Jane Wilson's St.-Malo
Published: May 2009
By Jane Wilson
As a landscape painter, usually of the seashore, I am perpetually trying to capture edges and boundaries that are never where I think they should be. That, for me, is the fun of painting. It is the real beginning of seeing.
As a traveler, I love ports and shores and the inconstant constants of such places, with their workaday light. I love cities where the layers of history peek out from beneath one another. I love the story told by architectural periods sitting side by side.
St.-Malo, in Brittany, is such a place.
The overnight ferry from Portsmouth, England, makes it possible to approach St.-Malo in the silvery light of early morning. As the ship heads for the harbor, it passes a string of fortified rocky islets that line the entrance channel, at the end of which stands a 17th-century citadel. Seen from the sea it is a formidable fortress, built on sand and granite at the very edge of northern France. Before the development of the port in the 17th century, St.-Malo was known as St.-Malo de l'Isle, isolated like its tidal cousin Mont-St.-Michel, in Normandy, 30 miles north.
In all weather and at all times of day, people stroll the wide promenade on top of the fort's walls, seemingly mesmerized by sky and sea. From this height there are views of the town's intricate narrow streets and tall, elegant mansions; there are views of the intimate beaches, lapped by often tropical-looking waters, at the base of the city's fortifications. There are views inland over the busy commercial harbor and the yacht basin, across the estuary of the Rance toward the greenery of Dinard, and far out to sea, where the islands of Jersey and Guernsey lie. To the north is the two-mile-long seawall that hugs the bay, topped along its full length by a wide esplanade, where people stroll day and night as they do on the promenade of the city ramparts.
Along the city ramparts one also encounters a couple of grassy little parks, each containing the statue of an illustrious and stalwart native corsair: a gruff Jacques Cartier, explorer of Canada; a courtier-like René Duguay-Trouin, who took Rio de Janeiro for France and returned it to Portugal after exacting a gigantic ransom; and, finally, a rousing Robert Surcouf, a certified terror of the Anglo-Indian coast in the Napoleonic era.
The vistas that my sculpted companions and I looked out on are so grand and yet so simple that it is just about impossible to get at their character on a sheet of watercolor paper.
Few cars are permitted within the city walls of St.-Malo. Everyone walks. One serendipitous sunny morning, a parade of many small Breton bands wove its way through the narrow streets, heralded from afar by a cacophony of bagpipes, drums, brassy trumpets, and song. When the long parade turned onto the street of my hotel, the banners were flying. Everyone—singers, dancers, musicians—was in Breton costume, all lace and embroidery. A group of men, clad in the woolly sheepskins that shepherds traditionally wear, brought up the rear, walking slowly down the cobbled streets on towering stilts.
On our first trip to St.-Malo, my husband and I arrived by train, and without reservations. We were fixated on the idea of a room overlooking the beach, preferably with a terrace that could be used as a studio during the day.
After numerous discouraging encounters, we found ourselves in the lobby of a nouveau gothique hotel called Le Celtique. The proprietor, a woman of a certain age, trimly dressed and with very red hair, greeted us and showed us up to a small room overlooking the beach. It had the typical rose wallpaper, the large wardrobe, and the hoped-for French doors opening onto a small terrace. There was a rather rusty round white table and two white metal chairs in which you could sit and look directly out over the beach, with the walled city off to the left, and the grand expanses of sand, sea, and ever-changing sky everywhere else. Madame provided us with flatware and plates for use on the balcony, as well as a few tips on local food shopping.
Two or three days later, it dawned on us that there were very few guests in this quiet hotel with so many small rooms. Soon, Madame began to express concern about our daytime activities—painting on the terrace, lunch and dinner in the walled town (oysters, local wine, pastries), walks on the beach, watching and painting the moonrise, sunrise, and sunset. She urged us to take daylong side trips. We explained that, after five weeks of intensive travel, we had come to this beautiful place to relax, to work, and to explore nearby sites. An immediate chill set in.
"Mais, ce n'est pas un appartement!" she said.
It became apparent that she did not want anyone staying in the hotel during the day, or perhaps at all. I imagined that this empty hotel was her very own private world. I fancied that it had been given to her by a grateful married lover—a gift that would enable her to support herself with minimum effort and with all rights to her very selective solitude intact.
Le Celtique is long gone. On our more recent trip, we selected Hôtel La Villefromoy, just off the Plage de Rochebonne, toward the far end of the massive stone seawall of St.-Malo.
The hotel, a pair of rose-and-cream mid-17th-century gambrel-roofed villas, lovingly renovated, is run by a family that wants you to enjoy your stay. Though a little more than a mile from the old city, it has the advantage of being located in a residential neighborhood. Being away from the dense flocks of tourists more than made up for a balcony that was "ocean-view," not "oceanfront." We looked out on long, leafy streets and densely flowered gardens—yet another side to St.-Malo.
Throughout the city are open-air markets—the meat market, the fish market, the vegetable market. I could never grasp their geographic relationship well enough to find any of them at will. Finally, I did happen upon the fish market, with its abundance of turbot, bass, and John Dory, and its mountains of shellfish. The oysters are like none I've had anywhere else. The Breton rye bread and Breton butter that are traditionally served with oysters here are memorable in themselves.
The true cuisine of Brittany is wintry—fish soups, bean casseroles with a touch of cream, pré-salé lamb, and, of course, the glorious seafood. Homey and often homely seasonal fruit tarts—gooseberry, rhubarb, plum, cherry, peach.
My favorite part of St.-Malo has become the seawall, la digue. One of the very best long-distance views of the city is from its far end, and one of the very best walks is from there along the beach toward town. For me, la digue is what first comes to mind at the mention of St.-Malo.
Beside the broad walkway are small hotels, many with terraces. There are also villas—19th-century fantasies that evoke a mansard or the steep slate roofs and turrets of a Gothic daydream. Behind the villas and hotels, pollarded roses, hydrangeas, oleanders fill walled gardens.
The seawall's benches, at well-spaced intervals, are seldom occupied for long. Stone steps lead down to the pale, sandy beach marked by occasional dark granite outcroppings. The benches and the steps are an ideal place for making watercolors.
At low tide the promenade is high above the sand, which stretches out wide, wide, wide, miniaturizing the Victorian villas and hotels along the walk, miniaturizing as well the children and dogs that constantly test the water's edge, and the adults who move at the pace of that day's weather. When the tide comes in, the ocean begins to splash and crash against the seawall. In many places, the beach disappears altogether. But people still walk the promenade, still look out to sea. So enveloped was I in St.-Malo's weather and solitude that at times I felt as if I were caught in one of my moodier paintings.
Hôtel La Villefromoy, 7 Blvd. Hébert; 33-2/99-40-92-20, fax 33-2/99-56-79-49; www.villefromoy.hotel.fr; doubles from $100.