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La Cîté Corsaire

50,000 inhabitants, dépt. of Ile-et-Vilaine in Brittany. It lies isolated on a peninsula at the mouth of the river Rance where it opens out on to the Channel in the stretch of coastline known as the Côte d'Emeraude. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway called the Chaussée de Sillon. A number of passports itineraries stay in St-Malo for one or two nights. It is a lively and beautiful town, architecturally unique and historically something of a curiosity. Apart from the adjoining beach the section of interest is the old town known as Intra-Muros or 'Inside-the-Walls.' You need to do a walking tour with the group around the ramparts.

A Little Background  Generally it is not worthwhile here to run through a chronological history. A few seminal moments are worth pointing out:

C6 The foundation of the city of St-Malo by a Welsh monk named Maclow (or Malo) on a mission to spread Christianity. He is one of the seven founder saints of Brittany.

1490s The annexation of Brittany to France through Queen Anne de Bretagne

1590 The establishment of an independent republic which lasted 4 years

C18 The golden age of the corsaires

August 1944 St-Malo was 80% destroyed. Only the ramparts, a few houses and the cathedral survived. The reconstruction, as you can see, was superb.

Otherwise, it is more interesting to expound a little on general themes, viz. especially the corsaire connection, the extraordinary heritage in the field of exploration and the fierce spirit of independence that has given rise to the city's motto "ni français ni breton, mais malouin."

From its very foundation St-Malo, for geographical reasons as much as any other, was something of a place apart. It grew somehow independently from its surrounding teritories, tied more to the sea than to the mainland. It is a relationship made manifest in the very layout of the town, that seems almost to turn its back on France and pay homage to the sea. Throughout the Midle Ages, the Malouins fought off attempts to annex their city by the French, the Bretons and the English. Even when it was finally annexed in the C15 (see the story of the Tour de Quiquengrogne) St-Malo continued to rebel until finally in 1590 it set itself up as an independent republic. The new state was heroic but short-lived. By 1594 it was safely, though uncomfortably, back in the French fold.

The corsaires were not exactly what we think of today as pirates. They were privateers, professional saboteurs sanctioned by the government whose job was to disrupt seaborne trade to the detriment of, especially, the English economy and to the benefit of the French. Essentially they were approved thieves. They would give a certain percentage of their gains to the crown. (This was not just a French thing; across the Channel, people were doing precisely the same job for the other side.) The greatest of the French corsaires was Robert Surcouf, scourge of the British merchant navy in the late C18. Almost equally celebrated is René Duguay-Trouin, another great Malouin corsaire from a couple of generations earlier. Even if the reality is a little more prosaic than stories of piracy on the high seas, there is still ample scope for you to weave tales of romance and adventure in trying to evoke the spirit of 'la cité corsaire.'

The corsaires represent only one aspect of St.-Malo's maritime heritage. Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada, was a Malouin. The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic were first colonised by Malouins, hence their name in French 'les Iles Malouines.' The same is true of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Historically, the prime source for the economy of St-Malo was the cod fishing industry. Though that has declined in importance today, it is still a proud tradition and maintains a very visible presence in the harbour.

The Walking Tour  If you are staying outside the old town, as is likely, start your walking tour at the C15 Porte St-Vincent nearest the bus parking and tourist information on the Blvd. Louis Martin. (At the tourist office you can pick up good maps of the town for free.) This brings you straight out on to the Place Chateaubriand. The castle is on your right. After the castle is the Porte St-Thomas which leads to the grande plage. Then comes a staircase on the wall above some rather grotty WCs. The walking tour is easy: just climb the ramparts and continue round for about 1/2 a mile to the public gardens. Here point the group in the direction back to the town centre and the Cathedral of St Vincent and rendezvous for later at an appropriate place (normally the Place Chateaubriand where you began).

The circuit is stunning. You always have the beautiful roofscape of St-Malo Intra-Muros with its granite houses, tiled roofs and chimneys to your left, and to your right the alternately rocky and sandy coast and the water dotted with islands. As a general principle this is no more than a delightful stroll, but you do need to point out a couple of things:

Place Châteaubriand: This is the centre of town life with various hotels, bars and restaurants. The Château de la Duchess Anne forms its northeastern side. This is C15, with 4 towers and a small keep which forms part of the ramparts. It is now a museum. The most famous of the towers is the Tour de Quiquengrogne. It gets its peculiar name from the following story. Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France in the late C15 and early C16, was responsible for the annexation of the Duchy of Brittany to the kingdom of France. The people of St-Malo objected and so Anne decided to strengthen the chateau with the addition of this new tower. In response to the protestations of the bishop, she said:

"Qui qu'en groigne, ainsi sera, car tel est mon plaisir."

Loosely translated, this means 'I don't care who complains about it, that's the way it's going to be because that's the way I want it.'

Fort National: This is the large military building on the island that you see when you first climb to the ramparts. These notes confess to knowing nothing about it. Make something up.

Ile du Grand-Bé: This is the best known of the islands in the estuary. is an old Breton word for a tomb: it is sometimes thought that the Druids used to bury their dead here. At low tide you can walk the 25 minutes out here to see Chateaubriand's tomb (1848). The tomb is a very simple granite monument. François-René de Châteaubriand was a C19 romantic writer and statesman, whose greatest legacy, in spite of all his writings, to the modern world is the Chateaubriand steak.

The views from here over the estuary and on to Dinard are superb. Be very careful of tides - if you get it wrong you can get stuck out there all night.

Public Gardens: This small garden is dedicated to the great men of the sea who were natives of St-Malo. There are three statues here: of Robert Surcouf, Duguay-Trouin and Jacques Cartier. The first two are dealt with above re corsaires. Jacques Cartier was the great explorer who discovered the St. Lawrence river in 1536 and named the country Canada. Surcouf is seen facing England, the eternal enemy and victim of his greatest successes.

You probably won't have very much free time but if you do there are several possibilities. If the weather is good the beach is very inviting. Many of the shops in the ville close are artsy and interesting. If you have the time you can take a launch across the estuary to the beautiful C19 holiday resort of Dinard. The Cathédrale St-Vincent where Jacques Cartier is buried and where he prayed on May 16, 1535 before setting out on his great voyage of discovery, is definitely worth a look, if only for its stunning modern stained glass.


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