The Celtic region of Northwest France is home to many unique cultural components of France. Among megalithic monuments, whose purpose still to this day remains subject to much speculation, the acclaimed author Chateaubriand and the famous explorer, Jacques Cartier, as well as remarkable scenery, such as the Pink Granite Coast, a rare form of rock that exists in only three other places in the world (Corsica, Canada and China); Brittany also hosts several old fortified towns that cannot be missed.
My favourite. Dinan’s geographical setting is remarkable. Instead of nestling in a valley, the majority of the settlement has been built on the hillside looking over the river Rance.
Unlike many other towns and villages in the region, Dinan escaped total devastation during the two World Wars. The medieval town on the hilltop remains largely intact; with many old buildings, in the half-timbered style of the region, some of which date from the 13th century. Thus, the place has a character that feels genuine, authentic, uncontrived.
The town retains a large section of the city walls, about 3kms, most of which is open to the public and can be walked round to capture stunning views of the valley.
I think one of the most picturesque parts of Dinan is its port. The quay is lined with traditional stone houses, many of which are now waterside restaurants and artisan shops. You can cross the quaint, 15th-century stone bridge to Lanvallay or take a walk under the impressive 40 metre-high viaduct along the river.
Be sure to make your way up or down the steep Rue du Petit-Fort, which links the port with the old medieval walls on the hilltop and was Dinan’s main point of access until the 18th century. This cobbled hill is picturesque and rich in arts and crafts – sculptors, engravers, bookbinders, and glassblowers – you name it.
Although Dinan is not on the usual tourist route, you can get here very easily by bus (approximately 2€) or boat from St Malo or Dinard.
I stayed in St Malo for five nights. There’s not a lot to do here exactly but it is beautiful.
St Malo is a bustling port-city and a popular tourist destination, especially in August, which is when I was here but it wasn’t anything to put you off, and most of the tourists were indeed French.
Admittedly, while I was here, I found my favourite areas and stuck to them – the beach and the walled city.
The beach is wild, exposed and incredibly tidal. When the weather decides to be a little moody, you can’t even imagine how the sea responds. When you are in Brittany, you know you’re looking out at the big, mean Atlantic.
The walled city is surrounded by a number of historic forts that can only be accessed at low tide and had been used as defence posts over time, particularly during the War when Brittany was at the frontier of many allied battles.
As a result of its strategic and defensive location, many of the buildings in the old city were destroyed during the war and have been rebuilt since. Nonetheless, you still feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when you walk beneath the ramparts.
Tips for food-lovers:
Mont St Michel
Before I get anyone outraged, I must be clear that Mont St Michel is in fact located in Normandy, but is a short drive from St Malo if you are staying there.
Perched on a rocky islet and subject to the great tides of Normandy and Brittany, Mont St Michel is somewhere I had always wanted to go. Beautiful, romantic, isolated. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and is known for the well-preserved Benedictine Abbey that sits atop the island.
But I have to say I was a quite disappointed.
Why? Well, yes, it is remarkably beautiful. And yes, it is well preserved. But, in my opinion – it has been restored to a point where nothing feels authentic anymore. Remember I was talking about the uncontrived atmosphere and architecture of Dinan? Well, for me, this was everything but.
In the depths of August, when everyone had the same idea as me, I discovered the obvious – it is not a pleasant place to visit. The crowds are out-of-hand. It felt in many ways like you were being carried through a mosh-pit on the hot walk up to the abbey.
And everything costs to enter. The abbey, the ramparts, museums. You can literally only take in the view of the island from the causeway without forking out extra pennies, and even then you’ll struggle to capture a picture without someone’s fat head in the way.
It struck me as a massive tourist destination and a moneymaking palava that not only took away from the history of the place but its beauty as well.
In short, I think I chose the wrong time of year to go. I was unable to appreciate it for what it was for all the people. I think if I were to return in October or even now, it would be a compltely different pace. Magical, as I always imagined it would be.