You may be hesitant to spend your precious vacation time visiting Saint-Malo, in the notoriously rainy region of Brittany, while your French friends are quick to head straight to the sunny south of France, but this beautiful walled city has enough renowned food and drink, stunning panoramas, thrilling history and even sunny days to make it an attractive excursion. After seeing friends’ photos of the turquoise and emerald coast, I coaxed my French boyfriend into spending a long holiday weekend out west.
Situated on the English Channel, Saint-Malo is a brisk three-hour train ride from Paris and a perfect place to spend a few tranquil days. Upon crossing over the harbor and entering the walled city (la ville intra-muros), easily reachable by bus or on foot from the train station, the treasures of Saint-Malo will immediately begin to reveal themselves.
To stretch out your train-lagged legs, walk straight up the steps of the wall for a full-circle tour of the city and coast along the ramparts, accompanied by a fresh sea breeze. This perspective from above will provide views of quaint rooftops and mazelike cobblestone pathways tucked inside the wall and of, outside the wall, the Fort National—only accessible at low tide—on the edge of an expansive emerald sea.
To settle a growling stomach, choose from a number of crêperies and seafood restaurants inside or outside the walled city. In a moment of indecision, go for a crêperie, where you can indulge in a seafood galette. These buckwheat crêpes are a specialty in Brittany that will have you shaking the chef’s hand. For galette fillings, the menu will offer any variety of ham, fried egg, grilled vegetables and seafood, as well as the occasional andouillette or smoked salmon and cream. The menu, however, lacks a disclaimer about inducing future cravings long after the meal.
Indeed, the waitress warmed up to us when we showed warranted appreciation for the galette complète, mostly via smiles, moans and thumbs-ups, as we were rendered speechless. She launched an impassioned conversation with my boyfriend about Brittany’s pride for its galettes and even showed us a picture of the galettes served in England, pausing to let us mirror her obvious disappointment. To her admitted surprise, the best galette she’d ever had was far from France, on the island of Mauritius. Ironically, she discovered that this remote restaurant was actually managed by a man from Brittany.
Your own memorable dish at the crêperie ought to be complemented by a bowl of sweet or dry local cider, and rounded off with a sweet crêpe smothered in salted-butter caramel, delicately topped with a strawberry.
To venture outside the walled city, especially for the tourist-phobic traveler, a hike up to the Alet City fort is highly recommended. Starting from the sandy beach at Saint-Servan, follow the road uphill, snaking around a fishing-boat harbor, church ruins and a park, steadily climbing through greenery toward a sparkling overlook on the surrounding harbors and the walled city. Here in the park is a perfect place to set up a tent (if you’re the camping kind) and spend the evening barbecuing. (If you’re looking for a hotel, the Girls’ Guide recommends the Relais de Brocéliande, no too far from Saint-Malo.)
Climbing higher to the peak, the hilltop is actually a former site of a World War II German bunker tucked into the landscape. The bunker and museum are open most afternoons, so you can explore them if you’d like to, and the surrounding nature trails are open all day.
If Saint-Malo starts to feel small after a few days, take a local bus to Cancale, another seaside town from which you can see the island of Mont Saint-Michel and its monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gaze out over the oyster beds toward the island while plucking oysters from their shells if you have the stomach for slimy seafood. If not, pop into a galette or seafood restaurant with a view of the sea. After all, you want to stock up on Brittany cuisine as much as possible to stave off those inevitable future cravings.
Struck with wanderlust at an early age, Tori Evans studied in Australia to try to get as close to as many deadly things as possible, then moved to Alaska to see how often she could get lost in the wilderness, and then to Egypt to get caught in a revolution. Now a resident of Paris and bound in the mysterious PACS (Pacte civil de solidarité) with the Frenchman she picked up in Cairo, she is set on exploring the thrills of the City of Light. Check out her three years of culture shock, scuba diving and horseback—and donkeyback—desert riding in Egypt at www.torievans.blogspot.fr and at her new French blog.
Editor’s note: If you are a Girls’ Guide Travel Club member, you might like to stay at this lovely family-owned seaside hotel overlooking Saint-Malo or this lovely hotel and spa nearby. To get your 10 percent discount, which only Girls’ Guide members receive, you must reserve via this phone number: (800) 333-0150. Simply call and give your Girls’ Guide membership number, and you’ll stay in luxury for less!