The Most Charming Towns of France: Saint-Malo and Dinard in Brittany

by Linda March 06, 2014

The estuary is that of the River Rance. Rising near Collinee in the centre of Brittany, it meanders eastwards through lush fields of maize and cauliflower. Near the little village or Saint Jouan-de-l’Isle it gently veers northwards and, widening, flows beneath the viaduct at the lovely medieval town of Dinan. Continuing north and broadening all the time, it meets the sea between the towns of Saint-Malo and Dinard. 

Though they could wave to each other across the wide river, the inhabitants of both towns would still be physically distant were it not for a revolutionary engineering project undertaken in the 1960s: Le Barrage De La Rance. The barrage is a dam nearly 2,500 feet long that joins both sides of the estuary. The dam carries a roadway and, when it opened, the two towns became true neighbours. Up until then, if they wanted to travel from one to the other, the people of Saint-Malo or Dinard had to journey approximately twenty miles, the nearest river crossing being the bridge at Le Pont Saint Hubert, ten miles upstream. With the building of the barrage, the distance by road was cut to about four miles.

The barrage is more than an ordinary dam. It houses the world’s first tidal electric power-station. Creating a convenient road link between Saint-Malo and Dinard was not the primary purpose of the barrage, the power station was. In terms of installed capacity, it is still the largest tidal power station in the world. 

Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo is the bigger of the two towns with a population of roughly 50,000. It is a popular fishing and leisure sailing centre with ferry links to Britain, Spain, Ireland and the Channel Islands. Without a doubt, the most charming quarter of this historic town is the fortified old section called Intra Muros. Meaning “within the walls” in Latin, this very popular area – a year-round tourist attraction – is like the set of some pirate movie. Indeed Intra Muros was once a hive of legitimate as well as clandestine maritime activity. You can easily visualize men of dubious intention and ladies of ill repute scurrying about the narrow streets to the background din of boisterous taverns; you almost expect a sabre-wielding Johnny Depp to leap from an upstairs window. Some noisy taverns still remain, but you probably won’t encounter men with cutlasses and blunderbusses in any of them.

Today, the fortified town is a fashionable hive of activity buzzing with tourist throughout the year. It is a most pleasant place to browse around; every little street is packed with charming stores, cafes and restaurants. The fortification walls that encircle Intra Muros are at least twenty feet wide and about a mile and a half all around. They provide an ideal promenade for an elevated stroll, conveniently bringing you back to where you started. In the old days, to protect the town from attack, cannons, pointing out to sea, were ranged along these fortifications. A few ornamental ones remain, but now the walls’ primary use is to provide perfect vantage points for tourists to view the beautiful Breton coastline: Le Côte D’Emeraude – the emerald coast. From the walls, they can look straight down on little golden beaches and, just off the coast, take in the view of an archipelago of rocky islands. On the inland side, the walls overlook the moored yachts and catamarans in the harbour.

Dinard

With a population of 11,000, the smaller jewel on the other side of the estuary, Dinard, is a more subdued place. It has the most fabulous golden beach and craggy coastline walks overlooked by magnificent towering mansions. Most were once the trophy homes of rich maritime merchants from Saint-Malo whose ships plied their trade on the high seas. Probably a fair few too were owned by prosperous pirates whose wealth came from plundering those same ships.

Dinard has a restrained, somewhat more genteel atmosphere than Saint-Malo. That’s why it’s especially popular with retired people and older visitors. It has an affluent ambience with many shops specializing in luxury goods, an equestrian centre and an indoor Olympic-size heated swimming pool filled with sea water.

The Saint-Malo and Dinard area is very well connected. There are highways to Rennes, the Breton capital about 40 miles away, as well as main roads heading westward to Brest and southward towards Nantes and beyond. France’s famous high-speed railway, the TGV, links Saint-Malo with Paris. The airport at Dinard has frequent flights to Paris, London and the Channel Islands.

Finally, two historic facts are worth mentioning:

  • Canada was founded in 1534 by Jacques Cartier, a native son of Saint-Malo, who returned to Canada many times. In celebration of that special relationship, a transatlantic yacht-race from Quebec to Saint-Malo, called La Transat Quebec-Saint-Malo, is held every four years. This prestigious event attracts a huge number of the world’s top skippers and crews competing in several classes of boats.
  • In 1944, much of Intra Muras was destroyed, ironically, by the Allies attempting to rout the Germans firmly entrenched within its excellent fortifications. It was rebuilt after the war with painstaking attention to detail using as much stone from the original buildings as possible. The result is that the old town now looks much the same as it did before the bombing: an ancient fortified town. Yet, most of it is no more than sixty years old.

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