by the 4th-Century. Here are the very best things to do in Saint Malo!
Saint Malo, a History (…and the name of a saint…)
By the mid-sixth Century, modern-day Saint-Malo was founded by a saint of the same name. Saint Malo of Aleth was a Welsh immigrant who arrived in Brittany and was one of its original founding saints. Hailing from Wales, he arrived in the region to aid in the work of Saint Aron of Brittany, establishing several churches in the area. Also known as Saint Maclou, it’s thought that his name derives from the old Breton words meaning ‘hostage‘ and ‘bright/ beautiful’.
Although the town’s modern-day walls and fortifications were constructed around the 12th-century, Saint Malo did not gain real notoriety until the rise of privateers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sadly like much of Northern France, large parts of the town were destroyed during the Second World War. Much of what can be seen is a fairly faithful reproduction built between 1948 and 1960.
The city sees some of the biggest tides in Europe, leading to a dramatic ever-changing landscape. One minute the sky is blue, and the next there can be a raging storm. Stony skies contrast starkly with the imposing granite ramparts. Although the population tends to hover around 150,000, it can swell to well above 200,000 at the high peak of tourist season. That being said, when we visited at the beginning of September, just after the Summer rush of August, I didn’t find the place to be too crowded at all!
Le Grand Bé (also known as ‘Bey’)
Saint Malo is also home to two islands, lying a couple of hundred meters from the shores of its sandy beaches. Le Grand Be is the final resting place of famous romance writer François-René de Chateaubriand, a native of Saint-Malo and acclaimed writer. His grave faces to the West, towards the sea. At low tide, the tidal island can be approached by foot from nearby Bon-Secours beach.
Petit Bé (second island of Saint Malo)
Home to a 17th-century fort and battery, this small island lies in close proximity to its neighbouring isle. Petit Bé is also a tidal island and is approachable from the mainland via foot at low tide. The fort was originally constructed and designed to protect the town from the British and Dutch. The fort was made a historic site in 1921 and lay abandoned until 2000 when it was handed over to a local tourism board.
Les Ramparts de Saint Malo
Like with any walled city, one of the greatest attractions of the city is the walled ramparts themselves! You can walk the entire length of the city; something I highly recommend doing. There’s nothing quite like getting a bird’s eye view to really get the feel of the place.
High and imposing, the ramparts encircle the entire town. Construction of the wall started as early as the 12th century, protecting it from pirates and would be invaders ever since. Improvements were made in the 18th century in order to include more of the town. Around this time, up to three-quarters of the original walls were replaced.
La Cour La Hussaye, a fairytale turret in the heart of Saint Malo
Whenever there’s a spiralling tower to be seen, you can bet that I’m the first one there to visit… Whilst wandering along the cobblestoned alleyways and meandering through the charming streets of Saint-Malo, I stumbled upon this real life turret. Curious to find out more, I quickly opened up my good friend Google.
On Old Postcards of the town, the tower is often referred to as ‘House of Duchess Anne,’ leading me to wonder who exactly Anne was! After all, we share the same name… Unfortunately, I never did find out. It’s presumed that she was once an inhabitant of the rich bourgeoisie who once inhabited the mansion.
The Maison Hussaye is allegedly the oldest house still standing in the city. The turret was constructed as early as the 15th-century, while the house itself was demolished and reconstructed at a later date. During the struggle for the city in 1944, although much of the city was destroyed, the house and tower somehow remained untouched. It was one of the only buildings in the city to do so.
Rue Chat qui Danse, strangest street name in Saint Malo
One of the most amusing parts of the day was stumbling across a little street named ‘Rue Chat quit Danse’ literally translated as ‘road of the dancing cat‘. Back before there were proper street names, it was common to refer to roads and streets by the monuments located by or on them. The Dancing Cat was a local drinking joint, famous for its sailing clientele.
But that’s not all! The ‘Cat’ reference in the road name apparently has two connotations in this instance. Not only was it the name of the bar on the street, but the name was also given in reference to the only soldier who died when one of the local ships was blown up during an Anglo-Dutch attack in the 17th Century.
The Beach at Saint Malo
Of all the best things to do in Saint Malo, one of the top activities is to sit, stay and watch the waves roll in at the beach. For a seaside town, with ramparts, the beaches of Saint Malo are surprisingly large, albeit packed. Visiting at the height of summer, in August, meant that there was literally nowhere left to place your beach towel! As we were only visiting for a couple of hours, we opted not to spend too long lingering along the shoreline, opting instead to discover what else the town had to offer.
A history of Pirates on Saint Malo
One of the best things about France is that each region has its own unique vibe, culture, cuisine and sometimes even language. Of course, Brittany is no different! This region of France has historically struggled to maintain its own independent streak through the ages.
From having its own language, Breton, to repeatedly resisting the rest of France, Brittany has always strived to be different. The residents of St-Malo (or malouins as they refer to themselves) took this one step further. They repeatedly refused to be ruled by France, or even by Breton laws at a local level. A famous saying from the town is:
“Ni Français, ni Breton, Malouin suis” (I am neither French, nor Breton, but Malouin)
On account of its close proximity to the sea and independent streak, the King of France found Saint-Malo to be the perfect place to source privateers in his missions against the English. Now, if you’re wondering what a privateer is, it’s basically a fancy word for ‘pirate’!
They were also referred to as ‘corsairs’. The city’s residents who took to the seas made a great deal of profit from attacking ships on the high seas, looting and plundering as they went. Often, the missions would translate from sea to land. The pirates from Saint-Malo travelled as far as Plymouth in South Devon, UK.
But the sailors of Saint-Malo hold a much more nefarious title than merely being sailors of questionable morals. A certain sailor from the town, Jacques Cartier, is credited with being the first European to rediscover Canada. He was sent by King Francois I and landed in what is now Quebec in modern-day Canada. Cartier was also apparently the first European to sail down and map the Saint Lawrence River.