Our small and unassuming two-star Hotel San Pedro, in Saint-Malo, was a real gem and a great experience. That was because of Mireille, its owner and manager, who more than made up for the simple lodgings (although the location was great) by going out of her way to help her guests.
She would start early, preparing breakfasts from scratch, in her small kitchen – something different every day. She also kept the place spotless, and would make phone calls for those who didn’t speak French or needed help. Mireille was the embodiment of the resilience of the Malouins (natives of St-Malo), and her diligence spoke volumes about how they survived a big tragedy.
St-Malo’s medieval layout hides well the fact that 80% of the town was destroyed in World War II. Invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1940, in August of 1944, one month after Allied forces landed in Normandy, St-Malo was bombed by Americans helped by British naval gunfire. Of the 865 buildings in the historic town, only 182 remained standing, and all were badly damaged. It took 12 years for the town to be rebuilt – under precise orders of French president Charles de Gaulle – and restored to its former glory. It took a lot of work and determination, but today Saint-Malo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. In the summer, its population is doubled by tourists from everywhere in the world.
When we were leaving the hotel, I asked Mireille when she would come to see us in New York. Without removing the smile from her face, she replied: “I haven’t traveled much yet, lots of work here. Maybe when I retire, someday.” And then she moved on to call our next hotel, in Dinard, to let them know that we were on our way. With people like her, it’s no wonder why St-Malo has survived and thrived.