Saint-Malo and the Vendée, France

I lined the MG up with the ramp that led to the ferry and slowed to a stop. It was steep enough that you couldn’t see the top; just a wall of metal ahead of the car. I put my food down, with no idea whether the 43-year old car would make it up the ramp or splutter to a halt halfway up. Turned out it shot up like a rocket, almost taking out a ferry worker who had been watching on at the top of the ramp.

The destination for the French road trip was my parents’ place, a small but surprisingly yellow house nestled away in the village of Marsais-Sainte-Radégonde. The plan was to meander our way down there, spend a couple of days over Easter with Mum and Dad, then head back to Saint-Malo.

MG on the ferry
The MG made it onto the boat.
We arrived in France and headed south towards Combourg, a small Breton town which promised a picturesque castle. After visiting a bakery to get some fresh croissants, we sat at the bar in a café and drank tiny coffees in true French fashion. As with many small French towns, it was pretty quiet at that time in the morning, so we walked down to the lake to see the castle. There was a small information panel by the water, which we headed towards; instead of some interesting snippets about the castle, it had an inscription of text by Chateaubriand which focused on death to all men. With that, we headed back to the car. Next stop on the road trip: Rennes.

Castle at Combourg, Brittany, France
The castle at Combourg. Comes with a side of ‘death to all men’.

Rennes is the capital of Brittany, and was built in medieval times, specifically as a convenient stopping point on the way to my parents’ house. We explored the old centre of the city, which was disappointingly mid-renovation, and nothing like the photos I had seen of the streets beforehand. Nicola and I were also largely unimpressed by the amount of plastic gazebos outside restaurants. There’s no point in painstakingly restoring old buildings if you’re going to hide them with an awning and some flimsy patio furniture. Despite this, we went into one of the offending crêperies and had a delicious Breton buckwheat galette each, accompanied by a little bolée of cidre. If the buildings aren’t great to look at from the outside, you might as well be inside one.

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Nicola likes this cider because it sounds a bit like her surname.
We continued south to Nantes, where I proudly declared that I no longer needed the map as I know the area like the back of my hand. We then promptly got lost on a diversion along the Loire River, which turned out to be a picturesque drive, winding along the river besides stone walls and Breton cottages covered in vivid purple wisteria. Exactly what I had planned all along.

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The MG and the open road.
The final stretch of the road trip south from Nantes went pretty smoothly, and we rolled into the sleepy hamlet of Marsais-Sainte-Radégonde as the sun was setting. No-one was more amazed than I was that the MG had made it this far without any mechanical issues. We tucked into a huge buffet of French bread, cheese and meats that Mum had prepared; a suspiciously flexible meal in case of a breakdown, but it was truly excellent and exactly what you needed after almost 300 miles of driving.

House in Marsais-Sainte-Radegonde, Vendee
Mum and Dad’s house in Marsais-Sainte-Radégonde
The nearest town to Marsais-Sainte-Radégonde is Fontenay-le-Comte, where every Saturday morning a farmers market rolls into town. We rose early and Dad and I ambled around the stalls while mum and Nicola felt sorry for a selection of soon-to-be-ex-crustaceans. I really think it’s difficult to beat spending a morning in a bustling French market; traders shouting, smells wafting though the stalls, and fruit and vegetables all grown in the local area. And it’s not just a place to buy food; it’s where you go to meet your friends, to make new ones and to find out the latest gossip from the town. After being left unsupervised for less than a minute, Mum had instigated a particularly animated conversation with a crepe stall owner where neither party knew what the other was saying; it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

In the afternoon we headed out to the pretty little village of Vouvant. With cobbled streets and a river running past picture-perfect cottages, the village has repeatedly won awards for its flowers, and features on the list of the most beautiful villages in France.

Mum, Dad and Nicola in Vouvant, France
Admiring the topiary in Vouvant
Cottage in Vouvant, France
A think I’d like to live here.
Early on Easter Sunday morning we hopped in the MG and waved goodbye to my parents, headed north towards Saint-Malo. After a brief detour through some of the bumpiest roads in the northern hemisphere, and avoiding a deep ford complete with a working water mill, we found our way onto the fast autoroutes that head towards the coast. The MG is surprisingly fast for a 43-year-old car; the smooth roads of France were great to drive on, and we made quick progress, arriving in Saint-Malo in time for a late lunch (buckwheat galettes, again. When in Brittany…).

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We arrived in Saint-Malo. Finding a parking space is not usually this simple.
The walled town of Saint-Malo is often overlooked by British tourists; many people arrive on the morning ferry and head south without stopping. Nicola and I had both recently read a novel by Anthony Doerr called ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, set in wartime Saint-Malo, and this gave us a perfect excuse to explore some obscure areas of the town, following in the footsteps of the protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner. As we walked around the walls, Nicola routinely reminded us to breathe in the sea air to give our lungs a good break from London pollution. In the distance we could see the seaside town of Dinard, where we had visited previously, and we spent a lot of time pointing out things we ‘recognised’ with no real way of proving what they actually were.

 

Saint-Malo itself was heavily bombarded in World War II, and much of the town had to be rebuilt. From outside the old town walls, the buildings within don’t look particularly tall. Only once you’re among them do you realise that every building is at least six or seven storeys high. From our glimpses of the sky between the stone walls and high buildings, we could see the sun breaking through the clouds so we left the shady fortress of the old town for a bar on the beach below.

Dinner was at a restaurant which specialises in butter. Jean-Yves Bordier runs a small butter shop in Saint-Malo, which is famous for exporting butter to restaurants across the world. At the bistro alongside they offer a taste of some of the butters – we tried salted, seaweed, Madagascan vanilla, Roscoff onion, smoked sea salt, chilli and buckwheat. Throughout the meal we had a constant battle as the waiters tried to keep the bread basket full, while we simultaneously did our best to empty it.

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So many different types of butter.
For our main courses, we both ordered the rabbit, which was absolutely delicious; it was only the next morning as we boarded the ferry to return to England that Nicola solemnly pointed out that we had actually eaten the Easter bunny on Easter Sunday.


We stayed in: Hotel Ajoncs d’Or (hotel-stmalo.com)
We dined on mainly butter at: Le Bistro Autour du Beurre (lebeurrebordier.com/bistrot-autour-du-beurre)
We sailed there and back with: Brittany Ferries (brittany-ferries.co.uk)
We would recommend reading: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr (theguardian.com/books/)

Some of the photos above were courtesy of Nicola, who can also be found here.

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8 thoughts on “Saint-Malo and the Vendée, France

  1. Just when I could not imagine a nicer little road trip than this, you mentioned the never-ending bread basket and all that butter. Heaven on earth. Brittany was on my mind this week, too, as I reminisced (and wrote an as-yet-unpublished) post about our family’s first trip there. Loved your post – lots of great memories and some new tidbits as well – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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