PORTSMOUTH | SAINT-MALO | BRETAGNE
For those days when we fancy a change of scenery, we’re rather spoilt here in Portsmouth. Direct trains to London, Brighton and Bristol to name but a few, a Hovercraft to Ryde, a relatively short commute to Gatwick airport and within easy access of both the South Downs National Park and the New Forest. But even more uniquely, Portsmouth also houses the International Ferry Port with sailings to various ports in France, Spain and the Channel Islands.
Until recently, I’d mistakenly overlooked this, thinking it was perhaps more suited for families dashing off on their summer holidays. But then I saw Brittany Ferries offering their Gourmet Cruise to St Malo (depart Friday evening, return Sunday morning) and knew that I had to give it a go for the weekend. And if nothing else, it would be a useful excuse to bring back some French goodies to fill the fridge with…
And so it was here that I arrived early on a Saturday morning as a foot passenger following the most hassle-free form of transit I’ve ever experienced (checked in and through security in 10 minutes, wonderful views of Portsmouth as the ship rounded the harbour towards the Solent and an exquisite 4 course meal on board). And with just 12 hours on land before the journey home, I got to work as quickly as possible on getting my bearings in this new destination. Here are just a few highlights of somewhere that I plan to re-visit very, very soon!
Views back over Portsmouth Harbour from deck.
On arriving to Saint-Malo both by sea and then by foot from the port, it is simply impossible to not be left in awe on seeing the walled city (La Ville Intra-Muros) for the first time. What is even more remarkable is the fact that the majority of said city was completely wiped out towards the latter stages of the Second World War, with only a few smudges of medieval architecture left intact. The reconstruction and restoration of the city, completed in 1971, have been so well incorporated that it certainly does not feel so new!
And it is the grandness of the architecture and the hidden narrow streets that it stands on which make for such pleasurable walking around Saint-Malo. It was the kind of place where I could leave the map in my bag and let my feet dictate where I might end up. And in fact, I’m glad I did because at every corner was an unexpected delight which then led onto another at the next one. Saint-Malo’s streets are filled with quaint bistros, cute independent shops and inviting cafes, so there is ample opportunity to rest your legs for a moment or two en route.
The lights of the ship docked in Saint-Malo Harbour.
A couple arrives bright and early to pick up supplies from the bakery.
Once you feel that you’ve got a good handle on the inland web of streets, it’s definitely time to see what I feel is the undoubted high point of Saint-Malo: the beach. With some of the most varying tide levels in Europe (30 or so feet in the space of 6 hours), the seascape here is an ever-present reminder of the power and the stature of the sea. As the tide goes out, the sandy intersection between water and promenade becomes the ideal location for long and dreamy walks.
Being here on a nippy December day, it was still easy to see what a perfect place this would be for a summer getaway. The Plage du Sillon on its own is roughly 3km in length so it’s no wonder that I spent most of my day walking along the beautiful coastline! As the day progressed, and the tide inched slowly out into the Channel, the Ile du Grand Bé, a fort holding the tomb of the writer Chateaubriand, became accessible. And what a unique site this was!
And when the tide comes back in? No problem, a quick jump back to the city walls offers an equally inviting walk where lofty heights allow for splendid views of the forts and the harbour beyond. When you do decide that a pit-stop is necessary, I’d warmly recommend Le Lion D’or for a spot of lunch and the coffee shop within La Maison Generale for those needing a caffeine fix. Do pop into the shop there, too; it’s an eclectic mix of furniture, furnishings, artwork, clothes, you name it. Be prepared to leave some room in your luggage for purchases though! And for those after something stronger, I’d suggest La Belle Epoque. A traditional bar, in a central location, it had a cosy easygoing atmosphere and was packed with locals sharing their stories of the day.
Saint-Malo. Perhaps an easy destination to overlook. Indeed, so many do, using it merely as a stop off point before venturing to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast and the vineyards of the Gironde. Not only that, but it is so often sidestepped as tourists gather at the popular Mont Saint Michel along the coast. But this day in Saint-Malo showed me why it is a travel destination on its own merit. This is a place that has much to offer visitors, regardless of tastes and interests. And I know that when summer next rolls around, and I’m craving sandy beaches and a taste of French culture, I’ll be on the first boat back to the charming city of Saint-Malo, just a short hop over the channel from our very own seaside city.
Le Lion d’or – with all the french classics and friendly service, this was a standout for food.