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Behind the Walls of St. Malo

November 18, 1990|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

ST. MALO, France — "Ni Francais, ni Breton, Malouin suis" is written on this magnificent old town's coat of arms: "I am neither a Frenchman nor a Breton, but a man of St. Malo," which says volumes about the fierce pride and independence of its natives since the 12th Century.

All manner of men have sailed from this "City of the Sea" on Brittany's north coast, including Jacques Cartier on a 1534 voyage to discover Canada, and Robert Surcouf, a privateer who terrorized English, Dutch and Spanish shipping from here to the Bay of Bengal, amassed a huge fortune and retired at 36 a town hero.

Vicomte Francois de Chateaubriand, the French statesman and poet, was another honored citizen whose idiosyncrasy was an insistence that his thick-beef tenderloins always be grilled in layers of three, with only the center piece served to him.

St. Malo's massive and magnificent battlements, largely spared during the battles and bombings of World War II, and the Old Town area, at the end of a short causeway, help make St. Malo the most colorful town on Brittany's coast.

Within its walls, one can walk endlessly in the beauty and mystique of this ancient port. Chateaubriand, commenting on the many noble men who have sprung from its streets, said: "Not a bad record for an area smaller than the Tuileries Gardens."

Getting here: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris. American, Pan Am, TWA, Delta, Continental and some foreign carriers will get you here with changes. An advance-purchase, round-trip ticket to Paris costs between $712 and $862, the flight on to Dinard $188 by TAT airline. From there it's a short taxi ride to St. Malo.

How long/how much? St. Malo is worth a couple of days. Adding another will give you a day-trip to the magnificent abbey at Mont St. Michel, about 26 miles up the coast. We found lodging costs moderate, dining moderate to expensive.

A few fast facts: The French franc recently sold at 5.26 to the dollar, about 19 cents each. Try to visit from late spring to early autumn. July and August are very crowded. The winters often really raw.

Getting settled in: La Korrigane (39 Rue Le Pomellec; $76 to $95 double) is a 19th-Century mansion with 10 rooms, a lovely garden and a superb collection of museum-quality art, antiques and art books in the salons and guest rooms.

Take breakfast from fine china and crystal in your room or in a bower of flowers in the garden. Little wonder that La Korrigane enjoys an enviable reputation with many countries' diplomatic corps.

Hotel Central (6 Grand Rue; $86 double) enjoys a fine location just within the Old Town walls. Although the small lobby of this Best Western member has very little in the way of ambience, the bedrooms are bright and attractive. An equally cheerful dining room offers a menu rich in local seafood.

La Villefromoy (34 Blvd. Chateaubriand; $70-$84 double) is another 19th-Century villa just a block from the beach, with a nautical-Victorian feeling throughout. The place sparkles with shining wood floors, brass lamps, old ship models and toy soldiers in display cases.

Bedrooms, some with balconies, are in a more contemporary style, all with color TV and programs in English. Breakfast only here.

Regional food and drink: Breton tables groan with Atlantic seafood and the coast's oysters, particularly the plump and succulent cancales . They, like all oysters, are eaten here with vinegar rather than lemon juice.

You'll be hard put to find a menu in town without a hearty fish soup, and the sole, perch, salmon, lobster and spider crab are just as plentiful. Breton potatoes, said to be the best in France, go well with seafood, as do the region's delicious artichokes.

Brittany's cider, not the equal of Normandy's, is a popular choice with seafood, and the region's only native wine, Muscadet, will add joy to any meal.

Dining well: The best meal of our Brittany visit was at J. P. Delaunay's (6 Rue Sainte Barbe). This intimate restaurant within the Old Town walls is presided over by owner-chef Jean Paul Delaunay, his wife and his mother-in-law, very much in the French manner.

Vases of red roses, baskets of strawberries and the work of local artists on walls give the place a very romantic feeling.

A $54 menu brings you a creamed ragout of lobster, noisettes d'agneau (small discs of the region's pre sale lamb--lamb fed on salty tidal grasses), in a superb wine sauce, a cheese board and a selection of desserts. Not exactly inexpensive, but you'll leave contented.

Don't be put off by the quayside location of Les Ecluses (Le Gare Maritime), which locals consider one of the town's best.

It hangs with "its feet in the water" and has fine views of the city's ramparts through one bank of picture windows, bustling harbor boats through another.

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