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October 24, 2010

France: St. Malo

Filed under: Europe 2010, Food, France, Travel — anotherheader @ 7:40 pm

St. Malo France

The fortress city of St. Malo guards its port at the mouth of the Rance River.  Inside the walls, St. Malo’s rebuilt historic district is a warren of narrow streets turned into small canyons by facing buildings. We figured it might be hard to find our hotel in the street maze but in reality there were no choices.  There was only one direction to go as the one-way streets that trace a route though the city took us directly to the hotel.  If we had passed the hotel the first time through we might still be wandering St. Malo’s streets.

The moss covered wall of St. Malo's seawater pool

We knew little about St. Malo when we planned our European road trip.  A stop in Brittany fit into the broader itinerary.  St. Malo seemed to be a good place for a visit.  We arranged a stay and thought little more about it.  It was unintentional but we had left the town as a surprise to discover.

Almost entirely destroyed in World War II, St. Malo’s historic district has been carefully rebuilt.  The streets are pleasant to stroll and café surf but everything is just a little too perfect and a little too new.  For us St. Malo’s most amazing attraction sits just outside the gigantic, can’t miss, defensive walls.  And it is a simple thing.  St. Malo has the biggest tidal variation that we have ever experienced first hand.  The tides in St. Malo average 26 feet.  At least that is what Google tells us.  (Typical open ocean tidal levels vary only 2 feet.)  In person and in review of the pictures it seemed that the tidal changes we were more than 26 feet.  But we will have to trust Google on this one.  After all, a fifty-foot tape measure was one of the few things left out of the luggage.

Patterns in the sand in the tidal flats

In St. Malo, when the tide goes out, the water is impossibly far from shore.  Stone paths lead through the tidal flats to nearby forts.  The forts top hills on the tip of small peninsulas.  At low tide it looks as if you can walk out any time to explore the strongholds.  But this is not the case.  At high tide, the hills are islands and the ocean’s waves break against St. Malo’s defensive walls.  The path to the forts is covered in deep seawater.  Boats sail without thought through the gap between the fort islands and St. Malo traveling well above the submerged walkway.  At high tide, it seems like the deep water is always there.

The difference in the tide levels is amazing.  Becky and I synchronized our schedule to watch the tidal extremes.  If there were daylight, we’d go up on the walls to view the shore at both high and low tides.

At low tide the path to the nearby forts is well above water

Such a large tidal variation adds complications in St. Malo’s port.  Elaborate hinged platforms and walkways are needed to let boats stayed docked and accessible at both low and high tide.  The tidal swings also create opportunities.  A dam at the mouth the Rance River, the Rance Barrage, functions as one of the first tidal power plants.  Water rushing through the dam generates about a 1/20th of a nuclear reactors worth of power in a year.  In France, Becky’s iPad was mostly nuclear powered.  (France gets 79% of its power from nuclear power plants.)  In St. Malo, her tablet computer might well have been predominantly powered by the tides.  How cool is that?

St. Malo also takes advantage of the tides in an interesting way.  Just outside the walls, there’s an unusual seawater swimming pool.  The pool’s design is simple.  On the slope of the beach, walls on three sides of the pool hold the water from the high tides.  When the tides go out, a seawater pool is formed.  The pool, complete with a diving platform, is now hundreds of feet from the water’s edge and is usable to the beach goers near the city’s walls.  Every cycle of tides exchanges the pool’s water.  Water filtration and treatment is unnecessary.

At high tide, the ocean covers the pool’s walls and the first platform of the two level high dive structure.  Passing boats must avoid the upper portion of the diving apparatus but can pass over the pool’s walls that are well below the water’s surface.

When the tide is out, the ocean’s edge is far from the base of the pool’s wall.  The function of the pool is now apparent.  The pool allows convenient swimming near St. Malo at low tide.  Otherwise, to access the water, bathers would need to scramble over hundreds of feet of slick rocks to reach the sea’s edge.  Plus, the walls minimize the influence of the strong tidal currents when the tide is coming in or going out.

More pictures of St. Malo’s amazing seawater pool.

The Food:

We ate well in St. Malo.  As in most of France, the “Menu du Jour” is usually the best-priced and most attractive food option.  Duck and lamb were common and sometimes the only proteins on the menus.  In St. Malo there was more variety.  Seafood was featured and many different and unusual options were available.  Our favorites included:

  • Raw oysters (huitres) from Cancale, a village very near to Saint-Malo.  To us they may not have been as good as our local Hog Island Oysters but they are very, very good nonetheless.  (To some saying that there are any better oysters than those from Cancale is heresy.)

  • The shellfish platter:  Perhaps a cliché in Brittany, our sample of this menu option was excellent with a variety raw and cooked (but cold) shellfish options.  Our platter included many items we’ve either never experienced (like the very small black snails that require dental tools for the meat extraction) or rarely had (barnacles).  It was all ocean-fresh.  Yum.

A boat sails between St. Malo and its nearby forts

  • Breton Pancakes:  These treats come in two forms.  There’s the world-famous sweet crêpes.  There are also the savory galettes that are served all day from breakfast to dinner.

  • Kouing Aman:  This is a delicious calorie packed Breton cake made with butter and sugar.

  • Mussels (moules) and fries (frites):  Mussels with small, intensely flavored meat are harvested nearby.

  • Cidre (cider):  A low alcohol hard cider is served in jugs at most restaurants.  It goes down easy and the acidity matches the local food.

  • Donuts:  We didn’t catch the particular Breton name for these large, fried as you watch tasty dough balls.  But, as Homer says, “Hum, donuts.”  We couldn’t agree more.

Lichen tops St. Malo's seawall

After our relaxing three-night stay in St. Malo, somewhat larger versions of ourselves were set to continue on our European jaunt.  I figured we would eat and drink more sensibly at our next stops on our road trip.  Then I looked back at the itinerary.  Starting with our next stop in St. Emilion, in the midst of the Bordeaux wine region, the coming stops were all in famous wine districts or in renowned gastronomic centers.  Alas, once again my stomach had taken over the trip planning yet again.

The rest of the pictures have been uploaded to Picasa.


  1. […] Autoroutes are a fast and efficient way of traveling between points in the country.  Between St. Malo and St. Emilion, the 340 miles or so of road passed quickly.  When we reached the edge of St. […]

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  2. […] sand extends across the inlet.  Several hours later and water covers the sand flat.  As it did in St. Malo France and Portmeirion in North Wales, tide watching becomes an obsession for us.  When the water goes […]

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  3. […] tidal pool outside the fortress city of Saint-Malo, France, is home to the largest tides in Europe—26 feet between high and low tides! At high tide, only […]

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  4. […] is another thing about Brittany that fascinates us: The tidal range is enormous. During our stay in Cancale the height of the sea […]

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