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krisek Saint-Malo - A travel report by Krys
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Saint-Malo,  France - flag France -  Bretagne
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krisek's travel reports

A summer weekend in Saint-Malo under the tent.

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It was a spontaneous decision. My friends and I decided to take a car and our tents and drive all the way to Saint-Malo for a weekend at the end of August. Weather was perfect. The medieval walled town with its beaches and forts were superb.

View from the campsite at night
View from the campsite at night
One evening, my friends and I decided that for the Late Summer Bank Holiday weekend, we should go to northern France camping. So, we took the car and drove like a wind from London to Saint-Malo, with a quick stop over in Rouen (for shopping) and in Le Mont-Saint-Michel. I even bought a 2 seconds tent for this trip. Luckily it was cheap.

Saint-Malo (aka Sant-Maloù, aka Saent-Malô) is a magnificent medieval walled port city in northeastern Brittany. The origins of the name 'Malo' had been traced to a Welsh monk called MacLow, apparently, who is believed to had founded the city in the 6th century. It used to be an island, but now it is fully accessible from the main continent. In the Middle Ages, it was actually an autonomous city, and for three years at the end of the 15th century it declared itself an independent republic, the Malouins Republic. The city was famous for its corsairs, who terrorised mainly English vessels passing the English Channel to pay 'transit fees'. By the 17th century, the city was one of France's most important ports.

It was a long trip from London. We left before dawn, just to make sure we maximise on the weekend and avoid the worst of the traffic in both countries. We have never gone that one before, and our knowledge about the campsite was only based on the Internet and a few reviews left here and there on various websites. When we arrived in Saint-Malo, it was only about half an hour before sunset. Enough time to pitch the tents (mine only took 2 seconds) and get organised for the night. I could not believe how great and dramatic the location of the campsite was and so close to a beautiful medieval tower sticking out of the sea. It was nicely lit at night and looked absolutely stunning on the background of the setting sun and the sky painted in twilight colours.

The bay of Saint-Malo claims record high tides in Europe, with differences between low and high tide of up to 46 feet (14 metres).

Favourite spots:
Small fort and the beach by the old town walls
Small fort and the beach by the old town walls
It was difficult to pick a different favourite place in Saint-Malo than the giant medieval walls overlooking the English Channel (La Manche) and a few of mighty forts dotted in the ocean parallel to the coast. The water around the city had a very inviting hue and the people on the beaches clearly took the opportunity take a dip in it.

Some of the sections of the wall had large cannons planted on them reminding visitors that the city once was a stronghold that managed to break away as an independent state from France and Brittany. I am not sure whether the cannons stood in their original positions, but they surely looked respectable.

The walls were great observation platforms for watching people walking about the old town, frying their skins on the beaches below or trying all sorts of water sports. It was great just walking along the walls, stepping into small shops or cafes for quick refreshments. It was like stepping a few centuries back. But it was a great illusion.

What's really great:
Narrow street within the walled old town
Narrow street within the walled old town
Regardless of its huge popularity, particularly amongst the French holidaymakers, the town still appeared really easy going and relaxed. The narrow, shaded - almost dark - alleys within the walled old town, were laid back. Most were lined with shops, boutiques, and souvenir booths but I never saw hordes of people rushing from one sight to another, from one shop to another, etc. It is reported that the population of Saint-Malo may swell twice its normal level. And yet, I did not feel the place was overcrowded. I did come at the end of the holiday season, but I did not notice a massive exodus, either.

It was great to wander about the old town and browse withing the walls and fortifications. It was surreal that the beaches were so next to the city, or that in fact there were those great beaches there at all. And one of them so huge!

The greatest thing about Saint-Malo is the fact that during WWII, 80% of it was completely destroyed. It was remarkably rebuilt as it is today.

Fort in the town
Fort in the town
Saint-Malo's main sight was its medieval La Ville Intra-Muros, the inner walled old town, with its picturesque narrow alleys, bastions and gates. The castle of Saint-Malo, right on the beach by the walls, looking mighty and still impressively strong, was one of the prominent buildings of the core historic centre. The other one was the Cathedral of Saint Vincent, sticking its spire out in the air, above the average height of the structures in the old town.

The tall tower rising out of the ocean, which could be seen from the campsite was the Solidor Tower, dating back to the 14th century that now houses a museum of nautical instruments with a large exposition on the sailings around Cape Horn.

The atmosphere, the ambiance of Saint-Malo was a remarkable sight and a quality of the city itself. (I could not believe that this all was artificial.) But apparently there was yet another quality - just check the restaurant section below.

View from the campsite - literally
View from the campsite - literally
This was a camping trip and we did not even consider hotels, B&Bs or hostels. Around Saint-Malo there were three camping sites: Alet**, Nielles**, and Nicet**.

The first one, Camping d'Alet, was the most convenient for access to the city of them all. This is the campsite we selected, and it offered such a great sight of the Solidor Tower (la Tour Solidor), just a hundred yards away. Onsite, there was even an 18th century fort, fortifications dating back to WWII, and a museum commemorating the 1939-1945 occupation of France. It had 300 pitches, and its officially open between 1 May and 30 September.

The campsite had a grassy plots, three sanitary buildings, washing machine with dryer (€3.60), facilities for the disabled, playgrounds for children, mini-gold ground. There was always someone on duty, 24x7, and personnel spoke several foreign languages, including English and German.

The campsite charged €12.55 for one tent up to 2 people with no electricity supply.

'New Town' by night
'New Town' by night
There was something else for which Saint-Malo was famous for. Or rather the lack thereof. It was decent nightlife. The walled town got very, very dark at night. And spooky! It was a job and a half to identify a nice place to party. Three discotheques; L'Escalier, L'Aviso, and the City Club, the latter two bam slam in the centre, were not very popular for some mysterious reason.

Well, nightlife on a camping trip in Saint-Malo was pretty much a self-creation. Couple of bottles of good Chablis or St Estephe, crackers and some cheese, and there was a night party already. The proximity of the beach was a blessing, too. An ipod with mini speakers was a good DJ-ing platform till the batteries lasted. Plenty of refreshing breeze, open spaces and... the bed was just few feet away.

View of the walled town from the walkway leading from the campsite.
View of the walled town from the walkway leading from the campsite.
An obvious hanging out place in Saint-Malo was the beach. A few beaches, actually. The northern beach extending into the easterly direction was the largest and the widest. It also looked the most popular. The southern beach, right below the walls of the old town was also very popular. It was not very wide and its width was dependent on the tides.

Saint-Malo had a relatively good number of cafes to chatting, gossiping, and sipping beverages over ice. And that included cheapish white wine, particularly in the early afternoon. There is one absolutely fabulous cafe with possibly the longest name of a cafe in the Milky Way, and it does not even have a proper name, it is more of a description where it is located. The Le Cafe du Coin d'en Bas de la Rue du Bout de la Ville d'en Face du Port, otherwise known as La Java, has a magnificent 1930s decor. It has a few rather creepy photographs and porcelain dolls, but it is a true gem with unforgettable ambiance. Really.

The beach by the old town walls
The beach by the old town walls
A curious fact about Saint-Malo is that the city claims the largest concentration of seafood restaurants in Europe. That would be a nice quality if it was true, actually. I am not able to verify, confirm or deny this claim. But I would like to report that I did not notice an excessive number of seafood restaurants at all. There must have been a good number of them around, but not much greater than in Bruxelles, Bergen, Palma de Mallorca or Thira on Santorini. In fact, I was looking for a nice seafood restaurant, but there were not any obvious choices. I suspect that Saint-Malo would like to claim this record in order to take some heat off the village of Cancale, famous for its oysters, swarmed by groups of coached tourists, perhaps.

The city was a good place to try some Breton specialities (not oysters or mussels), like the pancakes. The great combination was the pancakes with seafood - like those from Petit Crepier (rue Ste Barbe), a very small place famous for what its food.

Other recommendations:
Le Mont-Saint-Michel
Le Mont-Saint-Michel
A UNESCO-listed Le Mont-Saint-Michel, a rocky tidal island located approximately 1km off the continent, at the mouth of the Couesnon River, is only a few minutes drive from Saint-Malo. It is a remarkable little town, which grew surrounding the abbey on the top of the isle. In the past, Le Mont-Saint-Michel was connected to the mainland by a natural land causeway. However, the mud flats surrounding the community have built up over the centuries creating a silt and therefore making the isle almost permanently accessible from the continent. However, a project has been announced to erect a dam helping to remove the sediments and making Mont-Saint-Michel a true island again.

It is a great place with steep impossibly narrow alleys, if a little overrun with tourists. I did not mind that. I was a tourist there myself and I think the local community benefited from the visitors. There were many charming cafes, restaurants and bars and a souvenir shop was a good idea for a business there, too.

Published on Wednesday November 26th, 2008

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Sun, Dec 07 2008 - 11:01 AM rating by rangutan

Magnifique, no part of Europe seems safe from your camera and pen!

Thu, Nov 27 2008 - 01:34 PM rating by pesu

Very inviting report indeed - would like to drink a glass of white wine au Café du Coin d'en Bas de la Rue du Bout de la Ville d'en Face du Port...

Thu, Nov 27 2008 - 06:27 AM rating by davidx

I have always avoided it on the grounds that I heard it was a tourist trap and a half. Clearly this must have been short-sighted.
Normal comments on your reports still apply here.

Wed, Nov 26 2008 - 07:27 PM rating by robynallen

This place looks and sounds like a perfect place for a quick getaway.

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