ST. MALO, BRITTANY, FRANCE — Not Britain. Not Ireland. Not even really France. Bretagne is separate, something unique — the land at the end of the world, begging to be explored. How could we not?
From five miles away you can already see it, bobbing on the horizon, peeking out between fieldstone farmhouses, rising out of the tidal flats like the proverbial sword in the stone. Mont St.-Michel — the city in the sky. Squabbled over by both Normandy and Brittany, one thing is clear: there is no better gateway to the the land at the end of the world than a fairy tale castle floating in the sea.
After a nightmarish 24 hours that included canceled flights, last minute trains and a few hours of restless sleep, we were finally in Brittany, heading north from the industrial port of Nantes to the northern Cotes de Armor along the crooked coastline where France ends and another world begins. At the first sight of the island city of Mont St.-Michel, we had to stop and gawk. The storm clouds rolled overhead and the smell of lavender and sage and salt were a welcome departure from a full day of cramped train cars and Montparnasse hotel rooms. If the air was relief, the view was an epiphany.
The first line in the guidebook says it all: “Brittany is for adventurers.” Sure, there are the usual tourist traps where pale, overworked English and Germans flock on their precious holidays, but by and large, the department is largely quiet, humble and waiting with a thousand different secrets. That’s what we came for. To find the little towns, the hidden ports, to just walk and smell and savor and explore.
Mont St.-Michel was just the first taste. This medieval stronghold was legendary as much for its thick stone walls as it was for the extreme tidal range that either leaves it safely surrounded by water or by miles of mud flats, depending on the time of day. We stopped for the afternoon, along with hordes of pre-season tourists, to explore its winding streets and beautiful views. But despite its incredible skyline and infamous history, this was more Disney than d’Artagnan. We had to go deeper.
Still road weary, we made our way around the tiny northern peninsula to Cancale, a little fishing village where under the shadow of the lighthouse the local fishermen set up oyster stalls. For around five euro a dozen, you can load up on these precious bivalves and enjoy from one of the best views in Europe. We did so with a bottle of the crisp Breton cidre that is overrules wine here.
Straight across the peninsula is the fortified port town of St. Malo. Stronghold for privateers in the 16th century, today the town is home to boutiques and brasseries, stuffed within the city ramparts. The best views are found on exactly those ramparts, which circle the entire city, allowing you a bird’s eye view of the port and the wild coastline.
But it was the only the beginning of what Bretagne had in store for us. Like the pirates who once called St. Malo home, we were off into the unknown in search of adventure.