Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired ‘All the Light We Cannot See’
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Wandering the Cobbled Streets of Saint-Malo
With its imposing granite ramparts and tidal island location, Saint-Malo transports visitors back in time to the days when it was one of the most important port cities in France. Wandering the cobbled streets of the inner city is like stepping into the pages of history, with medieval and Renaissance-era architecture lining the narrow alleyways.
The best place to begin your exploration is at Porte Saint-Vincent, one of the city gates that provides entry through the ramparts into the walled inner city. As you pass through the gate's towers and thick walls, you'll immediately notice the change of scenery. Gone are the wide boulevards and modern buildings of the outer neighborhoods, replaced by a labyrinth of much more constrained cobblestone streets that open onto charming squares.
Rue de Pelicot is one street that perfectly captures the old world charm of Saint-Malo. Lined with typical slate-roofed granite houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, it feels untouched by the passage of time. Wander down the hill from the ramparts to soak in the ambiance, stopping to admire the overhanging timber frames and rentrer paintings that decorate some facades.
For many visitors, one of the highlights of Saint-Malo is strolling along the scenic ramparts that encircle the city. The walkway on top of the walls provides stunning vistas over the ocean and surrounding neighborhoods. It also affords a unique perspective looking down on the jumble of gabled roofs and chimney pots comprising the inner city. Be sure to bring your camera to capture iconic views of neighboring Fort National and the Island of Grand Bé.
While wandering, don't neglect to dive into the side streets and explore interior courtyards and squares. Place Chateaubriand is one picturesque square to check out, home to the house where the French writer François-René Chateaubriand was born. The Maison des Corsaires is another must-see inner courtyard, providing a glimpse into the lives of the former privateer ship owners who once called Saint-Malo home.
After rambling through the maze of streets, stop to refuel at one of the many crêperies or seafood restaurants tucked away in ancient buildings. Sipping cider and sampling buttery galettes as you take in your atmospheric surroundings is one of the quintessential experiences Saint-Malo has to offer.
What else is in this post?
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Wandering the Cobbled Streets of Saint-Malo
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Marveling at the Walled City's Imposing Ramparts
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Discovering Saint-Malo's Tidal Island Location
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Stepping Into the Pages at the Hotel La Demeure de Corsaire
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Following in Marie-Laure's Footsteps at Saint-Vincent Cathedral
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Experiencing the Sites that Shaped Anthony Doerr's Story
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Indulging in Local Breton Specialties by the Seaside
- Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Immersing Yourself in Saint-Malo's Rich Literary History
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Marveling at the Walled City's Imposing Ramparts
As you approach Saint-Malo, one of the first things you’ll notice are the towering ramparts that encircle the inner city. These imposing granite walls, punctuated by guard towers and bristling with cannons, were constructed in the 12th century. Walking the ramparts provides unparalleled views and allows you to channel the rich history contained within the fortifications.
While many European cities once had defensive walls, Saint-Malo is one of the few where these fortifications are still fully intact. Stretching almost 1.5 miles in length, the ramparts are approximately 26 feet tall and up to 16 feet thick in some sections. It’s astounding to gaze up at these mammoth walls and imagine the manpower required to construct them centuries ago using only rudimentary tools.
As you stroll the ramparts walkway, you’ll gain an appreciation for the sheer scale of the walls and the panoramic vistas they provide. To the north, you can take in stunning ocean views with the island of Grand Bé in the foreground. To the south, vantage points overlook the modern outer sections of Saint-Malo.
Looking out to sea as waves crash against the granite below your feet transports you back to when these walls defended against seaborne invaders. Peer through one of the wall’s archer’s loops, and you can easily imagine archers firing arrows at oncoming ships. Standing inside a guard tower conjures images of soldiers scanning the horizon for approaching vessels.
While the ramparts are impressive from the outside, walking inside the walls at the base provides the truest sense of their scale and bulk. Sections like the Grande Porte, one of the main entries into the fortified city, exemplify the engineering genius that went into their construction. The ability to repel invaders through cleverly designed killing zones is readily apparent from inside the walls.
Many visitors comment that walking the ramparts was a highlight of their time in Saint-Malo. Top vantage points recommended are the Esplanade Saint-Vincent and Quai Duguay-Trouin overlooking Fort National. For history buffs, the Tour Bidouane where weapons were once stored and Tour du Nord showcasing interior defense corridors are must-see sections.
Come in the early morning hours before the crowds arrive to experience the ramparts at their most peaceful. Locals walking dogs or jogging along the interior circuit attest to the ramparts providing solace and scenery for residents as much as awe for tourists. Whenever you visit, allow enough time to traverse the walls completely – most will find one circuit is rarely enough to satisfy their curiosity.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Discovering Saint-Malo's Tidal Island Location
One of Saint-Malo’s most intriguing geographic features is its location on a tidal island just off the coast of Brittany. At high tide, the walled inner city of Saint-Malo is completely surrounded by the sea and cut off from the mainland. This gives the town an island feel and contributes to its sense of remoteness. Visitors should be sure to experience Saint-Malo’s changing landscape during both high and low tides.
Walking around the base of the ramparts at low tide provides a true appreciation of the tidal range. Sections of seabed are exposed, revealing the rocky intertidal zone that gets submerged at high tide. Observing the ocean recede to reveal new land around the fortified outcrop conveys Saint-Malo’s identity as a tidal island.
The causeway connecting Saint-Malo to the mainland is also fascinating to traverse on foot or bike during low tide. This thin strip of land allows you to literally walk out to the island. At high tide when the causeway is underwater, boat shuttles provide transit to and from the walled city.
For the classic view of Saint-Malo’s island location, head to the ramparts overlooking the beach at high tide. From vantage points like Tour Bidouane, you can gaze out at the sea surrounding the fortified granite outcrop on all sides. Saint-Malo appears almost cut off from the world, its 17th and 18th century buildings piled on top of one another inside the walls.
Getting out on the ocean aboard a sailboat or kayak allows you to fully immerse yourself in Saint-Malo’s island setting. Paddling around the base of the ramparts transports you back centuries to when marauding ships would have approached the well-defended walls by sea. Experiencing the scale of the fortifications from offshore provides perspective on how critical the town’s island location was for defense.
When the tides cooperated, French privateers based in Saint-Malo exploited the tricky currents and treacherous rocky approaches to trap and ambush ships entering the area. Heading out into the tidal zone gives modern-day visitors a sense of the maritime landscape that shaped Saint-Malo’s history as a base for privateers and corsairs preying on Atlantic trade routes.
Photographers especially appreciate Saint-Malo’s unique geology that shifts from island to tidal flats twice a day. For stunning photos, hit the ramparts or shoreline at sunrise or sunset when the interplay of light and water transforms the scenery into a magical tableau. At night, the lights of the walled city reflected in the sea create an unforgettable vista.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Stepping Into the Pages at the Hotel La Demeure de Corsaire
For the ultimate immersion into Saint-Malo's swashbuckling history, book a stay at Hotel La Demeure de Corsaire. This incredible hotel is located in an 18th century mansion that once belonged to the Surcouf brothers, famous privateers who plied the waters off Saint-Malo. Stepping into the lobby feels like entering an antique-filled time capsule, transporting you back to when corsairs departed Saint-Malo to raid ships laden with New World riches.
Intricately carved period furnishings, weathered oak beams, and creaking floorboards complement the hotel's vintage ambiance. Hand-painted murals depicting dramatic naval battles adorn the walls, honoring the privateer legacy. Display cases feature antique nautical instruments, like those used to navigate Surcouf's ships to capture prizes. Staying in this environment provides a vivid window into Saint-Malo's glorious freebooting era.
Request a room with exposed granite walls to emphasize the connection to the town's tumultuous history. Tracing your fingers over the cool ancient stone, you can easily imagine generations of salty dogs walking the same corridors. Look out your window at night to the twinkling sea and ponder how many ships saw their treasure stolen under the cover of darkness.
Beyond the main house, a section of the city's ramparts actually runs through the hotel grounds. Meandering the battlements transports you back centuries to an age of cannon fire and clashing swords. Duck inside a guard tower on the ramparts for an incredible photo opportunity. Just be careful not to get locked inside when the tide comes in like in days of old!
Waking up in the Hotel La Demeure de Corsaire puts you right in the heart of the inner city inside the ramparts. Perfectly situated to explore the medieval quarter on foot, the hotel's location enhances its historic ambiance. All the highlights like the Maison des Corsaires courtyard and Place Chateaubriand are just steps from your room. Chat with the friendly receptionist about the best walking routes to immerse yourself in Saint-Malo's storied past.
Don't miss afternoon tea in the wood-beamed lounge, surrounded by antique nautical décor and tall windows overlooking the ramparts. It's easy to imagine the rowdy privateers gathering here before voyages in search of ships to plunder. Sip your tea as an 18th century corsair might have done between adventures at sea.
Dinner in the hotel's fabulous gourmet restaurant is a must. The creative cuisine honoring fresh local seafood reflects Saint-Malo's maritime bounty that drew sailors for centuries. Dine by candlelight on the enclosed terrace for a romantic atmosphere, tucked against the ancient ramparts.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Following in Marie-Laure's Footsteps at Saint-Vincent Cathedral
For readers captivated by the setting of All the Light We Cannot See, a highlight is tracing the footsteps of the book's heroine, Marie-Laure, through the streets of Saint-Malo. Fans of the novel will recall that young Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at age 6 and relies on her other senses to navigate the world. Following her path to Saint-Vincent Cathedral provides insight into how she might have experienced the sights and sounds of the medieval town before WWII changed it forever.
Approaching the cathedral as Marie-Laure did - without the gift of sight - focuses attention on the textures and echoes that bring it to life. Cobbles underfoot announce your proximity, their rounded shapes signaling the sacred space ahead. Reach out a hand to trace the cold, weathered granite of the centuries-old exterior, its solidness a contrast to the whipping winds off the ocean.
The resounding peal of the bells high above in the cathedral's twin towers would have guided Marie-Laure to its immense wooden doors. Touch the hand-forged metal fittings and ponder the thousands of parishioners whose hands grasped these same handles over the centuries, seeking solace within the hallowed confines.
Stepping across the threshold, the cool quiet envelops you, emphasizing the sanctuary's calming energy. Let your fingers glide over the worn wooden pews, visualizing generations of the faithful sitting in contemplation and prayer. Inhale the lingering aroma of smoking incense, imagining how it must have overwhelmed Marie-Laure's sensitive young nose.
Approach the high altar, eyes closed, listening to your shuffling footsteps echo off the soaring vaulted ceiling high overhead. Extend your arms, sensing the vastness of the nave, Marie-Laure's only indication of the immense scale of this house of worship.
Run your hands along the intricate carvings of the choir stalls, appreciating the artistry through touch alone. Tracing each groove and curve connects you to the master woodworkers and the many choir members who etched the wood smooth with use.
Climb the stone steps of the altar, eyes still shut. Reach down to caress the cool marble, visualizing how Marie-Laure might have discovered the elaborate inscriptions carved around the base. Let your fingers play over the rough stone, reading the messages left by those who carved them centuries before modern accessibility.
Wander behind the altar, eyes closed, using your hands as guides along the weathered stone walls. Stretch upwards to touch the soaring pillars, sensing the dizzying height overhead just as a sightless Marie-Laure would have. Pause to listen for the fluttering wings of roosting birds, as Marie-Laure does in the book, amused by their antics unseen above.
Running your hands along the underside of a pew, feeling the rough grain of the wood worn smooth from use, you can almost see faithful parishioners seated overhead just as Marie-Laure imagined them. The creak of wooden doors and shuffling of feet on stone creates a vivid impression of the comings and goings around you.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Experiencing the Sites that Shaped Anthony Doerr's Story
For devotees of the book, following the path of the protagonists through the vividly rendered streets of Saint-Malo provides special insight into the sites that shaped Doerr's narrative. Retracing Werner and Marie-Laure's footsteps takes you to the hiding places, landmarks, and haunts that formed the backdrop of their war-torn lives.
One locale central to the characters' experiences is the Rue Vauborel, where Marie-Laure's great uncle's house is located. Strolling this atmospheric street lined with medieval houses, you can visualize the young Marie-Laure navigating the cobblestones using her sense of touch. Locate #4 Rue Vauborel and run your hands along the worn door frame, imagining Marie-Laure sneaking bread to crazy old Madame Manec.
For a chilling perspective, traverse the Rue Vauborel at night. In the darkness, you can almost see the towering antiaircraft guns and imagine the thundering cannon fire Werner experienced during bombing raids, huddled in the Hotel of Bees.
Fans flock to the Hotel of Bees, a medieval half-timbered structure on Place des Frères Lamennais that housed Wehrmacht soldiers. Standing in its cozy interior courtyard transports you back to when Werner listened to radio signals while Marie-Laure hid precious gems in her dollhouse just steps away.
The winding streets behind the hotel lead to the ramparts where Wernerpatrolled during his time in Saint-Malo, gaze focused seaward for approaching bombers. Walking the same stone parapets at sunset lets you visualize the orange light that bathed a nervous Werner before fateful meetings with Marie-Laure.
On the ramparts, find the stone bench where Werner nervously awaited Marie-Laure, heart pounding. Run your hand along the weathered granite seat, imaging the two clandestine lovers conversing softly, the ocean wind whipping their hair.
For a somber experience, visit the cemetery where Marie-Laure's father lies buried. Wander the rows of weathered tombstones, stooping to read the names and faded epitaphs. Locate the simple memorial marking her father's grave, lay your hand on the cool granite, and contemplate young Marie-Laure kneeling to leave shells from the beach.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Indulging in Local Breton Specialties by the Seaside
After rambling the atmospheric streets of Saint-Malo all day, visitors will likely work up an appetite. Luckily, the walled city is full of restaurants and crêperies serving up delicious local Breton cuisine and seafood specialties. Exploring the distinctive flavors of Brittany is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Saint-Malo.
Seafood features prominently on most menus, with oysters, mussels, and fresh fish dominating. For the quintessential experience, grab a table at Le Chalut overlooking the harbor. Watch fishing boats unload the daily catch while feasting on just-plucked oysters and buttery fish stew brimming with the taste of the sea. The restaurant's maritime ambiance enhances dishes like grilled sea bass flambéed with pastis and drizzled with velvety saffron sauce.
You can't visit Saint-Malo without trying a galette, a savory crêpe made from buckwheat flour - a Breton specialty. At authentic crêperies like Crêperie du Vieux Saint-Malo, the airy texture of the fried galette provides the perfect vehicle for fillings like brie with honey or ham and mushrooms bathed in creamy béchamel. For an adventurous twist, try a galette complète heaped with an egg, cheese, ham, and spinach.
Any foodie visiting Brittany should not miss kouign-amann, a multilayered Breton cake with a caramelized sugar crust. This indulgent pastry is created by repeatedly folding butter and dough, resulting in a fluffy interior with a crunchy, almost crispy, exterior. Grab a kouign-amann from Boulangerie La Fringale for a morning treat or afternoon pick-me-up. Just beware - it's impossible to eat only one!
Beyond seafood and pastries, cider is a quintessential Breton beverage. Locals traditionally accompany galettes with a bowl of dry cider served directly from the cask. Pull up a chair at Cidrerie du Vieux Saint-Malo and sample ciders from artisanal producers. The tart, slightly funky flavor profile perfectly balances the richness of crêpes and local cheeses. An afternoon spent sipping cider provides insight into long-standing Breton customs.
Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy sampling caramel au beurre salé, perhaps Brittany's most famous creation. This distinctive caramel is characterized by the addition of salty butter, creating an intriguing sweet-salty interplay of flavors. At Henri le Roux, watch through glass windows as craftsmen stir huge copper vats of bubbling caramel before sampling the silky finished candies. The rich caramels pair wonderfully with bold Breton ciders.
Step Into the Pages of History: Exploring the Charming French Town That Inspired 'All the Light We Cannot See' - Immersing Yourself in Saint-Malo's Rich Literary History
Beyond being the inspiration for All the Light We Cannot See, Saint-Malo boasts a long and storied literary history that visitors can immerse themselves in. Tracing the roots of the written word in Saint-Malo provides insight into the town's cultural legacy and showcases another side of its identity beyond the corsair reputation.
For bibliophiles, a highlight is exploring Saint-Malo's 15th century manuscript library housed in the Old Customs House. This incredible collection contains over 2,000 antique volumes that once filled the shelves of privateers and prosperous merchants. Fragile manuscripts dating back 500 years transport readers to an era before printing presses. Illuminated texts with gilt lettering and hand-painted illustrations exemplify the beautiful bookmaking of the time. Historians will marvel at a 1531 original edition of Magellan's expedition demonstrating Saint-Malo's ties to seafaring and exploration.
Beyond manuscripts, the library holds the original 1702 city plan depicting Saint-Malo before it was destroyed in 1944. Comparing this blueprint to the current layout shows how faithfully the city was reconstructed post-war. Travelers interested in WWII history can also peruse photographs documenting Saint-Malo's devastation after Allied bombings.
Literature enthusiasts appreciate exhibits highlighting the works of local authors who captured Saint-Malo's spirit over the centuries. François-René Chateaubriand's memoirs recount his childhood in Saint-Malo with vivid descriptions of the ramparts, island setting, and major landmarks. Other displays showcase 20th century authors like French poet Saint-John Perse who immortalized Saint-Malo's dramatic tidal ranges in verse.
No literary pilgrimage is complete without visiting the house where legendary French author Chateaubriand was born in 1768. Located on a square still bearing his name, this 15th century building now contains memorabilia recreating his original bedroom and study. Browsing bookshelves lined with early editions of his works, one can imagine a young François-René gaining inspiration from his surroundings. A stroll through the beautiful formal gardens behind the house conjures images of Chateaubriand penning passages framed by flowers and fountains.
Beyond the library, visitors can embark on self-guided literary walks tracing Saint-Malo's connections to various authors. Plaques embedded in cobblestones mark the former residences of writers like Hugo, Lamartine, and Anatole France who came to Saint-Malo seeking inspiration. A scattering of bookshops in the inner city feature special displays outlining which books were written locally.