a long weekend
Nic Compton explores the gateway to Brittany and discovers a land of saints and pirates
St Malo. A land of saints and pirates is waiting to be explored at the gateway to Brittany
Ihave lost track of the number of times I
I’ve caught a ferry to or from St Malo. It’s always been my preferred route across the Channel and whenever possible, I try to combine it with a bit of sightseeing around the wonderful old town. I even stayed there for a few days for the start of the Route du Rhum transatlantic race – the famously windy one in 2002 when most of the big catamarans were wiped out. But I’d never actually sailed there until last year, when I had a chance to explore the area in a couple of small boats ideally suited to the shallow tidal waters of the bay. And what a revelation it was.
St Malo itself needs little introduction. The town was first settled by Gauls a little further south in what is now St Servan, and it wasn’t until around 1100 AD that the population moved to the rocky mount of St Malo – named after the Welsh-born bishop Maclou – to take shelter from marauding vikings. The ramparts we see today date from a little later, in the 12th Century. The town became famous for its privateers and pirates which preyed on British ships sailing up the Channel with valuable cargoes – none more so than the legendary Robert Surcouf who was born and died here, although he did most of his looting in the Indian Ocean.
The old town of St Malo was extensively bombed by Allied forces during the Second World War in an attempt to force out a smaller-than-expected German force. By the time the Germans surrendered, 80% of the buildings had been destroyed, along with countless works of art, antique furniture and the entire library – most of it unnecessary as the bulk of the German forces was elsewhere. It took 32 years of determined work to rebuild the city, stone by stone, to its original design.
Nowadays, St Malo is the most visited destination in Brittany – no doubt helped by being a major ferry terminal – and you can happily spend several days walking around its cobbled streets, visiting the corsair museum and other marine attractions. There are two marinas for visiting yachtsmen. Port de Plaisance Vauban is right next to the city walls and accessed via a large commercial lock. Although convenient for the old town, this marina does get very busy in summer.
Immediately south of Port de Plaisance Vauban at St Servan is the bigger marina at Port des Sablons. It’s a 20-minute walk from here to the old town but it’s less crowded and boasts all the usual boat repair and service facilities. More importantly, it’s right next to the old town of St Servan, which is itself an unsung gem. There’s not a lot here apart from a line of cafés and restaurants around the stone harbour and the elegant Tour Solidor, with its exhibit of Cape Horn sailors’ memorabilia. But it’s a great place to catch the evening rays away from the bustle of its more famous big sister.
I visited St Malo last autumn to try out a couple of trailer sailers at nearby St Briac-sur-mer. We launched the boats at Port des Sablons and headed across the bay towards Ile de Cézembre, two-anda-half-miles north of St Malo. The island sits on the horizon like an invitation to adventure: a Breton version of Wild Cat Island in Swallows & Amazons just begging to be explored. And indeed there are two idyllic little beaches on the south coast, facing St Malo, which make for easy landing. The north of the island is all rocky cliffs and is in any case out of bounds to visitors due to unexploded bombs. This innocent-seeming place was where the German forces held out, long after St Malo had fallen, and
Beautiful scenery, fascinating history and plentiful croissants – St Malo really has it all
PREVIOUS PAGE: A beautiful little Beniguet designed by François Vivier and built by Grand Largue in St Briac RIGHT:Sailing off St Malo in a pair of Stir Vens day sailers, also by Vivier and Grand Largue
The marina at St Servan is easy to access in most states of tide