Western Europe #01 –St. Malo & Mont St. Michel

January 07, 2019  •  3 Comments


Western Europe #01 –St. Malo & Mont St. Michel

This is part 1 of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018.  After visiting family in Munich, this trip included the northwest coast of France, a bit of Belgium, and Amsterdam.  We flew into Paris from Munich and picked up our rental car and headed straight out to St. Malo which is just south of the of the Normandy region of the French northern coast commonly referred to as the Normandy area.  However, Normandy is just one region along the Channel Coast that includes (west to east) Brittany, Normandy, Picardy and Nord Pas de Calais, but we’ll just call it all the Northwest coast of France.

Full Trip Map
01 Map Full Combined01 Map Full Combined

Map for this trip segment
02 Map 08-06 thru 08-07_02 Map 08-06 thru 08-07_

St. Malo

St. Malo is a city of around 45,000 that is mainly a shipping port.  But as is the case with many such coastal cities in France it has a long history that at one time in the distant time included being a walled city right along the water.  Today, though these places are typical cities with industrial areas, large shipping terminals, suburbs, a downtown and all the boring things one can find in any city.  What is interesting though is the old walled portion of such cities.  And, St. Malo is no exception.

So, with our trusty GPS showing us the way to our hotel inside the old walled portion of the city we drove through one of the arched gates through the old city wall and into the historical district.  Of course the streets were narrow, mostly one way and also mostly unmarked.  After a few false turns, blocked streets and oblivious pedestrians strolling down the middle of the street, we arrived at our hotel and found a place to put the car at the front door (there was only room for one car and we got there first!).  Another guest arrived a few minutes later and was out of luck in terms of a place to put his car during check in. 

So, we checked in to our historic hotel, left our bags in the lobby and got a little Xerox copy of a hand drawn map to the hotel’s parking garage.  Seemed simple enough, continue on the one way street in front of the hotel, take a couple of right turns, look for a driveway by a soap shop and there you are.  So, following the map we drove down the street, through a portal in the city wall, took the first right, took the next right back through the wall and looked for a driveway to the parking area.  It must be here somewhere.  Wait, what did they say?  Look for a driveway on the right next to a soap store.  No luck.  Okay, must have missed it.  So, 4 or 5 blocks later we decided to retreat and try again.  So, hang a left, exit the walled city, drive around the outside and back through the same gate in the city wall we had come in moments ago to try again.  Still no driveway or soap shop.  So, around the outside and back in once again.  Maybe they meant to turn right just inside the wall and then look for the driveway?  Okay, well give that a try.  No luck. 

So pride aside we decided to go back to the hotel lobby for more explicit instructions.  To drive to the hotel one has to turn down a one way street on the block before the hotel then right on the next street and right again to the hotel.  Oops, there is now a barricade blocking the entrance to that street behind the hotel – which is the only street one can take to get there.  And no place to pull off and park and walk.  Well, it was only a metal barricade so easy to slide aside and drive on past down what is now apparently a pedestrian only area of town (except for crazy – and lost – American tourists).  Back in the hotel lobby we paid more attention to the receptionist when she explained the map in broken English. 

Well, turns out that after leaving the front of the hotel, one takes a right just inside the city wall rather than just outside the city wall.  Oops.  But, due to one way streets it is still a bit of a round about route which, believe it or not, lead us right back to that same barricade on the street behind the hotel.  So, once again slide the barricade aside, and retrace our route.  But, now armed with better info, - “Look a soap shop with a driveway next to it”  Yeah!.  So, in we drove.  About 20 feet in, the drive made a sharp turn and descended into an open area at basement level in the middle of the block.  It seems that all the buildings on the 4 surrounding streets have below ground garages that are entered from this open area.  And yes indeed there were 3 garages (each about 4 car lengths long) with the name of the hotel.  Yippee.  Turns out these garages are actually right under the hotel – you just get there from the street behind.  Why didn’t they just say that? 

But it was a lovely old charming hotel, fully updated (including an elevator) and just a block from the cathedral.  Our room was a bit small compared to US motel standards but not as small as many other European hotel rooms we’ve stayed in.  From the French balcony on one side we could look down the street to the Cathedral a block away.  From this 4th floor perch we could also look down on the shops whose merchandise displays had spilled out into the street once the zone had been blocked off and relegated to foot traffic only.

View from hotel room toward Cathedral
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St, Malo French Balconies
Three French Balconies, St. Malo, FranceThree French Balconies, St. Malo, France

What is now St. Malo was founded by Gauls in the 1st century B.C.  By the late 4th century AD the Saxon’s had built a fort here that protected the Rance river estuary from seaborne raiders. During the decline of the Western Roman Empire Armorica (modern day Brittany) rebelled from Then, during Roman rule in the 5th and 6th centuries it received many Celtic Britons fleeing instability across the Channel.  And so things went. 

The modern Saint-Malo traces its origins to a monastic settlement founded by Saint Aaron and Saint Brendan early in the sixth century. Its name is derived from a man said to have been a follower of Brendan the Navigator, Saint Malo or Maclou, an immigrant from what is now Wales.

The city had a tradition of asserting its autonomy in dealings with the French authorities and even with the local Breton authorities. From 1590 to 1593, Saint-Malo declared itself to be an independent republic, taking the motto "not French, not Breton, but Malouin."  I guess they were just an ornery bunch.  Around this time Saint-Malo became notorious as the home of French privateers and pirates.  In the 19th century, notoriety as a pirate haven was portrayed in Jean Richepin's play Le flibustier and in César Cui's eponymous opera.

These French privateers of Saint-Malo not only forced English ships passing up the Channel to pay tribute.  But they also plundered – oops  “visited” – areas farther afield.  For example, Jacques Cartier sailed the Saint Lawrence River and visited the sites where Quebec City and Montreal would be built and is credited as the discoverer of Canada.  The first colonists to settle the Falkland Islands came from St. Malo, hence the Islands' French name "Îles Malouines," which eventually gave rise to the Spanish name "Islas Malvinas."

In 1758, a British expedition showed up intending to capture the town. However, for some unknown reason, the British made no attempt on Saint-Malo, and instead occupied the nearby town of Saint-Servan, where they destroyed 30 privateers before departing.

In World War II, during fighting in late August and early September 1944, the historic walled city was almost totally destroyed by American shelling and bombing as well as British naval gunfire.  The Allies believed that the Axis powers had thousands of troops and major armaments built up within the city walls – though there proved to be fewer than 100 troops manning just two anti-aircraft installations.  The much larger and heavily armed Axis presence was in strong points outside the city walls.  This is also where the Americans first used Napalm which would later become quite famous in the US-Vietnam war.

After the war (1948 to 1960) the bombed inner city was restored to its prewar architecture but with more up to date infrastructure such as better sewers and electrical.  Today it is a popular tourist center that in addition to being accessed via road has a ferry terminal serving Portsmouth, Weymouth, and Poole.

Best way to start a tour of France
Gelato in Saint-Malo FranceGelato in Saint-Malo France

Today, except for a few small sections, one can circumnavigate the entire inner city along the top of the city wall.

Castle built into the city wall.  Not sure what the cannon is aiming at unless it is an invading scooter.
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Carousel by old fort (now a high class hotel) along the city wall
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Fort National just outside city wall.  Cut off from the city at high tide
Fort National, Saint-Malo FranceFort National, Saint-Malo France

Typical inner city street
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Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michele is a rocky island commune on the Normandy Coast of France by the Couesnon River.  The whole thing is only 17 acres in area but due to tourism a little town has grown up on the mainland along the entrance road to the Island.  As of 2015 the population of the whole thing (both parts) was a whopping 50 people.  But that doesn’t count the roughly 2.5 million tourists a year (average of 6,800 per day) who descend on the little rock in the bay. 

If you’re planning to go, go early – before all the tour buses show up.  This hugely popular tourist attraction has seen many changes over the past hundred plus years.  Prior to 1879, there was no roadway from the mainland to the island.  You just walked 1,300 feet across the sand/mud flats during low tide or swam across during high tide.  But, in 1879 a sort of primitive road was put in place so that carts and carriages wouldn’t get stuck in the mud.  However, this road was pretty much at sand level so it too was submerged twice a day during high tide. 

There are many stories about tourists who walked over to the island to sight see and missed the tide and were stuck on the island till the tide went out again.  But all of that changed once more in 2014 when an elevated bridge type causeway was built that was above the high tide level.  Around this same time, they also stopped people from taking their private vehicles across to the island and required visitors to either walk or take a shuttle bus.  And, with the increase in tourism traffic that’s a pretty smart move.

When you drive up to the town (mainland portion) unless you are booked into one of the motels in the town you can’t drive in.  Instead the direct you off into a series of massive parking lots.  From there you walk to one end where free shuttle buses pick you up for the ride to the Island.  If you want you can pay for a horse drawn wagon to the island or you can walk about 2 miles (40 minutes) to the island.  Depending on what time of day you arrive, one of the latter two options may be a more attractive option than waiting in a queue for the bus.

Mont St. Michel at low tide from Causeway
Le Mont Saint Michel, FranceLe Mont Saint Michel, France

The island has been a strategic fortification since ancient times and since the 8th century has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural layout of the town mirrors that of the feudal society that constructed it.  At the top is religion with the church, abbey and monastery.  Next lower are the great halls, then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, houses for fishermen and farmers.

Being built as a fortress, it is a walled town with the walls right at the edge of the island and there is only one gate that all must pass through.  A hundred yards or so past this gate is yet another fortified gate that one must pass through before entering the town.  Past this 2nd gate is a narrow street, packed on both sides with feudal looking shops, restaurants and souvenir stands.  Actually the street is too narrow for a car or truck so they use ATV like vehicles to haul goods up and down.  But, the tourists have to walk.

Inner Gate
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Main drag
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Narrow section of main street
Mont St. Michele signsMont St. Michele signs

After winding your way along the narrow shop lined street, more like a slot canyon, the street widens and you enter into a more open area where the merchants lived and had store houses and a church for the lower classes.  As you wend your way up the pathway or take some of the narrow, and quite charming, side paths that interlace through the town you are from time to time confronted with the fortress like church, monastery and abbey towering above you.  In building these monolithic structures they left little doubt who had the power and wealth and who the peasants were.

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Mont St. Michele CathedralMont St. Michele Cathedral

So onward and upward you go.  To get into the abbey and monastery one is confronted with an impressive stairway leading up to the entrance. 

Stairs leading to abbey guardroom, now the main entrance of the monastery and abbey
Bicycle and StairsBicycle and Stairs

The buildings at the top include a large church, monastery, and abbey which are all jumbled together, and intermingled so you’re never quite sure which one you are in as you wander around.  But, grand they all are.

Servant Stairs
Mont St. Michele old StairsMont St. Michele old Stairs

Cloister courtyard. Sort of central hub with access to many different sections of the abbey, church and monastery
Colondae of Arches, Mont St. MicheleColondae of Arches, Mont St. Michele

Abbey Dinning hall
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Stairs to?
Stone Stairs, Mont St. Michele, FRStone Stairs, Mont St. Michele, FR

Living, working and praying at the highest reaches of an island with 46 foot tides twice a day has its advantages.  First of all, in the case of an invasion, the invaders have to fight their way through all the villagers and narrow streets below you.  And, if the invaders are not too speedy in getting over the outer walls, they will be drowned with the incoming tide.  You are also pretty much out of reach of storm driven waves that may inundate the lower portions of such islands.  Another advantage of living at the top (both figuratively and literally) is that you know what flows downhill – out of sight, out of mind.  But, for talking points to make their position a bit more acceptable to those below, they say that being the priesthood they need to be closer to God.  I guess praying over a longer distance diminishes the quality of the communications.  Or, maybe praying to God from up there is a local call.

But, there are some downsides as well.  First of all everything you need has to be gotten from the bottom to the top.  This includes building materials as well as everything you need on a daily basis to live the life of privilege.  But that is what slaves and peasants are for.  It’s just so hard to have to keep replacing them when the wear out from hauling all the stuff up the mountain.

Seriously though, getting stuff up to the Church and Abbey was not easy.  One of the solutions to this was the construction of a medieval funicular.  This was a stone ramp going down the mountain which had a wooden cart that could be pulled up with a rope.  But with such a steep track, a heavy cart full of goods would take several dozen men to pull up not to mention the fun if the rope got away from them.  To remedy this problem they built a “walking wheel” winch inside the arched opening at the top of the ramp.  This is a giant version of what’d we’d now recognize as a hamster wheel.  A couple of men (preferably heavy ones) get inside and start walking and the wheel would start turning.  The rope tied to the cart would then wind up onto a spindle near the axle of this wheel.  By having a large wheel and small spindle, it basically acted like a very low gear on a modern bicycle.  And up came the cart.

The ramp and walking wheel were constructed in 1820 with the wheel in what had been the Monk’s Ossuary.  This was during the time the facility was being used as a prison and was used

Track of medieval funicular
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Walking wheel with rope spindle
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After our guided tour of the Church, Abbey and Monastery (pay for the tour, it’s much more interesting than just walking around) we headed back down.  We had gotten to the island pretty much when things were first opening up around 9:30 am and when it was still somewhat empty.  But now it was around 12:30 and things had gotten quite crowded down along the main commercial street. 

Lines from restaurants and food stands extended out into the walkway, hordes of people still coming up the path from the shuttle bus and a few of us intrepid souls trying to swim the human tide to get down.  But, we eventually made it.  Hoped the almost empty shuttle bus and headed back to the mainland.

As I said, the best time to visit is early in the morning and you might also want to pre book a tour of the Church, Monastery, and Abbey. 


I hope you enjoyed reading about the St. Malo and Mont St. Michel leg of our NW Europe trip,  Please check out my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .


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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 

          https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/nw-europe-2018-08  (all images)

          https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/nw-europe-favs-2018-08  (subset of images)

Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.





Jim Colton(non-registered)
Photos really give a sense of what it's like to visit this area. Several good tips on planning a trip which we are going to do in 2020.
Karen Roe(non-registered)
Beautiful pictures (as always) and great description of the logistics required with that location.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Love the story of the walking wheel and the funicular! I've ridden on things like that, and wished I could ride on the ones that used to there but are now gone. Great photos and stories, as usual!
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