I promised part two of the Normandy trip post many, many weeks ago … and I didn’t deliver. Life’s been busy around here, and as much as my mind has wandered to travels and French villages, I haven’t had the time to pull out the photos or push up to the keyboard. Today, I’m making the time- part of my determination to start making more time for the things that feed my spirit. I think we all need that these days. The news cycle, with floods, fires, earthquakes, evacuations, refugees, federal budget woes, and COVID deaths is overwhelming. We need to tell stories about beautiful places, people we love, and food that makes life worth living– things that, literally and figuratively, feed our souls.
So here I am. Stepping up to the microphone to sing a love song to St. Malo. And Mont St. Michel too. But, let’s be real, everyone ooohs and aaaahs over Mont St. Michel. It’s great, it really is amazing, but it’s Mont St Michel of the million and one photos, so you expect it to be great. St. Malo is lesser known and more rustic. It’s not overrun with tourists. You can wander into its ancient walls and believe that you are among the happy few to have discovered the enchanted city. You can believe that if you close your eyes for a catnap on a bench, you may open them to find yourself transported back in time and surrounded by buccaneers. It feels tinged with the magic of a place less discovered by the world, more authentically itself.
I loved Mont St Michel, don’t get me wrong. It was gorgeous and somehow both unbelievably majestic and vulnerable: set out on its solitary island, proud and alone.
We went off-season, on a chilly day, but it was still quite peopled. I can imagine that during tourist season it’s shoulder to shoulder, which is just no way to see a place. No way to appreciate its charms or imagine what it might have been like to live there in times past. I don’t hold this against Mont St Michel– it’s not her fault, after all. However, it makes visiting less vibrant than it might be. Kind of like wooing someone in a parlor peopled with a dozen nosy great-aunts. There’s just no way to have an intimate relationship. A wink, an appreciative nod, and a hope to come back someday and have the place to yourself, but that’s the best you can ask for.
St. Malo, on the other hand, seemed peopled only with locals when we were there. Although our visit was brief, it was lovely and we felt like we really got to speak with the place.
You say you know very little about Mont St Michel or Saint Malo? Well let me back up and offer you a quick primer:
Mont St Michel sits on the southern coast of Normandy. The site was first built upon in 708, with a small sanctuary. By 966, a settlement of Benedictine monks resided there, and the Abbey grew quickly.
As Abbeys were centers of learning and scholarship, Mont St Michel was soon home to a vast number of manuscripts and it became a popular place of pilgrimage nicknamed “City of the Books.”
The imposing structure that we recognize today seems to have taken shape starting in the 10th century. It’s no coincidence that the word “imposing” comes to mind, as Mont St Michel functioned as both an Abbey and a fortress over the ages. Sitting on the border between Normandy and Brittany, this was a strategic spot. Just as important is the position on the English Channel– the Mont functioned also as a fortress to fend off English attacks from land or sea during the Hundred Years War (beginning in the 14th century).
Under siege, the Mont suffered much destruction over the years, but was always rebuilt, perhaps more beautifully than before.
After the French Revolution, Mont St M was briefly a prison for priests who had fallen out of favor, then a reformatory for common law and political prisoners. Perhaps it was the French version of Alcatraz. (The French do everything with more style.)
In the late 1800’s, in a somewhat delapidated state, the Abbey was designated a historical monument. Soon, the causeway over the water was built, giving better access. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that a small monastic community returned to Mont St M, and by the 1980’s it had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you know a little history, it’s even stranger to see this place as a crowded tourist hub– this solitary isle of monks, soldiers, prisoners. If you are able to make a visit on a quiet day, jump at the chance! In the meantime, try a short video to whet your appetite: See a video view here: abbaye-mont-saint-michel.fr/en/Explore/Video
Moving on down the road into Brittany and the port city of St. Malo:
St. Malo’s history will carry you back to Roman times. By the 4th century, a Roman garrison was well established there. By the time Roman influence waned, Celtic settlers had arrived, soon followed by a monastic community in the 6th century. A culture flourished that was proud and independent. By the 17th century, St Malo began to grow a reputation for corsairs and pirates (or the vaguely more gentlemanly “privateers”– but we all know those are just socially sanctioned pirates and plunderers).
St Malo was hard hit by WWII– German troops took the town as a garrison, and eventually set ruinous fires in the aftermath of D-Day. The Americans and Allies tried to help . . .but, in the logic of wartime, that help looked like bombing and shelling the area. St. Malo was liberated, but also devastated.
The walled city was a hollow remnant of its former self following the war, but it was rebuilt in the decade following. The original defensive walls (the ramparts) still stand, and the interior rebuilding was done with a mission of “restoration,” allowing the ancient aesthetic to be recaptured and still rule the day. If you walk the streets of St. Malo oblivious to its modern history, it’s easy to be . . . well. . . oblivious to its modern history.
But the exploits of earlier times are impossible to ignore. The old walled city juts out into the sea– it verily sings out its stories of pirates and adventurers. I understand that it was a sanctuary city: from the mid 1100’s, the town gave asylum to all who requested it. No doubt, thieves, buccaneers, and folk who hadn’t settled their debts flocked here. It makes for a storied place. Not sure if it made for a peaceful abode at the time, but it’s a lovely visit these days.
When we made a visit, back in 2006 or 2007, our children were small, so running around the walls or riding the carousel were the highlights of the day. And why not? It was a charming way to enjoy the city. I might have wished for a little more time to enjoy the churches and museums, but them’s the breaks. I’ll leave that for future goals on a return visit. For now, I’m happy with my memories of carousels and my own little pirates storming the ramparts.
I’ll leave you with a taste of St. Malo via a narrated video tour of the beaches, the ramparts, and a bit of the city. Enjoy! Bon Voyage!