St Malo and Mont St Michel

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Europe » France » Lower Normandy » Mont Saint-Michel
November 20th 2013
Published: March 29th 2014
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These were two places I had on my list-to-visit before leaving France.

In a previous post I wrote about my time staying with a woman named Anik Heraux in a town called Rochefort. I contacted Anik through an organization called “HelpX” and that’s how I ended up staying with her for 5 weeks, helping around doing odd jobs in exchange for accommodation and food.

But Anik belonged to several other such types of organizations, like couchsurfing, etc. This included one called “Route des Sel” (a sort of “French Couchsurfing”). Through this last one she put me in touch with a woman named Dominique Catalifaud, who turned out to be the president of the organization. She lived between St. Malo and Mont St. Michel, so the location was perfect to do day trips to both places from there.

Dominique lived with her husband, a retired electrician and her son. They had a house by the side of the road in a place called Le Fedeuil, near Hirel. In the backyard they had several hens and roosters and some crops. They also had a very hyper-active dog. They were very kind and I felt very comfortable staying with them for 3 days. They didn’t speak much English (although Dominique was taking Spanish lessons). But up to that point I was much more comfortable with my French and it was good enough to have basic conversations with them.

The next morning I went to St-Malo. Dominique and her husband drove me to the train station and from there it was a short ride to arrive in the city. Once there, I quickly got my bearings and walked to the walled city (Intra-Muros).

This is known as the “Corsair City”. It’s got a lot of history and it’s very cool. I first heard about it while I was in Rochefort. One day Anik invited me over to some friends of hers to see a movie called "Les quarantièmes rugissants" (The roaring forties) and part of the film was shot there.

The weather wasn't the best that day and it rained a bit from time to time, but fortunately not that much, so it wasn't an impediment to walk around.

I started in the tourist information center and I grabbed a brochure that was very helpful; one with 3 walking routes you can do by yourself. After visiting the inside of Intra-Muros I did two of the walking routes: one called “Sablons, Alet Peninsula and Port Solidor” and the second one which was “Old Saint Servan”. That made up for a whole day.

The inside of the walled city was great. Unfortunately it was a Monday and most things are closed on Mondays in St-Malo.

A bit of history: St-Malo has been a seaward fortress since the Middle Ages, with ramparts surrounding it entirely. It was named after a Breton Monk from Wales, Mac Low. Around the 6th Century he established a Bishopric in Alet (St Vincent Cathedral), very close to where the actual Walled City stands. The motto of the city is “Semper Fidelis”.

By the 13th Century, the “Malouins” were already quite successful at capturing enemy ships.

Over the years St Malo became a prosperous city, mainly because of its strategic location and tidal harbors. That and the fact that explorers from the city reached all the way to the coasts of Brazil and Canada. In later years the city established itself as a base for seafarers who commissioned ships to the Eastern Indies, China, Africa and the Americas, thus enjoying an epoch of great prosperity.

As a side fact, the city became an independent republic from 1590 to 1594, until it pledged allegiance to King Henry IV.

In later years the city continued to prosper with its corsairs and merchants. In 1661 a fire destroyed most of the city and was slowly reconstructed. Because of this the city was rebuilt using granite instead of wood.

After the city was retaken in WWII, it had been destroyed in about 80%. Since then it has been carefully restored to its original design. Intra-Muros can be walked in a few hours and it’s great to get lost in its narrow streets.

Part of the city is surrounded by beaches. In them there are a couple of fortresses built on top of rocks. They were closed that time of the year, but nevertheless they made up for a great view.

And now back to my story: after having walked my fair share in the Walled City I headed towards the Alet Peninsula. I started the walk along an amphitheater-shaped walkway where there used to be rope factories and shipyards. Nowadays there are private houses and a few cafés. From the walkway there’s a clear view of the “Bas-Sablons Sea Wall” which is 750m. In the same walkway there’s a lighthouse which has the same name. Close to the lighthouse there’s St-Pierre of Alet Cathedral, the oldest of the region, dating back to the 10th Century.

Continuing along it’s possible to go up a small hill which follows the tip of the Peninsula. From there one gets a great view of the whole harbor. Further along is the Fort of Alet built in 1759 and modernized during WWII. Nowadays that place is a WWII museum.

Along the hill there are a lot of nice houses and the whole place has a very relaxed ambience in general. From there one gets to the Solidor Tower and Solidor Port (very worth having a look). The Tower now houses the “Cap Horners” Organization (of which my father is a member of). I wanted to visit it, but it was also closed that day. There’s a wooden albatross there which was given by the Chilean members of the Cap Horners.

The name “Solidor” is derived from Breton and it means “The door of the River”. It was built in the 14th Century to control maritime traffic in the Rance estuary.

The tidal changes in the region are huge and it was low tide when I was there. I spent good time taking photos of fishing vessels and sailboats aground in the beach.

At the end of the bay where the port is there’s an old arsenal, but the entrance is forbidden (currently it’s the Administrative Center of Maritime Affairs). That was the end of the first walking tour and I didn’t have much time for the second one, so I did it rather fast. It started right at the arsenal and it was through “Old St Servan” which is a small town that has a history closely linked to that of St-Malo. This city in particular I thought wasn’t that interesting to see though.

What I got to see were a park (Parc des Corbières), the Sainte Croix Church (only from the outside), a small English graveyard and the Rose Gardens of Sainte Anne. By that time it was getting dark and I had a fair way to walk back to Intra-Muros, grab a coffee and walk back to the train station and get back to Dominique’s house. Every night at Dominique’s I had dinner with the family.

The next morning I went to Mont St Michel. Again, Dominque and her husband drove me to the train Station where I took a bus to arrive at Mt St Michel. I run into a lot of Japanese tourists (I had no idea this place was such a big deal, but it’s listed as a "World Heritage Site".

The origins of “Le marveille de l’Occident” (The wonder of the West) date back to 708 when, according to tradition, after having 3 dreams, St Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, founded a sanctuary on Mont-Tombe in honor of the Archangel Michael, head of the heavenly militia.

It rapidly became a place of pilgrimage and in the 10th Century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey, while a village grew below it, behind its walls.

For the medieval people, the Mount was a representation of Heavenly Jerusalem on earth and felt protected under the Archangel Michael.

By the 14th Century the Mount became an impregnable fortress during the 100 Years War, resisting all the English assaults and thus becoming a symbol of national identity.

The religious community was dissolved during the Revolution and the abbey became a prison. In 1874 it became a historic monument and has remained ever since. Over the years it has gone through a rigorous process of restoration.

If there are any architects reading this, I believe you’ll find the history of the construction process and techniques used quite interesting (from what little I could grasp about it).

Half a day is enough to visit the Mount and wonder through the streets. As it attracts a lot of people every day, prices are pretty steep in general. During the hours I was there I visited the house of Bertrand du Gueslin, a knight who lived in the town. It was really interesting getting a glimpse of how a knight and his family lived during those times. Most of the furniture displayed is in good condition.

I also visited the Abbey of course and it’s an impressive feat of architecture, having taken the medieval builders several Centuries to construct the building wrapped around the granite rock. I finished the visit with a superb temporal display of photography of Mount St Michel and its surrounding areas.

Words aren’t enough to describe the magnificence of the place. Even though like I said a short visit is enough, wondering through the narrow streets of the village is something special. Kind of the feeling I got when I visited Toledo in Spain.

At the end of the day I went back to Dominque’s house and followed the usual routine of dinner and conversation with her family.

The next morning they gave me a final ride to the train station so I could continue my trip for a short visit to the landing beaches of Normandy.

Additional photos below
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30th March 2014
Mont St Michel

Great adventures!
How wonderful that you're staying with French people and getting to know the culture! Mont St Michel is one of my fave places. I spent the night and had a dream of doing the Camino de Santiago de Compostella/Chemin de San Jacques, which I later did. If you end up having a bit of time, it's a fantastic journey, but it also sounds as if you're having fabulous experiences. !Buen viaje!
3rd May 2014
Mont St Michel

Thanks for the comment!
Hi Tara, thanks for your words. Indeed my stay in France was great and big part of that was that I stayed most of those 7 weeks with different French families. I saw that you recently wrote about a trip to the South of Chile you did a few years back, it was a fun read. Cheers!

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