History holidays: St Malo

David Musgrove enjoys the independent spirit of St Malo

St-Malo, Brittany, France.

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

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The ferry docks. You drive off and head straight out to the beckoning delights of Brittany or Normandy. But hold on. If you look to your left as you disembark, you’ll see the fine stone walls of St Malo’s old town. And they hold delights well worth pausing for.

The burghers of St Malo have a long tradition of obstinate refusal to bow to the authority of the dukes of Brittany or the kings of France, and indeed from 1590–95, they set themselves up as the Republic of St Malo. The 14th to 18th-century towers and bastions that encircle the old city no doubt helped encourage this independent air, particularly before their moat, which used to flood with the tide twice-daily, was filled in.

The best way to enjoy the old city is to stroll along the ramparts, looking out to sea and the islands that dot the harbour (including two of historical note that can be visited: the Fort National and the Ile de Grand Be, which holds the tomb of one of St Malo’s most famous sons, the writer Chateaubriand). You can also admire the heart of the town, with its bustling streets and grand cathedral. You might be surprised at the preservation of the fine buildings you’re looking at, but that’s because much of the place was obliterated in the Second World War (which you can find out about in the Memorial 39–45 museum outside the old city). It has since been restored to its previous state.

When you step down from the walls into these streets, you still get the feel of a historic town, despite the recent depredations visited upon it. Happily the big historic draw of the town, its old chateau, is still standing. It now holds a splendid museum inside an atmospheric round tower. The displays cover (in French) the maritime history of the town. You’ll learn a good deal about the infamous privateering corsairs who once made St Malo the base from which they sailed out to terrorise shipping around the world, plus a fair bit about Chateaubriand, and another local boy-made-good, Jacques Cartier, the 16th-century explorer of Canada.

David Musgrove is editor of BBC History Magazine

Tourist information: www.saint-malo-tourisme.com

Best time to go: March–September

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Recommended read: Brittany and Normandy (Lonely Planet, 2004)