Malo vs. Michel: The Battle Of The French Seaside Townships

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By Natalie Augustin

As a Trini gyal in the heart of freezing, snow-drenched Paris, my de facto MO for getting through the winter is a state of functional hibernation. My travel bug goes to rest, and the occasional winter shiver is enough to satiate my usually tingling wandering feet.

But with summer just around the corner, my latent desires were heating up, and I found myself sprinting north towards the ‘ultimate seaside getaway’ of the northwestern French coast.

Sun, sand, and sea? Ah reach!

My coastal spin began in the walled city of St. Malo – a bustling port town, once a haven for pirates and privateers. Located on the Cote d’Emeraude or Emerald coast in Brittany, this historic city is one of the most visited cities in the area, popular with both the French and visitors alike.

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At the start of each summer, St. Malo is transported back to its former glory, with patrons descending on its vast 29km coastline that offers a sunny respite from the long, dormant winter.

It had been months since I last saw the sea, and so, to remedy that, I booked a room with a view…or so I was sold (told? sold? same thing, really). Rushing to the window to inhale my first few sights of the beloved sea, I was met instead by a wet sandy stretch of beige-colored mud. The water had receded; not as far as the horizon, but enough to make me consider a refund on my “sea view” suite.

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Refusing to believe that I had been conned, I decided to investigate further. To my surprise, I was told that it was St. Malo, not my hotel, to blame. According to the internet, St. Malo is the site of the largest tidal range in all of Europe, with levels rising drastically in excess of 13 m every 6 hours and receding as much as 15km from the shore.

Talk about extra coastal real-estate. Luckily, none of it goes unused. At low tide, the bare seafloor stirs with activity, from sand castle architects to walkers and runners, bikers, horse riding and even sand yachters.

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Aside from its peculiar waterworks, St. Malo delivers much more than a typical seaside vacation. With its thermal spa hotels, cobbled streets, charming villas and quality restaurants, St. Malo has something for everyone.

One of the city’s most interesting attractions is the ramparts – a massive 2km fort wall that encircles the town. In the 12th century, the wall was built to fortify the city, but these days, it’s more often used for a leisurely post-lunch walk, offering tourists a bird’s eye view of the city on one side and the coast on the other.

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As impressive as St. Malo is, it pales in comparison to the mammoth Mont Saint Michel. One of the most visited sites in all of France, Mt. Saint Michel is a mere hour away from St. Malo and easily surpasses the tiny walled city in popularity and iconic value.

While many have not ever heard of St. Malo, the opposite is true for Mont Saint Michel.

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When I posted an image of Mont Saint Michel on my personal FB page, I received this wonderful response from my dear friend Christine L, “Oh my, oh my, I’ve been dreaming of visiting this place for years, I even did my architecture history presentation on Mont St. Michel . . . I have goose bumps filled with excitement for you. So so wish you could of packed me in your suitcase . . . Thank You for sharing one of my dream places to visit with me. You just made my day xoxoxo.”

Her passion for MSM is definitely shared, at least by the 3 million visitors who travel to this lofty village perched atop a rocky isle annually. Known as the “Wonder of the West, Mt. Saint Michel sits at the bay where Normandy merges with Brittany, a stalwart that time, man, and nature has yet to erode.

As I approached the city gates of MSM I remembered thinking how dramatic it all looked – a conical island crowned by a medieval abbey. Set in the middle of a transforming landscape, the Mont changes its appearance based on the tides. At high tide, the castle and its surroundings look like they’re emerging from the sea, the sole mainland causeway masked by water. At low tide, it looks like it’s resting on swampy marshland, surrounded by mudflats and moss, as it was on the day I visited.

Inside, the Mont is no less fascinating. Rustic signs line the main street leading up to the abbey, each advertising a new store, bar, museum, or restaurant, housed in building dating as far back as the 15th and 16th century.

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The path is steep, but definitely worth the effort. The abbey’s terrace offers the perfect vantage point from which you can view the bay and the surrounding French towns. If you’re lucky, you might also see groups of pilgrims  clad in traditional gear, making their way across the mushy mudflats, in an ode to hundreds who would make the treacherous trek across the mudflats years ago, hoping to beat the tide.

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No visit to the island would be complete without a customary tasting of the Mont’s famous omelettes and crepes, or a walk through the barren but hallowed halls of the ancient Gothic abbey.

As I trotted away on a horse-drawn carriage with the Mont fading away in the background, I couldn’t help but think of the effort that went into building it, stone by stone, ushered over the temperamental mudflats.

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My return to St. Malo was met with a drastically different seascape to the one that bid me farewell mere hours ago. The tide was in, and the busy seafloor was now tumbling and slapping against on the seawall, sending awestruck onlookers like myself scampering to remain dry.

As close geographically as St. Malo is to Mont Saint Michel, the two couldn’t be more different. One, a sanctuary for pilgrims reaching the skies; the other, a haven receding into the horizon. Combined, they are the ultimate post-winter remedy – the sinner and the saint in one perfect roadtrip. 

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