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Windy, welcoming Saint-Malo: my trip to city that blows visitors away

Sally Ann Voak continues her journey through France in tribute to her late husband, this time enjoying a hair-raising mini-break on the Brittany coast and sightseeing in Nantes

Sal’s whistlestop tour took in Saint-Malo’s Fort National, a local photographer, the history of Anne of Brittany and the imposing Château des ducs de Bretagne in Nantes Pic: Sally Ann Voak

On a clear, starry evening, I boarded the overnight ferry from Portsmouth, slept soundly and woke up in the vibrant port of Saint-Malo.

As a first-time visitor to Brittany and Nantes (just a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away), I was eager to explore one of the most beautiful and dramatic areas in France. 

With its historic ties (and skirmishes!) with England, this part of the country has always fascinated me.

Husband’s ‘wish list’

It was my penultimate trip on a ‘wish list’ my husband Patrick and I compiled for our 50th wedding anniversary but never carried out together as he died before we were able to do so. 

Read more: French adventure in memory of beloved Pat

I remember Pat’s sound advice: “Sal, let the wind blow through your hair, walk, talk, observe, learn.”

Upon arrival in Saint-Malo, I set off to walk the ramparts and explore.

The city was originally built on a rocky islet and named after a hermit monk named, oddly, Maclow. Mac was canonised after his death, hence Saint-Malo.

It is a city of pirates, explorers and modern-day sailing folk looking for adventure.

As a strategic port and fortress, it has seen rebellion, bloody battles, wealth, poverty and disasters. 

It was almost totally rebuilt (using old stones and bricks) after bombardment in World War Two. Yet the walls stayed firm and the paths on top are a great place to view the sights, monuments, churches and beaches.

Journey of discovery

I paused to admire the huge statue of Jacques Cartier, who left the port  on August 25, 1534, on a 20-day voyage across the Atlantic looking for a passage to Asia.

Instead, he became the first European to map the St Lawrence River and claimed Canada for the king of France. His statue is popular with Canadian tourists.

Further on, I stood opposite the Fort National, built in 1689 and which contained the gibbet on which criminals were hanged. Hair-raising!

Back at the main gate of the Old Town, I spent the evening eating delicious scallops and oysters and learning about the upcoming Route du Rhum 2022 single-handed yacht race from Saint-Malo to Guadeloupe, when 2,000 or so yachting enthusiasts would be in town.

Boat trip to Dinard

Day Two was misty and the sea looked rough. I felt nervous about taking the short trip across the bay to Dinard.

A tiny boat bobbed up to the landing stage and two elderly ladies stepped off laughing and chatting. So, fearless Pat in mind, I braved the weather and bounced over the waves.

My 15-minute shake-up was worth it to see the beautiful Art Deco houses, rummage around vintage shops and eat a perfect omelette au jambon at a glamorous brasserie on the wide, sandy beach.

Back in salty, welcoming Saint-Malo, I joined a tour of French visitors at l’Hôtel Magon, built in the 18th century by François-Auguste Magon, director of the Compagnie des Indes Orientales and a corsaire (privateer) under Louis XV.

His opulent pad (which also somehow escaped the bombardment of 1944) has a network of dungeon-like cellars stretching out under the sea.

His sailors would offload spices, gold and silks onto small boats and transport the booty into these cellars to avoid losing it to English pirates waiting outside the port.

Local photographer

I wandered the cobbled streets, visited the cathedral, then popped into a little print and photo shop.

As I stood admiring the wonderful shots of the port and beaches, the owner, Frédéric Aussant, asked if I would like to meet the photographer, his son Guillaume.

From the darkroom below popped handsome, smiling Guillaume, who then invited me to his new gallery near the cathedral. Wow!

“Every photo tells the story of a moment in time,” he told me.

“Saint-Malo provides constant contrasts: changing light, algae, mist, sand, sea spray, ancient buildings. I have learned patience is the way to get my best shots.”

Read more: French astronaut Thomas Pesquet shares photos of Brittany from space

He uses an R5 Canon camera to produce his stunning work and gets location assistance from his friends and girlfriend.

After studying cinematography in Paris, Guillaume, 33, realised that still photography was his passion.

“I made one film, about puppets, and then came back to my roots here in Saint-Malo,” he said.

“My mother and father had been running their print business since I was small. She taught me a lot about black-and-white photography, while he is the colour and printing expert.

“My photographs started to sell well and now hang in galleries and homes in the US as well as here in France.”

Historic treasures in Nantes

Next, to Nantes. We had flown over the city in a friend’s Cessna many years ago and had always wanted to see it on terra firma.

My return ticket cost €50 with just one change, at Rennes.

An easy walk from my hotel took me to the Bouffay district, with its labyrinth of streets, chateau and the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul.

Jacques Prévert wrote that Nantes is so beautiful “it shakes you up”. Its size, wide boulevards, imposing monuments, elegant townhouses and tiny alleys certainly shook me up and I vowed to come back for a longer trip.

Until then, I made do by taking Le Petit Train de Nantes, which whizzes around its diverse districts.

By evening, I had a plan, a beer and my first gluten-free galette.

Anne of Brittany

Day Four started with the Château des ducs de Bretagne, which dominates the centre of the city.

Built at the end of the 15th century by François II, the last duke of Brittany, and later by his daughter Anne, it is a palatial 32-room residence and brilliant museum. 

Anne was raised in the chateau and was just 11 when her father died. 

A much-coveted heiress, she was married to Maximilian I of Austria by proxy, but Charles VIII of France was quick to realise this could mean trouble as his realm was sandwiched between Austria and Brittany.

Consequently, he started a military campaign, forced her to denounce her marriage and, in 1491, she tied the knot with him, becoming queen consort of France.

He lived just seven years more, after which the throne passed to his cousin, Louis XII. 

Following the annexation of Brittany by France, Anne, aged 21, had to marry him, and was queen consort for a second time.

Accounts say they enjoyed a happy marriage. Anne is thought to have had 11 pregnancies (three by Charles), with just two daughters surviving.

Despite spending most of her life in the Loire Valley, she remained true to her Brittany roots, defending the independence of the Duchy.

Exhausted by her multiple pregnancies, she died in 1514 aged 39, and was buried in the necropolis of St Denis.

Read more: Anne de Bretagne: A symbol from birth of a ‘free’ Brittany

In the evening I walked to the fascinating Feydeau district, with its untouched 18th century buildings.

Two small arms of the Loire once surrounded the area to make it an island, but they were filled in between 1926 and 1946. It still has an ethereal, quiet quality, like a floating village within the city.

Back to Saint-Malo

After returning by train to Saint-Malo, I found my hotel near the walls and gate of the Old Town, convenient for my taxi ride to the ferry the following morning.

I was told the building had been a corsaire’s house, and my room certainly looked spooky.

Grand Mère Augustine was a renowned early 20th century cook, and her eponymous restaurant is still packing them in.

So I headed there for my final meal – a galette and pint of Duchesse Anne beer. Anne was, truly, a girl after my own heart!

One more journey for Pat remains: I will be dancing in an open-air Paris guinguette before Christmas, I promise!

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