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St Malo, the corsair city

A city proud of its privateering past, St Malo seems to stand guard over the river Rance. It used to be an island at high tide, making it impregnable. In the 18th century it was connected to Paramé by an embankment, and in 1930 a wet port was created with the installation of a lock gate.

The walled town is encircled by ramparts, built between the 12th and the 17th centuries, measuring about 1,800 metres long and up to 7 metres thick. Thanks to these, as well as the fortifications and batteries on nearby islands, the town remained unconquered in the constant war against the English, who referred to it at the time as ‘the wasps’ nest’. Indeed, how could we fail to mention the famous names of privateers such as Surcouf, also the renowned mariner Duguay-Trouin, and Mahé de La Bourdonnais who became governor of the ‘îles de France et de Bourbon’ (now Mauritius and La Réunion). In the present day, it continues to be the town of great sailors, like Alain Colas, because it is the starting point for the famous sailing race, La Route du Rhum.

The walled town was destroyed during the last world war, but later reconstructed to look exactly as it had before, whilst the ramparts themselves did not suffer any damage from the bombings in August 1944.

Named after a 6th century Welsh monk who became a bishop, the town was called Saint Malo de l’Isle and was an episcopal seat. Famous historical figures linked to St Malo are not in short supply, starting with Jacques Cartier who discovered Canada, mandated by François I in 1534, and also the writer Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) whose tomb on the islet of Grand Bé is only accessible at low tide, as is also the rocky islet of the Fort National, one of five forts built to protect the city. Other names which could be mentioned are the mathematician Maupertuis, the doctor Broussais, the philosopher Lamennais…

A walk around the ramparts is a real delight and affords a gorgeous view. An equally splendid vista unfolds from the circular walk around the Solidor tower, which sits at the mouth of the Rance estuary at St Servan. It was built by Jean IV Duke of Brittany in the 14th century in order to keep an eye on the inhabitants of St Malo, because at the time the town was part of France. Nowadays it is home to the ‘Musée International du Long Cours Cap-Hornier’, telling of the life of sailors on the Cape Horn route, and the only museum in France dedicated to trade in the Age of Sail.

At the foot of the fortified town lie the beaches. Le Môle is sheltered from the winds, and Bon Secours has a natural seawater swimming pool with a diving board, so swimming is still possible at low tide. And just along from here is the large and attractive Sillon beach, backed by a coastal road and the seawall, against which the waves crash impressively during storms at high tide.

The town within the walls will be on your list to visit, with its lovely cobbled streets and imposing granite facades. These residences were, from the Middle Ages, the homes of rich merchants, whose fortunes later came from canvas and codfish in the 16th century, and of shipowners and corsairs. You will undoubtedly go to the St Vincent Cathedral, built between the 12th and 19th centuries, as well as the castle, dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, having been built initially by Jean V of Brittany in 1424 then enlarged by Anne Duchess of Brittany. The History Museum recalls the unique story of what was the first independent French republic in 1590 during the reign of Henri IV after his assassination. The town’s aquarium is also worth a visit, with its 500 or so species on display.