History holidays: French fancy

Julian Humphrys explores the charming medieval town of Dinan in Brittany

Street view of the medieval city of Dinan that belongs to the province of Brittany in the northwestern part of France

This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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During the Middle Ages Dinan’s lofty position, dominating the spot where the east-west land route crossed the river Rance, made it one of Brittany’s most important towns. It features in the Bayeux Tapestry where William’s knights are shown torching its keep while the defenders pass out the town keys on the end of a lance.

The 13th century saw the construction of nearly two miles of stone ramparts around the town. They were strong enough to hold off the English during the Hundred Years War and are largely intact today. In the siege of 1357, Bertrand du Guesclin, future Constable of France and something of a local hero, won the freedom of his captive brother by defeating an English knight in single combat. A statue in the town’s marketplace marks the spot where the combat took place. Du Guesclin died in 1380; his heart is buried in the Romanesque Eglise St Sauveur in the town centre.

Dinan saw further expansion in the late medieval period and by the 16th century it was a major trading and cloth production centre. It continued to develop in the 17th century, its merchants and artisans living and working in the magnificent half-timbered buildings that give the town its particular character. Many can be found in the Place des Merciers and the Rue de la Cordonnerie, their upper stories often jutting out over the pavements, supported on thick wooden pillars. With their high wooden walls and rows of rectangular windows, some of the building fronts are not unlike the sterns of galleons. In fact this is not so surprising given that many were built as a sideline by the shipwrights of St Malo.

Energetic visitors will want to walk through the 14th-century Porte de Jerzual and make their way down the Rue du Petit Port, a steep cobbled street connecting the town with the small port at the river below. It is also well worth braving the 158 steps of the 15th-century Tour de l’Horloge, a bell tower which also served as a lookout for fire watchers. The view from the top is superb. Every other year Dinan hosts Fete des Remparts, a medieval festival with street entertainers, music, jousting and a market. The next will be held in July 2008.


Tourist information

www.dinan-tourisme.com

Books

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Discovering the History of Brittany by Wendy Mewes (Red Dog Books, 2006); Green Guide: Brittany by Grace Coston and Paul Shawcross (Michelin Green Guides, 2007)