Are you familiar with that tingling desire to visit a specific place? A wish so persistent that you just find yourself one day getting into the car and driving to the very place, even if it takes thousand kilometres to reach it?
No? Neither did I until last May when I went to see two of such places.
It sounds almost like a movie plot. Almost. In real life, where you work full-time, part- time, or even joggling between two jobs, a bit of planing is necessary to do such a trip. It is not spontaneous like in the movies but it’s even more beautiful because you are there, being part of the experience and not just a spectator. Good news is that it’s doable over the long weekend. This time Thursday (for us it was a regional holiday) to Sunday.
I don’t remember anymore how I came across a photo of Mont Saint Michel for the first time. All I remember is how it made me feel – overwhelmed by a beauty of such an isolated place. At first I thought that the place was surreal/photoshopped but then looked up the map and realised that it truly exists and is located in northern France. That was enough to keep it in my mind persistently until I visit it.
Saint Malo is a city I got familiar with from a book. A friend of mine (thanks Jovana) recommended me one day a book “All the light we cannot see” from Antony Doerr. When it comes to books you don’t have to say it twice. Before you know it I was already equipped with the Kindle version. The plot starts in Paris but then moves to a small town called Saint Malo. I’ve never heard of it before. This time, I checked the location and let my imagination do the rest. I fell in love with the imaginary version of it. After finding out that distance between Mont Saint Michel and Saint Malo is just 50-60km, the decision was made to visit both of them as soon as some long weekend possibility comes up. May was quite generous month in the end.
Let’s get familiar with northern France regions Normandy (Normandie) and Brittany (Bretagne), homes of the above mentioned places.
Name: Mont Saint Michel
Population: 50 (2015)
Patron Saint: Saint Michel the Archangel
Name: Saint Malo
Population: 45,980 (2014)
Area: 36.58 km²
Patron Saint: Saint Malo (lat. Maclovius)
• Tides in Normandy are the highest and the fastest in Europe. They are often compared with galloping horses because of their speed. The record spring tides around Mont Saint Michel cause the sea going 15km away from the coast and coming back rapidly, increasing the water level for approximately 12m.
• Saint Malo is a birthplace of some famous explorers: Jacques Cartier, explorer of Canada; Jacques Gouin de Beauchêne, explorer of Falkland Islands; René Trouin, Sieur du Gué, admiral who captured the city of Rio de Janeiro; Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne etc.
• Mont Saint Michel has a typical feudal society construction. On the top is abbey and monastery (closest to God). Below the monastery are the Great Halls of noble people, then housing and stores of the merchants and, finally, outside the walls, farmers’ and fishermen houses.
• During the 17th and 18th century, Saint Malo was a notorious Pirate Bay. Not like the website, more like the pirate heaven in Brittany. Approved by a king, pirates or privateers cruised around robbing English, Dutch and Portuguese ships.
• Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. More than 60 buildings on the island are protected historical monuments.
When to go?
If you want to experience the highest tides, spring is the best time to go. You can even find tide prediction calendar as well as daily timetables. The last supertide was recorded in March 2015 when Mont Saint Michel was an island. Even a newly built bridge from 2014 was submerged that day. Supertides don’t happen so often but even normal ones are quite impressive. You will not be disappointed.
March to October – best weather
July – August – high season, tourist peak
November – February – off season, shorter days and least appealing weather
Consider that it is the the most visited place in France after the Paris area, hosting approximately 3 million tourists every year. If you want to avoid peak crowd, plan smart your trip. We visited it over the last weekend of May.
Bring your swimmsuit just in case. You can really get lucky with the weather.
How to reach?
Depending where you start from, the first possibility would be to reach Paris either by train or plane; then take a train to Mont Saint Michel. If you prefer to rent a car, which would give you more freedom to explore around, the good practice would be to take a train Paris – Rennes and rent a car from there. Trust me, driving through Paris is the last thing you want for your short trip. There are also buses operating on Paris – Mont Saint-Michel relation such as Flixbus or some local buses. You can even make your Paris visit more adventurous and book a one-day excursion to Mont Saint Michel. The possibilities are numerous. As you could guess from the beginning of this post, we went by car. It was decided too late to book a train or a plane for a reasonable price and car could provide more flexibility regarding departure time and moving around. So we drove 1000 km on that 31st of May from Stuttgart to Normandy.
Saint Malo is afterwards easily reachable by car, train or a bus. It is feasible even by bike, considering the 56-60 km distance.
Where to stay?
There are many hotels around Mont Saint Michel that offer a nice accommodation for a reasonable price. They are located on a firm land from where you can reach the island by a 30-minute-walk or by taking a free local bus that will bring you to the city walls. Some of the hotels are inside the walled city on the very island. Prices are higher accordingly but you can enjoy a beautiful view while having a breakfast. The third option is camping in a local camp on a firm land, which is 40-45 minutes walk distance from the island.
Saint Malo is a city with a very interesting structure. Choice is even greater here. My recommendation would be staying close to the walled city.
If you need an accommodation recommendation, just write me and I can give you a top one for Saint Malo. Cheese lovers would appreciate it for sure 🙂
Mont Saint Michel
Driving to the very place took us approximately 10 hours from Stuttgart. Although it seems quite exhausting, I didn’t lived it that way. Too excited to be on the road again, starting early to avoid the traffic jams, the trip went smoothly. I’ve never done such a long trip by car before and it was quite interesting to observe the changing landscape and vegetation. Cypress trees reminding me of Toscana for a couple of moments, endless green meadows, occasional WWII memorials and battle monuments, Paris and big city chaos at some point, sense of freedom again when Paris was behind and the most exciting moment when you almost reach your destination and see that fairytale place on a horizon, still not believing that it’s real and that you are truly looking at it.
We arrived in the afternoon, left the luggage in the hotel and went for a walk illuminated by the last sun rays. Like in a dream, not wanting to break the spell, we didn’t go all the way to the walled city but watched it from the distance, enjoying the sunset after a long ride. Approaching rainy clouds warned us to return to the hotel and we did so and went for a dinner in a nearby restaurant. Apple cider is the very best from this region and, if you are brandy/schnapps fan, calvados is the finest you will ever try. A typical dish here is lamb meat. Considering that sheep are feeding on grass that is occasionally flooded by the sea, their meat gets the salty taste too and it is delicious. Normandy’s very famous product is a salty butter, which I got addicted to after this trip.Rain was quite persistent that evening and we continued following an hourly weather forecast that promised no rain around midnight. And so it was. Camera and tripod ready and we went to a distant observation platform to try to do some night photos of the illuminated Mont Saint Michel. Weather conditions were good and we had a lot of fun taking those photos. Try and error principle and learning on the fly. However, I was happy with the result in the end. Couple of decent shots came out. Exactly at midnight, just a second after I took the last photo the lights went out and we could finally go back and get some sleep.
Narrow streets lead spirally upwards. Numerous souvenir shops, small cafés and restaurants tempt you to make a pause on each corner, competing among each other who offers the best view of the bay. The scents of delicious food and that smell of the sea are mixing all the time, distracting your senses in all possible directions. Smell of the sea and sound of the seagulls is something so precious. For me in particular I guess, since I am not living near the cost anymore.
Do not yield to these temptations and head all the way up to the Abbey. It is a spectacular complex on the very top of the island and one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Entrance fee is approx. 10€. You can also have a guided tour.
Mont Saint Michel was originally named Mont Tombe. The name was changed to Mont Saint Michel in 8th century. The legend says that Saint Michael (archangel) came to bishop Aubert of Avranches in a dream and ordered him to build an oratory on the top of Mont Tombe and make it replica of the Gargano in Italy (5th century). That is how the circular sanctuary, made of dry stones, arose on the top of the island, which got its name changed then to worship the archangel. The place has a very rich history and, through the centuries, resisted the Vikings, Gauls and got even turned into a prison at some point. If you like history, this place has quite some stories to tell and they are all worth hearing.
From the Abbey you can stroll down slowly and explore some side streets, cute isolated corners with a beautiful views and even share your snack with seagulls. Have a cider while watching the tide coming up and enjoy it for a moment. There are many small terrace-like wall parts where you can see the bay from different perspectives. The view from the top is not much different because Mont Saint Michel is quite isolated. On one side the sea and on the other marshy land that surrounds it. Only far in the distance on a clear day you can notice another medieval city called Avranches. On the way back to the hotel and the car we couldn’t help but notice organised tours around the walled city. Maybe it can remain for the next time. It seemed quite a fun thing to do.
Important notice, going around the island on your on is absolutely forbidden. You must book a tour with a specialised guide to take you around. Tides and quicksand are not a child’s play and can be very dangerous.
In the late afternoon we said our farewell to Mont Saint Michel and proceeded to our next destination. Another walled city – Saint Malo.
When reading about places, I tend to form my own version of them. That is why I find myself often disappointed when places in the movie are not “like in the book” but sometimes even amused when director had the same idea of them like I did. Nevertheless, in Saint Malo I didn’t know what to expect. Book plot was settled in the WWII time frame, shortly prior to city bombing in 1944. Unfortunately, that event is a true one.
Believing that many German troops were still located in the city, Saint Malo was almost completely destroyed by American shelling and British naval gunfire in 1944. Americans used napalm for the first time in that seize. German troops were, however, established outside the city walls with only few of them being in the city. Rebuilt of the city followed in 12-year period from 1948 to 1960. That means that very little part of the old city buildings survived the war.
Saint Malo has a very long history. What once was a cradle of many explorers and pirate bay in 17th and 18th century is a peaceful walled city and a harbour today and the most visited place in Brittany. Ferries between Portsmouth and Saint Malo are operating on daily basis as well as to Poole and Weymouth most of the days. City is well connected by a railway so you can even reach it by a fast TGV train.
The most popular city district, among several, is called Intra Muros or “inside the walls”. I will concentrate on that one, considering the time at our disposal. In the end, we are talking about a day and a half time.
So we arrived that Friday afternoon to a small hotel behind the inland port of Saint Malo. I can warmly recommend the place and its friendly staff. It is 20-minute-walk away from the walled city. After a dinner and a glass of wine, a walk along Louis Martin Avenue brought us first to a little port, hidden and protected behind the walled city. The tall granite buildings were peaking behind the massive ramparts surrounding the city, almost inviting to step through the city gates.
Just as we did in Mont Saint Michel, we had a short walk around city’s cobbled streets to get an idea of it and not overdo much. So as a start a walk along the ramparts with the sea view was enough. Tender pink sunset and the sound of the waves caressing the walls gently was almost like a lullaby. It was a perfect time to have some fun with the camera and try some long exposure shots of the sunset and the islands. Equipped with tripod and cheap ND filters, we had quite a lot of fun in learning by doing until the sun went down and we went for a rest. What I leaned is to accept the imperfections and do not set too high goals when it comes to photos because it has to be fun in a first place. So don’t get to stressed if you don’t get a perfect shot. Be happy that you witnessed a magnificent sunset with your own eyes. We get to see those a limited number of times. Keep that in mind.
Saturday morning started with an amazing breakfast in our cute little hotel. Crispy baguette with a plate full of different cheese sorts, all at our disposal to cut as much as we want. That is why I said at the beginning, cheese lovers would love the place. We proceeded once again along the avenue. This time to explore more the city inside the walls. Starting too early here means you will find high tide all around, which makes the surrounding islands unapproachable (unless you want to swim, which is not recommended and dangerous due to the strong currents) and you will get to see the starting of the day for the locals. Small cafés getting opened for the early birds and tables getting swiped one more time before the first guests arrive. Smell of the freshly baked baguette that comes from the bakery, seagulls starting their daily search for the food and granite buildings all around bathed in the morning sun.
First thing we went to see is Cathedral of St. Vincent. Built in a mix of roman and gothic style it is the highest building in the town. Cathedral suffered severe damage during the WWII and its restoration was finally completed and celebrated in 1972. Early in the morning, the main entrance was closed although a side door was wide open so we had a sneak peak inside before the priest informed us that we have to go out because it was not opened for the visitors yet. He was a very friendly man who was thrilled to chit-chat with us in his perfect Italian. We discovered that he visited Italy for some time during his studies and would be happy to do so once again.
While waiting the low tide we strolled along the cobbled streets and went to see the special house from the book. Although there was a big building in its place, old houses being all ruined during the war, it was such a magical moment to find that very address. It is a dream come true in a sort of way because you treated your imagination with tangible places like it’s its own revelation of them.
We proceeded to Secours beach to have a break and enjoy the morning sun. It gives a beautiful overview on two islands Petit Bé and Grand Bé as well as on numerous canoes in all colours and formations heading to the islands. The water was still too high so we went for a lunch while waiting to visit the islands.
Saint Malo is full of cute little restaurants, bistros, creperies and cafés that you never know where to look first. Living away from the coast make me crave for the seafood even more and use any chance I get to taste it. This time, we spotted a Creperie Froment et Sarrazin near Marché aux Légumes Square that offered some mussels on the menu. A table outside under the sun and the biggest pan of mussels, dipped in gorgonzola cheese, I’ve ever seen so far. The feast could begin. I’ve never ever had so much fun eating with my hands. You should definitely try it out. But don’t overeat, keep some space for the delicious crépes (pancakes) afterwards.
Finally, the islands became peninsulas by the low tide and we began with Fort National. It was built in 17th century by a military architect Vauban to protect the port of Saint Malo. You can get a guided tour in English without booking it in advance. A very interesting place, especially the inner rooms where the gun powder for the canons was held. You can check the opening times and accessibility here.
Grand Bé is located east from the city walls. It is covered in an interesting vegetation, lavender like plants. You can see the ruins of the fortress here as well as a Writer’s Tomb. French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, born in Saint Malo, has been buried on the island, in a grave facing the open sea.
Petit Bé, like the name itself, is a smaller island right next to Grand Bé. It contains a 17th century fortress built by (guess who) Vauban. The fortress covers almost completely the island area.
If you follow the city walls more south, you will find yourself in front of the long dock with the lighthouse at its far end. Full of fishermen and young people, it is a great place to bring a beer and watch the sunset. You should know that days are the longest in May/June so we ended up waiting for the sunset almost until 23h.
Other interesting places to visit around the city are:
The Privateer’s House (“La Demeure de Corsaire”)
The Pointe de la Varde, Natural Park.
Those ones we left for the next time as a reason to come back. Sunday was a travel day and we had full ten hours of driving to settle down our impressions and discuss the most interesting parts of the trip.
You could probably guess by the length of the article how amused I was by both of the places. Actually, the whole trip seemed like a week and not just weekend because there was so much to see, taste, feel and simply live. These kind of short trips fill me up with positive energy and motivate to work even harder until the next one. Remember, stay hungry and keep the place for the dessert, always 🙂