When you plan the first trip to France, not always does the region of Brittany (or Bretagne) gets picked in your list of places to visit. You are more spellbound by Paris, Bordeaux and the south of France that the North-West side gets pushed for later. We would have done the same had it not been for a friend’s wedding in the town of Rennes. Brittany is the region near the sea in the North-West part of France, as such in the ancient times it was also referred to as Armorica, derived from a Gallic word which meant ‘close to the sea’. It was the Roman province of Britain back in 51 BC, and has commonly been referred to as ‘Little Britain’. In 1532 it came under the Kingdom of France, with the town of Rennes as the capital city of Brittany.
We had four days in Rennes and not too many wedding functions to attend, so we decided to spend as much of our time exploring nearby places. Rennes, the medieval city, has its charm but not too many things to do or see. However, there are many gorgeous getaways about two to three hours away from Rennes. And if you consider yourself a seafood lover, then heading to a beach town to savour fresh oysters is a must-do in the itinerary.
The coastline of Brittany is world famous to relish the best oysters, particularly Belon, a native that is known for its distinctive seaweed flavour and meaty texture. Cancale, known as the oyster capital of Brittany (it supplies oysters to most Michelin-starred restaurants in France) is highly recommended for visiting oyster farms, getting insights on oyster harvest, sampling fresh oysters and learning about the nuances associated with taste. Or if you don’t want too many details, you can head to any of the beach towns and enjoy fresh oysters at cheap prices. We chose the latter and headed to the port town of Saint-Malo to do a bit of oysters as well as enjoy a sunny day at the beach.
The Historical City of Saint-Malo
The historic walled-city of Saint-Malo is said to have been built by the Romans, which was later painfully restored after World War 2 when most of it was destroyed. The cobbled streets and tall granite buildings take you on a trip back in time. But then you come across modern restaurants and cafes, and quirky designer stores that you can’t help but marvel at the effortless blending of the old and the new.
Back in the days, Saint-Malo was notoriously known to house privateers. Apart from raiding English and other foreign ships, those men would also venture out to acquire more wealth. One such privateer from Saint-Malo is thus credited for discovering Canada – Jacques Cartier. You can learn more about the explorer at a museum in Manoir de Limoelou in the district of Rotheneuf. If you are a history buff, then you can also hop on the mini train at the entrance of the fort, which provides a guided tour of the city.
Another must-visit is the Cathedral of Saint-Malo, listed as a ‘Historic Monument’ of France. As per legend, two monks -Saint Aaron and Saint Brandon – had founded a monastery there in the early 6th century. One of their followers, Saint Maclou or Malo, is known to have devoted his whole life to the monastery, becoming the Bishop of Aleth (after whom the city is named). His successor then built a church at the location in his honour, which in due course of time was rebuilt as a cathedral. The cathedral is structured blending Roman and Gothic design elements, with a dramatic high altar in bronze and stained glass windows with beautiful depictions of great Breton saints.
Oysters, Galettes and the Beach
As soon as we land in Saint-Malo, we immediately make our way towards a restaurant to indulge in fresh oysters. The platter of oysters that arrive is emptied within seconds, as we ritualistically squeeze some lime, add a dash of Tabasco and a drizzle of mignonette sauce before eating them. The taste is delightfully refreshing, and we order another platter along with Foie Gras and a bottle of sparkling wine.
Any food expert will tell you that the best way to enjoy oysters is to have them au natural – fresh and raw, with its living Chi. It may seem disgusting to some, but it is incredibly refreshing with its unmistaken taste of the sea.
After the appetisers, we take a tour around the city before making our way to the beach, just in time to witness the low tide clearing the pathway to the island of Grand Be. We are warned at the start itself that we should return soon before the water levels go up. It is a rocky climb but the view of the sea and the fortified city is breathtaking. We soak in the sun, scribble on the sand, click endless pictures and wander aimlessly, making the most of our time.
We move on to explore the fort amidst the backdrop of picturesque clouds and a sinking sun, before finding ourselves in a cosy cafe to eat our fill again. This time it is Galette, a Breton specialty, which is like a crepe made of buckwheat flour and stuffed with savoury or sweet fillings. It is a popular breakfast dish as well as a quick meal on the go. We choose all sorts of fillings to suit our like – egg, tuna, ham, cheese, chocolate, etc., teaming it with more wine.
Before sundown, we start our way back to the train station, but not without soaking in more of the beauty of the port city, and thanking our stars that we included Brittany in our France itinerary.
How to Get There: Saint-Malo is well-connected from Rennes and takes about 90 minutes to reach via train. From the train station, it is about a 30-minutes walk to the walled city.