“Back in the castle of Biaurepaire there was great rejoicing upon the return of those who had spent years in cruel confinement. The great hall and the knights’ quarters were frenzied with excitement; the bells of all the chapels and churches pealed joyfully, and every monk and nun gave prayerful thanks to God. Men and women danced rounds through every street and square. Throughout the whole town people rejoiced that they were no longer under siege and attack.”
Ah, as I take in the sea air I snuggle up, watching the rain through the window and take up my favorite book by Chretien De Troyes. A french writer of the 13th century, Chretien was appointed the task of composing the Arthurian romances for the court of French speaking Flanders; he composed a series of tales that would stir the worlds’ imagination for centuries. It seems funny to me that the greatest Welsh story, aside from the other great welsh stories I will not name, was ear marked by a french speaking writer. The solidified cultural ties between France and England are rooted in the Norman Conquest. The Normans dominated the scene of the British Isle’s, superseding the Saxon domination of previous centuries. All good books were written in latin, and then in french, for French was the language of the courts.
But back to that sea air that has re awakened my senses. St. Malo is a town that is distinctly not French, Breton or British (whatever you call it). Situated on the coast as a seaport castle, it has been around a long time, as early as the 2nd century by way of Gaelic settlers. St. Malo, a welsh immigrant and monk, came to the shores of Brittany, just as many British have over the centuries. It is no small wonder, due to proximity, that Brittany is one of the seven Celtic Nations by heritage and genetic make-up. These people are truly Celtic, and St. Malo almost has a taste of Ireland to it. Coincidentally, Malo came over about the 6th century with the famous St. Brenden of the Brenden voyage, who was an Irish monk and is legendary in the literature of the hearts’ o’ the Irish. The monastery at St. Malo flourished, and they had rough goings converting the pagan Gauls. Malo was famed for converting King Hoel of Brittany.
Today, this medieval town is very medieval and the cobbled streets are a place of wonder and majesty. It is a place of romance, joy and sorrow from many past histories and fairy tales. The famed Marie de France made this the setting for her story of the Nightingale. You should read this story, it is wonderful and beautiful. The coves and rocky cliffs all bend down towards the ocean and the high walls and battlements stand steadfast as the waves crash against them. The high tides come up to the wall while the low tide allows for exploration to two islands by a cobbled path. Each island is completely surrounded by the sea in the high tide and are the place of two 17th century forts.
St. Malo really has a distinct flavor, aside from the varieties of seafood which are unparalleled. In later history, St. Malo declared itself an independent nation when the King of France refused to convert from the protestant faith. The catholic residents went as far as to lock up the castle gates when he arrived for a royal visit. He later repented and quickly converted so that he could enjoy the fruits of St. Malo and the town duly let up their claim to sovereignty, or did they? Their flag is called the Gwenn-Ha-Du which in Celtic-gaelic means white and black, signifying the flag colors but also positioning their claim to neither side. Poised between the two great lions that are Britain and France, they are distinctly independent and their own. It would be a great place to be under siege, for the high battlements keep out all bad things and the comforts within are abundant. They affirm nor deny allegiance, and their motto is: Neither French nor Breton, I am from St. Malo. In a world of globalization and the holocaust of culture (or as the modern theorists call it: the flattening of the earth) St. Malo is a wonderful place to take in with deep breathes and enjoy the sea air and food. It is distinct and yet submerged in a flourishing vibration of eloquence that sets it apart from the world. You are not able to find Starbucks here, yet the coffee is abundant and you wouldn’t believe the seafood.
One can find both pirates and nuns here. And, at mid afternoon, the birds sing sweeter than T-Pain. The seagulls swoop and dive on the battlements with a peculiar rapture. I am in the fairytale. I am sure that, just off the shore, treasure is buried beneath the coral reef and mermaids dance by the moonlight. Also, it is just nearby that the long time prison of the count Montecristo can be found (not really, but it feels that way). The British Isles or the place of the Island Kings feel closer than before. I hope they aren’t lonely up there. They say idleness breeds a certain sickness. They have no Lombard, Spaniard, or German to keep their swords sharp with, do they? They must fight amongst themselves, a horrible fate.
So it is a gateway between two worlds: the place of Britain and the Celts and that of France and mainland Europe. There is a clash of culture here. Brittany as a whole, also called Little Britain or Amorica, was the place of refuge for the British people at the time of the Saxon invasions where the country was plagued by the three famines: famine, pestilence (plague) and foreign invasion. The cure was a good magician. The people of Brittany are very much Celtic in origin. A seaport town such as St. Malo would have been the place to amass a force and launch an attack along the mainland. Other places in Brittany were the target of Viking attacks in later centuries too. The interplay between France in Britain is much like what one see’s between the North and South of America. Yet, St. Malo is distinctly its own. They raise their flag on the castle keep just a smidgen higher than the flag of France, just to jest about their famed, one-time legal sovereignty.
So what did we learn? There are many people of Celtic origin in the province of Brittany (which is in France and only about 2 hours by train from Paris). Globalization and corporate box stores are hacking away at distinct places of beauty and cultural phenomenons like St. Malo. Hopefully, you learned of a cool place you might want to travel to and will look up St. Malo on google hereafter. Another point: St. Malo is a place of distinct culture relevance and is positioned between two great powers. They are a genetic, cultural phenomenon (much like the Japanese macaw or snow monkey). More than anything, it is a place of fairytale surpassing all other places of beauty, you should definitely visit! Oh, and please read Marie De France’s story of the Nightingale before you go to bed. It is about five pages long. As they say in France (and even in St. Malo too): Voilá!