Walled and built with the same grey granite stone as Mont St-Michel, ST-MALO was originally in the Middle Ages a fortified island at the mouth of the Rance, controlling not only the estuary but the open sea beyond. The promontory fort of Alet, south of the modern centre in what's now the St-Servan district, commanded approaches to the Rance even before the Romans, but modern St-Malo traces its origins to a monastic settlement founded by saints Aaron and Brendan early in the sixth century. In later centuries it became notorious as the home of a fierce breed of pirate-mariners, who were never quite under anybody's control but their own; for four years from 1590, St-Malo even declared itself to be an independent republic. The corsaires of St-Malo not only forced English ships passing up the Channel to pay tribute, but also brought wealth from further afield. Jacques Cartier, who colonized Canada, lived in and sailed from St-Malo, as did the first colonists to settle the Falklands – hence the islands' Argentinian name, Las Malvinas, from the French Malouins.
Now inseparably attached to the mainland, St-Malo is the most visited place in Brittany, thanks more to its superb old citadelle than to the ferry terminal that's tucked into the harbour behind. From outside the walls, the dignified ensemble of the old city might seem stern and forbidding, but passing through into the streets within the walls brings you into a busy, lively and very characterful town, packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. Though the summer crowds can be oppressive, a stroll atop the ramparts should restore your equilibrium, and the presence of vast, clean beaches right on the city's doorstep is a big bonus if you're travelling with kids in tow. Having to spend a night here before or after a ferry crossing is a positive pleasure – so long as you take the trouble to reserve accommodation in advance.
Owing to the limitations of space, buildings within the walls tend to be higher-rise than you might expect. Ancient as they look, they are almost entirely reconstructed; following the two-week bombardment that forced the German surrender in 1944, eighty percent of the city had to be lovingly and precisely rebuilt, stone by stone. Beneath grey skies, the narrow lanes can appear sombre, even grim, but in high summer or at sunset they become light and almost unreal. In any case, you can always surface on the ramparts – first erected in the fourteenth century – to enjoy wonderful, all-round views.
Visitor Attractions in St Malo
Besides the prominent Grande Porte, the main gate of the citadelle is the Porte St-Vincent. To the right is the town's castle, which houses the Musée de la Ville (April–Sept daily 10am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; Oct–March daily except Mon 10am–noon & 2–6pm; €4.40). The museum is something of a hymn of praise to the "prodigious prosperity" enjoyed by St-Malo during its days of piracy, colonialism and slave trading. Climbing the 169 steps of the castle keep, you pass a fascinating mixture of maps, diagrams and exhibits – chilling handbills from the Nazi occupation, accounts of the "infernal machine" used by the English to blow up the port in 1693 and savage four-pronged chausse-trappes (a kind of early version of barbed wire), thrown by pirates onto the decks of ships being boarded to immobilize their crews.
You can pass under the ramparts at several points to reach the open shore, where a huge beach stretches away east beyond the rather featureless resort-suburb of Paramé. When the tide is low, it's safe to walk out to the small island of Grand-Bé – the walk is so popular that sometimes you even need to queue to get onto the short causeway. Solemn warnings are posted of the dangers of attempting to return from the island when the tide has risen too far – if you're caught there, there you have to stay. The island "sight" is the tomb of the nineteenth-century writer-politician Chateaubriand (1768–1848), who was described by Marx as "the most classic incarnation of French vanité … the false profundity, Byzantine exaggeration, emotional coquetry … a never-before-seen mishmash of lies".
The St-Servan district, within walking distance along the corniche south of the citadelle, was the city's original settlement, converted to Christianity by St Malou (or Maclou) in the sixth century; later, in the twelfth century, the townspeople moved to the impregnable island now called St-Malo. St-Servan curves round several small inlets and beaches to face the river. It's dominated by the distinctive Tour Solidor, which consists of three linked towers built in 1382, and in cross-section looks just like an ace of clubs. Originally known in Breton as the Steir Dor, or "gate of the river", it now holds a museum of Cape Horn clipper ships, open for ninety-minute guided visits (April–Sept daily 10am–noon & 2–6pm; Oct–March daily except Mon 10am–noon & 2–6pm; €4.50). Most of the great European explorers of the Pacific are covered, from Magellan onwards, but naturally the emphasis is on French heroes such as Bougainville, who was responsible for spreading the brightly coloured bougainvillea plant around the globe. Tours culminate with a superb view from the topmost ramparts.
If you follow the main road due south from St-Servan, ignoring signs for the Barrage de la Rance – or take bus #5 from the gare SNCF – you'll come to the Grand Aquarium, on a roundabout high above town (daily: April–June & Sept 10am–7pm; July 9.30am–8pm; Aug 9.30am–10pm; Oct–March 10am–6.30pm – note that these hours are variable; €12, under-18s €9; tel 02.99.21.19.07; www.aquarium-st-malo.com). The postmodern aquarium itself can be a bit bewildering at first, but once you get the hang of it it's an entertaining place where you can either learn interesting facts about slimy monsters of the deep or simply pull faces back at them. Its eight distinct fish tanks include one shaped so that visitors stand in the hole in the middle as myriad fish whirl around them. St-Malo actually has another aquarium, logically enough named the Petit Aquarium, set into the walls of the old city, but this one is far superior.
For last-minute shopping, St-Malo's citadelle contains a few specialists, but buying in any quantity is best done in the Carrefour hypermarket, near the aquarium on the southern outskirts of town. There are markets in both St-Malo (intra-muros) and St-Servan on Tuesdays and Fridays, and in Paramé on Wednesdays and Saturdays.