I am a big fan of the south of France. But the first time I saw windy Brittany (Bretagne in French; Breizh in Breton), I felt my heart slowly switching allegiances, and I became a Bretagne lover.
Bretagne is the name of the rugged northwestern peninsula of France, a land so completely different from the rest of the country that it has its own language. The Bretons are different people, too: they are taller than the average French, and also feisty, independent and proud of their unique culture. That includes music, sung in Celtic. Until recently, their songs were forbidden, considered part of the separatist movement’s agenda (Bretagne has for centuries tried to get independence from France). But now things are calm, and they can proudly wave their black-and-white striped flag, without getting in trouble with the French government.
My first contact with Bretagne happened in St-Malo, a historic walled town on the coast. To get there we took the TGV in Paris, changed to a smaller train in Rennes, the region’s capital, and soon we were facing the beautiful outer walls of St-Malo. Inside the walls (Intra Muros) is the historic center, and that’s where our hotel was. That little jewel, by the way, turned out to be one of the best hotel experiences of my travels (more later).
St-Malo’s history has always been associated with the sea it faces. The entire town is surrounded by powerful ramparts, and walking on top of them, on a windy day in February, I was both freezing and amazed by sweeping views of the entire coast.
St-Malo in the past was a sailor’s town and home to the corsairs, mercenaries working under the king of France’s protection. They would raid and pillage foreign ships, and were hailed as heroes, for making huge profits for the French crown. Best-known among them are Robert Surcouf and Duguay-Trouin. Surcouf even has a statue on one of the ramparts of St-Malo, hailed as someone who helped make the town wealthy and prosperous in the late 1700s. Because of men like him St-Malo is nicknamed ‘Cite Corsaire’ (City of the Corsairs).
Besides iconic pirates, St. Malo is famous for seafood and crepes. Its best-known specialties are moules (mussels) and huitres (oysters), and I never had them so good. Having dinner at La Cantine du Corsaire, a cozy seafood place in a 1608 building, we tasted fish served in ways I didn’t even know existed. For oysters we went to Cancale, a 45-minute drive from town and Bretagne’s oysters capital. In Cancale they are served fresh, caught on the bay in front of the restaurants, while you wait.