After the hustle and bustle of Paris, we decided a quieter change of pace was in order (to the extent possible in France in August) and helpful for the seaside Normandy town of St. Malo. While the weather was inexplicably cold and not entirely conducive towards swimming like I’d hope (not that it didn’t stop some people- forget the North Pole, Northern France is where the real polar bears live), there was still plenty to see and do.
Old St. Malo was a walled city strategically built in between two harbors, with a ring of forts designed by the famed military architecture Vauban situated on several of the islands around it. Its location and the tides give it many complexions, at times surrounding the walls with lapping waves and at others ceding their place to wide beaches and land bridges to the nearest islands.
There were a few sights, like the city chateau and Cathedral, but we skipped them (except for the Cathedral, which was quite pretty) and just enjoyed walking the walls, eating some seafood and sipping the local tangy hard cider, and sampling the local baked goods, from the date-studded Far Breton to the straight up addictive Kouing Aman, a crispy butter and sugar cake covered in Nutella or, even better in caramel with a baked apple at its core.
If I lived here, my coronary countdown would only be a couple of years.
The other principal attraction of St. Malo is its proximity to the world famous Mont St-Michel, a site I’ve been excited to see since Middle School, where the textbook pictures of far-off francophone attractions were my only respite from the doldrums of French class. The sight of this stark rocktop monastery alone is as stunning as advertised.
Unfortunately, the background details of truly ridiculous crowds and cold and rainy weather hampered our enjoyment a bit. Thankfully, once inside the walls and on the staircases above the lowermost tourist-trap street level, the crowds thinned, and the views of the vast tidal flats surrounding the fortified island opened up.
The principal, and pretty much only attraction on the mount is its monastery (which also served as a fort and prison), but it’s worth the trip all on its own. It’s built on a large slab of pillared crypts, which provide a base to build the cathedral and abbey on. The calculations the builders would have needed to make to ensure everything could support the massive weight of the levels above it without sliding down or toppling off the mountain had to be perfect, and their skill is evident in the centuries the monastery has towered above its tidal basin.
Its most impressive feature, though, has to be La Merveille, a three-story addition to the monastery built on pretty much nothing but pure architectural audacity, and crowned by a gorgeous rooftop garden with sweeping views of the alternating waters and sandy expanses of its surroundings framed by medieval arches. The moment we were there alone would have justified ten times the lines and rain.