Tag Archives: St Malo

France, The Medieval Walled Town of Dinan

Even as we arrived in Dinan I was thinking half an hour might be more than enough but I was forced to recalculate very quickly when we arrived in the old town which is a warren of narrow streets where it appears that time has stood completely still.

Dinan it turns out is one of the best preserved medieval walled towns not just in Brittany but in all of France.  After only a moment or so in this picturesque setting I had elevated it straight into my top ten of favourite places even leaping above Santillana del Mar in Spain, Shiltach in Germany and Hallstatt in Austria and before very long we were looking in the Estate Agent’s windows.

Read the Full Story…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Entrance Tickets – The Sculptured Rocks near Saint Malo

Les rochers sculptés

The entrance ticket is just about as exciting as the attraction!

On a trip to Northern France we visited the delightful medieval town of Dinan and clutching a fist full of property details followed the road back to the coast and St Malo.  We were behind schedule so the sensible thing to do now was to go directly to Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing another unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.

Let me now give you a piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés!  We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.

Rock Sculptures St Malo

These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying that it is a tedious detour and unless you want to go round twice which is highly unlikely I have to say the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes or so.

If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.

After the disappointing visit I was impatient to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits.  Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.

Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.

Les rochers sculptés St Malo France

Weekly Photo Challenge: Eye-Spy

CleopatraRock Sculptures St MaloIceland ReyjkavikCatalonia Spain Door DetailSemana Santa Siguenza

 

Brittany, Abandoned Plans

Auberge de Bain Mont St Michel

The very rural Auberge where we were staying was situated on a minor road next to a farm and in the morning we discovered why there was so much lamb on the menu as several hundred sheep were escorted past the hotel and across the road for a day of feeding on the sea grass.

This is a daily event by all accounts as for obvious reasons they cannot remain in the fields during high tide.

After the success of the visit to the delightful town of Dinan we changed our plans today and instead of driving to the busy city of Rennes and, once again based on postcard pictures, we agreed that we would instead go to what looked like another charming small market town, this time nearby Fougères, back in Brittany.

To begin with everything went according to plan and after an excellent breakfast we drove south towards our destination.  The journey took more or less forty minutes and when we arrived there we were surprised at just how busy the place was.  We tried several car parks but failed to find an empty space until we came across a rather remote patch of tarmac with one last remaining place.

The reason it was so busy was today there was a market in town which stretched for almost half a mile all along the main street and everyone from miles around had come to take a look.  Ihad woken up in the middle of a nightmare!   I like local markets but this was a tatty affair selling cheap rubbish and designer fakes and it soon became clear that this was probably not the best day to see the town centre so after a very quick look we left the town and drove instead to find the nearby fortress.

Castle of Fourgeres Brittany France

This is a famous fortress, probably the best in Northern France and the town makes the bold claim that this is the biggest medieval fortress in Europe.  This is a massive claim indeed and one that is challenged by Carcassonne in the south of the country.  In fact neither Fougères or Carcassonne can claim the bragging rights on this one and it is generally agreed that the biggest castle in Europe is Malbork castle in Poland but as I have said before you have to be careful about these claims because all of the contenders seem to apply different rules to suit themselves to gain the advantage.

Unfortunately I am unable to help with this one because although we saw the Fougères fortress from the outside we didn’t get to go inside.  Once again the car parks were packed solid and there was simply nowhere to safely leave the car.  It seems that Fougères is rather fond of cycle racing and today there was a big event which meant that we were about two hours too late to get parked.  There also seemed to be a definite danger that parts of the town were going to be closed off later in the afternoon and so as we were due to fly home today and needed to get to the airport we didn’t need the additional worry of being locked in and unable to get out.

Northern France Wissant

So we were obliged to change our plans and drove out in the general direction of St Malo.  Now we had a potential problem because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was and Kim was in charge of the map.  Kim (she won’t mind me telling you this)  is completely lacking in map reading skills and I always know that I am in trouble when she keeps turning the map round to face the way we were going.  This invariably means one of two things, either we are lost or we have just missed an important turning.  I always know that this is the time to start making preparations for a u-turn.

We always fall out in these situations and today was no exception.  Kim gets tense, I get irritable and she gets moody and then starts saying unhelpful things like ‘take a left in about one inch’ and when I ask her to convert this to miles ‘it’s difficult, the map is in kilometres’.  We generally stop communicating after about five minutes or so, and so it was today.

It was disappointing not to see Fougères but on the plus side it gave us the opportunity to revisit Dinan and find somewhere for lunch down by the river.  As it turned out Dinan was also a lot busier today and parking became another challenge but after we found a space we walked again amongst the medieval half timbered buildings and enjoyed a final pot of moules in the sunshine.

Too soon the short break was over and we were making our way back to the airport but Brittany is a place that I am sure that I will return to.

Brittany Map Postcard

Brittany, Postcards

Brittany Map PostcardDinard, Brittany, FranceDinard BrittanyDinan PostcardMont St Michel Postcard

Brittany, Dinan and The Sculptured Rocks

Dinan Brittany France

We had enjoyed two good days in Dinard and St Malo but the next morning it was time to move on.  We woke earlier than planned on account of some seagulls flying past our window and screeching so loud it was as though it was a fleet of police patrol cars driving by on the way to attend an incident with emergency sirens blaring.

Before travel I always carry out careful research but sometimes something just crops up while you are away.  At a shop in Dinard I was looking at postcards and came across one for the nearby town of Dinan and it looked exactly like the sort of place that we should visit.  Kim was elsewhere in the shop and spotted exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.  Simultaneously we said “come and look at this, I think we should go here” and we decided there and then that we should.

Dinan Postcard

It took longer to drive to Dinan than it really should have on account of major road works which required a lengthy and tedious detour which doubled both the distance and the time to our destination but as it turned out it was well worth the inconvenience.

Even as we arrived I was thinking half an hour might be more than enough but I was forced to recalculate very quickly when we arrived in the old town which is a warren of narrow streets where it appears that time has stood completely still. Dinan it turns out is one of the best preserved medieval walled towns not just in Brittany but in all of France.  After only a moment or so in this picturesque setting I had elevated it straight into my top ten of favourite places even leaping above Santillana del Mar in Spain, Shiltach in Germany and Hallstatt in Austria and before very long we were looking in the Estate Agent’s windows.

From the town we made our way down the steep Rue du Petit-Fort, which was Dinan’s main point of access until the eighteenth century. An uneven cobbled street, the stuff of picture postcards flanked with half-timbered houses and arts and crafts shops on account of the fact that Dinan has been designated a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (Town of Art and History) and is filled with artists, sculptors, engravers, bookbinders, glassblowers and more.

Brittany France Dinan

The road twisted and turned and seemed like it would never end as it spilled half or mile or so down towards the River Rance and the old port, passing through the ancient main gate of the walled town and down to a medieval stone bridge which crossed the river towards another labyrinth of tiny streets on the other side.

The sun was shining and the temperature was rising and there were a string of inviting bars and restaurants alongside the banks of the river so we stopped for a while before tackling the return journey back up the steep hill.

At the mid way point we climbed the fortress steps and took the path around the castle walls with magnificent and commanding views over the surrounding countryside.  The town walls are sadly incomplete so it cannot become my favourite walled city and that distinction has to remain with Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

What a fabulous place, what an unexpected find and if you take only one piece of advice from me then if you are ever in Brittany or Northern France then I urge you to visit Dinan.  At the end of the visit Kim declared it the highlight of the holiday and that included Mont St Michel.

Dinan Brittany France

Reluctantly we left Dinan clutching a fist full of property details and followed the road back to the coast and St Malo.  We were behind schedule so the sensible thing to do now was to go directly to Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing another unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.

Let me now give you a second piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés!  We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.

Rock Sculptures St Malo

These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying that it is a tedious detour and the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes.

If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.

I was impatient now to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits.  Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.  Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.

Les rochers sculptés St Malo France

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

Brittany, Beach Sports and Moules et Frites

Dinard Beach Olympics

Whilst I sat in the sun with a second beer the girls went to find a restaurant for evening meal and after a while came back and declared that they had found the perfect place so we agreed meal plans and walked back to the hotel as the sky blackened and rain clouds raced in.

It rained for an hour or so but had cleared by the time we had agreed to walk out so we sauntered along the sea front to the Le Citrus only to be turned away because it was fully booked all evening.  We returned to the restaurant that we had enjoyed the previous evening but the result was the same so worrying that we might have to share the last bag of crisps in our room we went directly back to the hotel where the staff helpfully found us a table regardless of the fact that we hadn’t reserved.  Saturday nights in Dinard are busy it seems.

The rain cleared overnight and in the morning there was a clear sky and a dazzling sun rise which shimmered off the surface of the sea and reflected off the chrome decorations on the boats as they swayed lazily on placid water so we planned a day of seaside and promenade walks and shortly after breakfast set off on the first of these.

Strolling along the promenade we came across a lifeguard tournament rather like musical chairs as a series of sand races resulted in an elimination after each round.  We got rather excited about the whole thing especially when our favourite competitor from Biarritz, wearing Basque colours of green and red, fought off all challengers to claim first prize

Racing over we continued our walk under a rock promenade with the sea to our right with views across to St Malo and under the shadow of granite cliffs to our left topped by a succession of magnificent houses and villas.

Northern France Wimereaux

In the late nineteenth century during the show off period of the French  Belle Époque, Dinard was discovered and developed by Saint-Malo’s wealthy shipping merchants who built some of the town’s magnificent houses and after them American and British aristocrats made Dinard popular as a fashionable summer resort and they too built stunning villas on the cliff tops and exclusive hotels such as the ‘Le Grand Hotel’ on the seafront.

The walk took us some way west as we walked away from the town and then when the footpath ran out we climbed a set of steep steps to the road above and made our way back to the beach promenade and our thoughts turned to lunch.

After two days I was ready for moules et frites.  Looking around I could see that almost every table in every restaurant was host to an empty pot of black shells and I wondered if there might be enough to go around.  After Belgium and the Netherlands the French eat more mussels than anyone else and this adds up to a staggering three hundred and fifty tonnes a day which is roughly 25% of all mussels produced in Europe .  This is so much that France itself cannot produce enough to satisfy demand and has to import them from nearby Spain who happen to be the biggest producers in Europe*.

Dinard Moules et Frites

Moules however are nothing without frites and I was interested to discover that there is controversy about the humble French fry, frite or chip, or whatever you may want to call it and there are conflicting claims to how it came to enter the culinary traditions of so many countries.

It is served everywhere in northern France but it is the Belgians who claim that they invented it.  There is a rather unlikely story that in the late seventeenth century the people of the region had the custom of fishing for small fish for deep frying but when the rivers were frozen and fishing became hazardous they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer instead.

In Spain they say that this is nonsense and the potato wasn’t even grown in Belgium at that time  and claim that dish was invented there, which might make sense because this was the first European country in which the potato appeared via the New World colonies.  It goes on to back up this claim with the assertion that ‘patatas fritas’ were an original accompaniment to fish dishes in Galicia from which it spread to the rest of the country and further to the Spanish Netherlands, which didn’t become in fact become Belgium for more than a century later.

France actually took some time to accept the potato and it wasn’t until a famine of 1795 that they beagn to eat them.  They proved so popular that by 1795, potatoes were being grown on a very large scale in France, including at the royal gardens at Tuileries and within that short time, the French either invented or learned to make fries.  Once discovered they became extremely popular in revolutionary France, particularly in Paris, where they were sold by push-cart vendors on the streets and called ‘frites’.

heap of French fries

Belgium however still stubbornly hangs on to its story and dismiss the claim of the French themselves by arguing that the description ‘French Fries’ originated due to a linguistic misunderstanding.  In old English ‘to French’ meant ‘cut into sticks’ and apparantly US soldiers in the Second-World-War called them French Fries on account of the fact that the official language of Belgium at the time was French.  As though to back this up the Belgians consume the most French fries per capita of any country in Europe.

Of course we don’t care what the Belgians, the French or the Spanish think because we are convinced that they are an English invention and that we make a far better job of cooking them anyway. Traditionally, chips in the United Kingdom are cut much thicker and since the surface-to-volume ratio is lower, they have a lower fat content. According to legend, the first chips fried in the UK were on the site of Oldham’s Tommyfield Market in 1860.

Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves with the history of the frite today but we all cleared our bowls and plates and declared the simple meal a resounding success.

In the afternoon we did some more coastal walking and by the time we had finished we were satisfied that we had covered every single kilometre of beach and marina side walks in Dinard.  During the day I took the precaution of booking a table at Le Citrus for this evening and after we had spent a late afternoon in the sun we made our way to the restaurant.

We had a very splendid meal, I forget what we ate but I know that Kim had steak with chips and she declared them to be the finest that she had ever eaten.  I cannot confirm this judgement because she didn’t offer any of us a single one but based on that I have to say that she may well have been right.  They did look good I have to say.

Dinard Brittany Boat Detail

*Three countries are responsible for two thirds of all European mussel production. Spain is very clearly the largest producer with over 200 000 tonnes per year, followed by France with a stable production of around 80 000 tonnes. Italy is the third main producing country with 65 000 tonnes. Most of the supplies from all three countries come from aquaculture.

Brittany, St Malo

Dinard Brittany France

Our hotel had a perfect location right on the sea front and the price to be paid reflected that but sadly the breakfast didn’t match up.  Hard bread and selections that disappeared and weren’t replenished left us feeling mugged!  That’s the Hotel de Vallée by the way.

Never mind, the sun was shining, the disappointment was soon left behind and we set off for a walk around a coastal path until we reached a boat trip booking office and we immediately changed our plans – we were on holiday and impromptu decisions are quite acceptable.  So rather than explore the town of Dinard we bought tickets for a fifteen minute boat taxi ride to the city of St Malo instead.

The water taxi negotiated a busy route to avoid the boats bobbing about on the water and the up market yachts streaking across the surface of the sea and brought us closer to the medieval walled city.  Christine wasn’t impressed, she thought it looked like a prison with its imposing grey granite walls rising directly out of the sea but we persuaded her to hold her final judgement and wait until we got inside.

St Malo Brittany

She was glad that she did because St Malo is an absolute gem.  In 1944 it was almost completely destroyed by American bombers and a British naval bombardment and by the time they had finished with it 80% was in ruins.  The French didn’t rush to restore it however and took twelve years from 1948 to 1960 to put the city back together again stone by stone, brick by brick.

And this is an important point – in France war damaged towns and cities were rebuilt in a traditional way with buildings that recreated the spirit of the old communities whereas in England our heritage was swept away by the town planners of the 1960s who approved the destruction of anything of value and replacement with concrete and ugliness which condemns English towns for the next couple of hundred years or so to all look the same whereas in France they have recaptured and preserved their individual identity.

In 2015 this seems to be a feature of our travel destinations – cities that have been bombed and destroyed.  In February we went to Warsaw in Poland, in April to Malta and to Londonderry in Northern Ireland in June all of which, have at some point been virtually destroyed.

We walked through the labyrinth of streets where shops and bars met at the pavement edge and walked straight through to the walls on the other side where restaurants lined the city walls, so many because it is estimated that St Malo has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in all of Europe with most of them specialising in oysters from nearby Cancale.

Sea Defences St Malo Brittany France

Outside of the walls we walked to the sandy beaches and the rows and rows of timber trunks firmly planted in the sand to provide defence against Winter Atlantic storms that sweep in along this coast and frequently deluge the city under a barrage of high water.  Not today however because the sun was shining and if anything we had to frequently seek shelter of shade to get away from the blistering midday sun.

After walking for an hour or so we rested for a while at a bar in the sunshine and then walked some more just to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything.  First we arrived at the cathedral which was much like any other cathedral but had an interesting plaque outside commemorating a previous citizen of the city, a man called Jacques Cartier.  Now, this is a name that probably won’t mean a lot to most people unless they are Canadian because Jacques Cartier let me tell you is credited with being the explorer who first navigated inland from the North Atlantic Ocean and allegedly gave the country its name.  Lots of people had been to what we know as Canada before Cartier of course but none had ventured so far into the interior before him.

In 2004 the Canadian Broadcasting Company ran a competition to choose the greatest Canadian, when the votes were counted three of the top ten were Scots, Tommy Douglas, John MacDonald and Alexander Graham Bell but despite this achievement the Breton Jacques Cartier did not even make the final fifty.

St Malo was a genuine surprise, I had always thought of it as a ferry port where people arrived from Portsmouth and left the boat blinkered, looked for the green Toutes Directions sign and hammered south, perhaps they do, there weren’t many English tourists here today.

After the lunch stop we walked back to the walls and walked along the western bastions looking out over several island fortifications cut off by the high tide, one containing the tomb of François-René Chateaubriand, politician, diplomat, author and the man who it is popularly supposed that the steak dish is named after.

By late afternoon it was time to take the water taxi back to Dinard and by four o’clock we were back on the seaside promenade.  With the sun still beating down we walked to the beach with the lifeguard championship games and had a drink at the water’s edge before the girls went into town to the shops and to find somewhere for evening meal and I declined the opportunity to join them and had a second beer instead.

If you are from Canada who did you vote for in the ‘Greatest Canadians’ competition?  If you are not from Canada who would you have voted for?

Hotel de La Vallee Dinard Brittany