On the three-day post-trip extension of our river cruise we explored a little of Brittany and Mont Saint-Michel. From our hotel in Saint-Malo we also visited Dinan and Cancale. On the way back to Paris we stopped in Chartres.
After arriving at our hotel and settling in we took a short walk around the area with our trip leader Geraldine. We soon discovered the beautiful miles-long sandy beach just one block away.
Our first tour the next day was at “Saint-Malo Intra-Muros” (“inside the walls”), led by Olivier, owner of the 18th century Corsair House. His four-story building was originally owned by a corsair, or privateer, a ship owner who plied the spice trade. During times of war with England the corsairs had free reign to capture and take ownership of private ships of the enemy. Olivier entertained us with stories of the era before setting out on a walking tour of the rest of the walled town.
We visited the Saint-Malo cathedral where a plaque commemorates Jacques Cartier who sailed from St. Malo to discover and map eastern Canada in 1535, allowing France to claim it as its territory. From the western wall of the city we could look out over the bay to Fort du Petit Bé and Fort National which protected the city from English and Norsemen invaders.
After lunch we bused to the small historic town of Dinan, founded in 1112. A local guide showed us around the old town. The Basilica Saint-Sauveur was built from the 12th through the 16th centuries and houses a circa 1220 stone sculpture of Rolland of Dinan who died in 1186. The English garden behind the Basilica opens onto the ramparts overlooking the River Rance, far below.
Named for the arch-angel Michael, Mont Saint-Michel is a tiny 250-foot high granite island. The Mont Saint-Michel Abbey sits high atop the rock formation and was originally accessible only at low tide. The site has been a popular destination for pilgrims since it was first occupied by monks in the 8th century. The original massive abbey was completed in 1084 and parts of it were rebuilt or added through the 13th century.
After the monks fled following the French Revolution the abbey became a prison for time. It eventually fell into disrepair before being restored in the 19th century. The abbey was occupied by a Benedictine order before being given to the Jerusalem Community. The Community welcomes pilgrims and prays with and for visitors to Mont Saint-Michel. Below the abbey the original town now mostly houses charming cafés and picturesque tourist shops.
German War Cemetery
On our way from Mont Saint-Michel to Cancale we made a short stop at the German War Cemetery. A circular building of 68 crypts, it holds the remains of 12,000 German war dead.
Across the bay from Mont Saint-Michel and subject to the same huge tidal swings of 40 feet or more, Cancale has a thriving oyster farming industry. We arrived at low tide to watch the maintenance and harvesting of oysters from beds that extend as far as you can see. At one of the local vendor stalls we paid 7 euros for a dozen shucked oysters from this morning’s harvest. They were superb!
The next day, on our way back to Paris for our return flight, we stopped to visit the world-famous Chartres Cathedral Notre Dame. Another 12th century structure, the cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site. Like Mont Saint-Michel it was also one of the most popular pilgrimage destination through medieval times. The stained glass windows have miraculously remained intact since the 12th and 13th centuries.
During World War II it narrowly avoided being shelled by allied forces when American colonel Welborn Griffith refused an order to destroy the cathedral. Instead, he took a single volunteer in with him to sweep the steeples and towers to ensure there were no German snipers as had been rumored. Colonel Griffith died in action later that day.
The cathedral remains a pilgrimage destination today for the many who come to prayerfully walk its unique labyrinth.
From Chartres we continued on to our Paris airport hotel in preparation for our return flight home the next day. Our river cruise and post-trip tours exceeded our expectations in every way.