Ever since I read All the Light We Can Not See, I’ve wanted to visit Saint Malo. As it turns out, so does everyone. And for that reason, I elected to make our base the less touristy Dinan. In four days, I hoped to squeeze in Dinan, Saint Malo and Mont Saint Michel. This was our first visit to Brittany, so I knew little about the towns. To complicate matters, we chose to travel car-free whenever possible—an additional limitation across rural France.
It was late evening by the time we arrived. Our Airbnb host recommended a restaurant next door, Le Nez Rouge (The Red Nose). It was everything you could want in small town France: wonderful food (tartines—open faced sandwiches smeared with all sorts of gooey stuff), nut brown wood, crackled mirrors, and cheap prices. By the time we finished eating, we had agreed to forego Saint Malo to better explore Dinan.
What initially struck me about Dinan were the ancient stone and timber houses that slouched along the streets. Our apartment was on Rue du Jerzual, a historic street of substantial homes leading down to the River Rance. It was, perhaps, the most amazing Airbnb stay of the last years.
The next day we spent walking the old wall, exploring castles and churches, and wandering the wharf side.
I quickly came to appreciate the uniquely Bretangne food: crepes, salted butter (and even better, salted caramel), and yes, tartines. These are a people who clearly love to consume their food and apparently with gusto. The stereotype of the skinny French woman does not live here (another thing to love about Brittany).
If I were to liken the region geographically to the United States, with its long coast line and rugged feel it might be Maine. If I were to compare the food, it would be the comfort fare of the deep south. Maybe New Orleans and its po’ boys, muffulettas and beignets.
But what sold me on this town was the lack of crowds. It was late May and mid-week, but under similar circumstances, tourists had mobbed Aix en Provence a few weeks earlier. In Dinan, we walked from our house down to the river, through the stone portal cut into the old wall, and passed a handful of tourists. There, we came across a bike shop. “Where can we ride?” I asked the owner.
“Dinard,” he replied.
I had read about this seaside resort across the inlet from Saint Malo. We reserved a pair of bikes for the next day. (30 euro for 2 bikes all day)
The bike ride to and from Dinard followed the old train tracks, the Voie Verte. Almost immediately out of town, we decided to stay near the river (versus follow the tiny bike sign) and consequently became immediately lost. For 30 minutes, we wandered to the wit and whim of a group of direction-challenged Samaritans who provided inconsistent guidance (Turn left. Turn right. Go back.) Finally, I suggested to Pat that we cycle where we cycle. Minutes later, we intercepted the Voie Verte after miles of detour. We resumed our trip through verdant fields reminiscent of Ohio.
Once in Dinard, we locked our bikes near the street market, investigated for a while and set off in earnest to find a restaurant. A helpful shopkeeper toddled down the street with us on a pair of four-inch platform shoes, directing us this way and that until we came to the harbor and a wonderful seaside restaurant with a view over to Saint Malo.
There, we ate an incredible three-course meal: some outstanding fried things (If it’s fried, why ask what it is?), a local fish in one of those French (was that butter I detected?) sauces, and marinated strawberries with basil Chantilly whipped cream. (of all the things I’ve ever considered putting in my Chantilly whipped cream, basil wasn’t one of them) We limited ourselves to a half bottle of Sancerre.
When we returned to thank the shop keeper, her store was shuttered for lunch. What a wonderful idea.
It was a perfect day: Sunny, warm but not hot, good exercise, fantastic food.
The next day, we took a bus from Dinan back to Rennes and onward on a second bus from Rennes to Mont Saint Michel (a destination that deserves its own post). After spending a night on the rock, we returned through Rennes, leaving a long enough connection to explore the city and eat lunch.
Dinan proved itself a perfect base. On the train back to Paris, I booked an apartment in Saint Malo in September. By then, oyster season will have commenced. I’m hungry already.