One of my favorite places in the world is Saint-Malo, a town in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France.
I first went to Saint-Malo for my own personal writer’s retreat—to work on a novel I was writing. I was enchanted the minute I set foot “intra muros”—inside the walls.
A few months later I returned. It was my happy place.
I don’t know if it’s the air that smells like butter and sugar, or the winding cobblestone streets that reveal layers of history, or the dramatic tides that sweep out beyond a vast sandy beach and rush back hours later to lap over the sidewalks…
In a nutshell, Saint-Malo is a perfect little French village enclosed within stone walls. And just outside the walls is the beach. The weather is generally mild—never too hot or too cold.
Can you get better than that?
Saint-Malo’s past tells a deeper story.
In World War II, Saint-Malo was decimated by American troops who weren’t aware that the occupation of Nazi soldiers had already left.
It was a mistake that destroyed centuries of history.
Over the next twenty years, the people of Saint-Malo painstakingly rebuilt the city stone by stone, with the rubble—to look exactly as it had before.
Extraordinary.[Anthony Doerr’s bestselling book All The Light We Cannot See tells the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier who are in Saint-Malo during the siege. I highly recommend reading it before you go there.]
When I sat down to write my FAVE FIVE recommendations for Saint-Malo, I realized that my favorites had nothing to do with shops or restaurants—but simply about the experience of being there.
Hence, an unconventional Fave Five, in no particular order.
(I’ll post my eat-see-shop-stay recommendations for Saint-Malo in a future blog post, and you can always see them on the Sourcebook.)
1. Walk the ramparts
You can (and I did—every day) walk on the medieval ramparts that encircle the Old Town. On one side the cathedral’s graceful spire rises above the village.
On the other is the ocean, with views across the bay to the town of Dinard and to a scattering of islands. Several of the islands hold fortresses—Petit-Bé (dating back to the reign of Louis XIV), Grand Bé (where French writer Chateaubriand is buried—per his instructions), and Fort National (a 17th century citadel where people of Saint-Malo were imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II).
2. Explore the town
You can do it in one day—walk down every cobbled street, across each tiny courtyard, up and around the cathedral, through alleyways and under arches. You’ll think you’ve seen everything.
Because every time you wander you’ll find something new.
It’s like magic.
Don’t forget to look up.
And look for the photograph in the window of Librairie le Septentrion on Place Brevet—this little bookstore somehow survived the 1944 bombing.
3. The beach
One of the things that’s so wonderful about Saint-Malo is being able to walk outside the walls to the beach. For reasons you’ll see in #4, you’ll want to make sure it’s low tide before venturing onto the sand.
There are three beaches—each with their own distinct features and personalities.
The Plage du Mole is small, protected on three sides by walls of granite. These people were sunbathing in October.
There’s a pool incorporated into the larger Plage de Bon-Secours, and a sailing club further up the beach.
My favorite is the vast Plage de l’Eventail, stretching far beyond the walls along the northern coast. (The photo of Saint-Malo at the top of this blog post was taken while standing on this beach.)
At low tide, the beach is full of life. People walking to Fort National, dogs playing, and…sometimes a horse.
It’s even lovely dusted with frost in the winter.
4. The tides.
It may sound odd, but the tides in Saint-Malo are actually a destination.
Residents and tourists alike gather along the retaining wall, simply to watch the tide come in. The Bay of Saint-Malo has the biggest tides in Europe, so during low tide the ocean can be more than a mile from the shore—and when the waves roll back in at high tide, they come in quickly and with force.
In his novel All The Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr describes the tides in the era of World War II:
“At the highest tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very centre of town. At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.
Ever fascinated by the changing seascape, I took before and after pictures.
That’s Fort National in the distance—a little boat goes around at high tide to make sure no one is stranded.
I would check the tide forecast online each day and take a break from writing, just to watch.
5. The sunset.
Saint-Malo sunsets are more magnificent than any I’ve seen in all my travels.
It’s like this:
You’ll be watching the tide flow in and it will splash up onto the street—over your shoes if you’re not careful—and then the sun will fall beneath the horizon and before your eyes the sky will ombré from cobalt to blush to fiery orange.
When night falls you’ll head back toward the sanctuary of the walls—strolling by the castle and the carousel, looking up to the ever-present spire of the cathedral, and passing through the 18th century arch of Porte de Saint-Vincent, on which a coat of arms professes the words “Semper Fidelis”—always faithful.
Like I said, the best things in Saint-Malo are free.