One of my favourite reads, ‘All the Light You Cannot See’, is set in the ancient French port city of Saint Malo. The Author, Anthony Doer, charts the impact of the war on a six-year-old blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werther, a young German lad. The story so poignantly drawn, made me want to walk the streets of St Malo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and took decades to reconstruct.
So, one morning earlier this year, I left our hotel to wander the streets of this stunning town. You could almost sense residents stretching, yawning, awaiting their café au lait and croissants. Beams of sunlight slid down the tall elegant buildings, chasing away the shadows of the narrow-cobbled streets. Shutters clanged. Dogs sniffed at tell-tale signs of activity from the previous night.
From the walls of the Citadel – solid, stalwart battlements of granite, I watched the tide depart, exposing sandy stretches of beach, connecting this spit of land to nearby islands. The cathedral dedicated to St Vincent remained closed as did the many cafes and restaurants that feed the many French and English visitors, who come to enjoy this delightful city.
Over in the port, ferries deposit folk from the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. These islands share, in part, Saint Malo’s history – links with early Roman invaders from the first century, and the Celts who slipped across the Channel to escape the early Saxon and Viking incursions.
Saint Malo became home to bands of corsairs, who sheltered their vessels in the nearby riverine estuaries. During the medieval and late medieval periods, French kings endorsed piracy and raiding, particularly against the English whose ships were made to pay tolls for using the waters of the Channel.
From its port, explorers set sail. One of its famous sons, Jacques Cartier, sailed the St Lawrence river and charted new territories, naming Canada as a French province. Around 1590, Saint Malo even declared its independence from France and Brittany, and saw its fair share of internal strife before control was resumed under the French royal flag.
The city is full of surprises: one of the interesting buildings I came across was the International House of Poets and Writers in Rue de Pelicot. Established in 1990, under the auspices of UNESCO, writers of all nationalities, known and unknown, are welcome to attend the organization’s literary programmes to support creative endeavours.
One writer, whom I could imagine attending, might have been Jules Verne whose grand tale ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ comes to life in Anthony Doer’s novel. It plays a thematic role allowing the children to escape for a brief time from the horrors of war. Though Verne was a Breton native from Nantes, the city of Saint Malo seems to have welcomed him as a second son. Indeed, his exploits may have resonated with the resilient and adventurous Malouins.
With this in mind, we were pleased to be able to stay at The Hotel Nautilus – one of the few buildings which escaped the bombing in WWII: the Allies believed the city to be filled with enemy soldiers when in fact, only a few hundred remained to man the Anti-Aircraft facilities. Today there are no signs of the devastation and the exquisite reconstruction is a testament to the proud people of St Malo, both past and present.
Of course it is not all about the past and galleries display a quirky sense of fun with their art works, adding another layer to this fascinating city with its unique history. Sadly, my visit to Saint Malo was all too brief but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and look forward to going back one day.