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48 Hours In: St-Malo

The ancient walled port has always had an independent streak, with plenty to satisfy the curious visitor.

Giles Belbin
Saturday 15 May 2010 00:00

Click here for 48 Hours In...St-Malo map

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Temptingly accessible across the Channel on the north coast of Brittany, the delectable walled city has a heritage rich in adventure, travel and prosperity. Today, it is a thriving port with year-round events and festivals. Next weekend it hosts the Etonnants Voyageurs (00 33 2 99 31 05 74; ), an international festival of literature and film with a focus on travel and adventure. Dubbed "when writers discover the world", the festival has a large exhibition hall (1) where booksellers and publishers will ply their trade.

Touch down

Sail to St-Malo as a foot passenger on Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; ) from Portsmouth, or Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; ) from Weymouth or Poole (with a Channel Islands stop) to St-Malo. Ferries dock at the international ferry terminal (2), a 10-minute walk from the city centre.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ) flies to Dinard from East Midlands and London Stansted. There is no public transport from the airport to St-Malo, so book a taxi before leaving the UK with Taxis-Malouins (0033 2 99 81 30 30; ). Expect a fare of about €30.

For train travel, take a Eurostar (08705 186 186; ) from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, then Metro Line 4 to Paris Montparnasse and the TGV to St-Malo. The journey should take about six hours. Return fares start at £135.

Get your bearings

Almost everything good about St-Malo is concentrated in the part of the city within the old walls – la citadelle. Construction of the walls began in the Middle Ages and continued until the end of the 17th century, with further expansion between 1708 and 1744. Sadly, the original walls were all-but-destroyed by bombing in 1944 and had to be rebuilt, although a section dating from 1145 remains on the west side of the citadelle.

The Cathedral St-Vincent (3), on Place Jean de Chatillon, dominates the skyline. The 15-century castle (4), housing the municipal museum, is in the citadelle's south-east corner. Beyond the walls lie an attractive harbour, islets, forts and spectacular beaches to explore.

The tourist office (5) is just outside the city walls on Esplanade Saint-Vincent (00 33 2 99 56 64 43; ). Open 9am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm daily except Sundays, when it opens 10am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-6pm; there are longer hours in July and August.

Check in

If you want to stay within the walls, expect to pay a premium. Hôtel de l'Univers (00 33 2 99 40 89 52; ) is on Place Chateaubriand (6). Doubles from €116 in high season; breakfast is €9 per person.

Hôtel Elizabeth (7) at 2 Rue des Cordiers (00 33 2 99 56 24 98; ) occupies one of the rare 16th-century buildings that survived the Second World War. Doubles from €105 including breakfast.

A couple of kilometres beyond the city walls is the Grand Hôtel des Thermes (8) on the Grande Plage (00 33 2 99 40 75 00; ), with fantastic views and a health spa. A double room costs €184 in high season; breakfast is €21 per person.

Day one

Window shopping

The cobbled streets within the old walls are a shopper's delight. Hours can be whiled away browsing the boutiques and craft shops. High on the list for book lovers should be Librairie Septentrion (9) at 2 Place Brevet, a specialist in old tomes and antique texts.

St-Malo also has more than 20 galleries dotted around its narrow streets, ranging from specialists in contemporary ceramics and jewellery to traditional landscape and maritime art. To help point you in the right direction, pick up a guide to the city's offerings from the tourist office.

Lunch on the run

For a quick lunch head to the Lion d'Or (00 33 2 99 56 36 02; ) on Place Chateaubriand (6). Grab a table in the sun and order the Marmite de St-Jacques – a leek, mushroom and scallop stew, served in a pot with rice. Not cheap at €16 but simply divine.

Take a hike

A walk along the ramparts that guard the old city is a pure joy. Start with a visit to the castle and the city museum (4), open 10am to noon and 2pm to 6pm daily from April to September; €5.40. Exhibitions chart the city's prosperity, taking visitors through the ages, from the intrepid explorer Jacques Cartier, coloniser of Canada, and François-René de Chateaubriand, the trailblazer of romanticism in French literature, through to the Second World War and the devastation and subsequent reconstruction of the old city.

Exit the museum and make your way anti-clockwise around the ramparts taking note of the Fort National, across the bay, built during the reign of King Louis XIV in 1689.

Continue anti-clockwise, passing the Tour Bidouane lookout (10) over Grand Bé island, the burial place of Chateaubriand. At low tide it can be reached on foot using a cobbled path. Should you choose to visit, be sure to keep one eye on the tide because the path can become quickly submerged. Alternatively, choose to remain at your vantage point on the ramparts, where fun can be had watching a small flotilla of boats assemble, ready to help any stranded tourists as the tide rolls in. Carry on to the Bastion de la Hollande (11) where a statue of Jacques Cartier takes in the view over the Rance river estuary. Stop and gaze out over the river to the town of Dinard and Cap Fréhel beyond.

Make your way round towards the Great Gate (12), the oldest in St-Malo. Be sure to take in the view down the Grand Rue towards the Cathedral St Vincent (3). Complete your walk by continuing on to the St Vincent Gate, the exterior of which is decorated with the coat of arms of Brittany, pausing to peer down on the busy Place Chateaubriand (6), before rejoining the bustle of the citadelle.

An apéritif

For something a bit different try Café La Java (13) at 3 Rue Sainte-Barbe (00 33 2 99 56 41 90; ). It is owned by Jean-Jacques Samoy, who invites you to "enter my madness". Swings greet you at the bar and the café is adorned with memorabilia including kitsch postcards and antique instruments. Order a Kir Breton for €3, a delicious local concoction combining cassis and cider, and let your eyes wander over the weird and wonderful.

Dining with the locals

The restaurant Bouche en Folie (14) at 14 Rue du Boyer (00 33 6 72 49 08 89; ) is a delightful little place offering two courses at €22, three for €28. Menus change every couple of weeks or so; the cooking is first rate. If available a meal of terrine of rabbit, followed by sea bream and creamy risotto and finishing with a selection of local cheeses, is particularly recommended.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Construction of the Cathedral St Vincent (3) began the 1100s but its distinctive spire was not added until the 19th century. The original nave was enlarged in the 1500s and underwent many changes and renovations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it boasts a spectacular rose window, designed in 1968 by Raymond Cornon. Mass is held every Sunday at 10am, 11.30am and 6pm.

A walk on the beach

The Plage du Sillon (15) is a sweep of golden sands running east from the citadelle. Strike out for the Pointe de Rochebonne 3km away, taking care over a particularly seaweedy stretch just over half-way. If you are feeling energetic, continue on to Rothéneuf and take the chance to visit the Rochers Sculptés (00 33 2 99 56 23 95), a series of monsters and dragons carved into the rocks by a hermit, Father Adolphe Fouré, in the 1870s. They are open daily between April and October, from 9am-7pm (longer hours in July and August but not in bad weather). Admission €2.50. It's a good 6km walk back so if your legs are a little weary head into central Rothéneuf and catch a bus back to St-Malo. Route No 3 gets you to the railway station for €1.05.

Out to brunch

Brunch in St-Malo means only one thing: a galette washed down with a cup of local cider – no it's never too early. Try the Crêperie Le Tournesol (16) at 4 Rue des Marins (00 33 2 99 40 36 23), with its terrace spilling out on to cobbled streets, from 11.30am Sunday. Its speciality galettes start at €5.50 and come with a huge variety of fillings, from smoked Breton sausage and egg to goats' cheese and Camembert. If you still have room, finish with something sweet – a crêpe with hot chocolate sauce is €3.50.

Take a view

For a great view of the citadelle in all its glory, exit the intra-muros at the Dinan Gate (17) and turn right. Head out along the 500m-long pier, enjoying views over the outer harbour to Saint-Servan, before turning to take in the panorama of the walls and the skyline of the old town.

Cultural afternoon

The House of Poets and Writers (18) at 5 Rue du Pélicot (00 33 2 99 40 28 77; ) dates back to 1676 and is one of only a handful of wood-fronted houses left in the citadelle. Today it hosts exhibitions, conferences and workshops ranging from literary walks to poetry translations. Recent exhibitions have included "Rougerie éditions: 60 ans et plus de résistance en poésie", marking 62 years of René Rougerie's poetry reviews, and "Labyrinthes", engravings and paintings by René Le Hérissé.

Icing on the cake

For a different perspective on the city take a sea-bus from the Cale de Dinan (19) over to the town of Dinard. The journey takes a mere 10 minutes (€6.70 return) but offers great views back over to St-Malo and down the River Rance.

Click here to view French tours and breaks, with Independent Holidays.

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