Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Weekend in St. Malo, Part 1

This week, Bob is attending the SPARS conference in St. Malo. We decided to leave a few days before the conference started in order to relax in the Atlantic coast town, explore the Bretagne region, and partake in some of their famous food culture. What a wonderful weekend trip!

First, a little history lesson. St. Malo is a walled port city that traces its origins to the 6th century, when it was a monastic settlement founded by Saint Aaron and Saint Brendan. In later centuries it was home to pirates who forced ships passing through the English Channel to pay a tribute. In 1491, Jacques Cartier was born in St. Malo. He became an explorer and is credited with 'discovering' Canada. Also born in St Malo was François-René de Chateaubriand, a writer, politician, diplomat, and namesake of Bob's fellowship! The city also has a tragic past. In 1944, a terrible fire was caused by incendiaries launched between the German and American troops fighting in World War Two. Many building were hits by shells and bombs. It is estimated that 80% of the walled city was destroyed by the end of the war. However, it was rebuilt, stone by stone, and little has changed since then.

Day 1: after a 3 hour train ride from Gare Montparnasse in Paris, we arrived in St. Malo hungry for lunch. After checking in at our hotel, which was inside the walled city, we walked around, searching for a place to eat. We noticed that many of the restaurants were crêperies. "A restaurant that only serves dessert? Awesome!", I hear you saying. But you are mistaken, my friend. While many crêpe stands in Paris only sell sweet crêpes with Nutella or sugar or chocolate and bananas, crêpes are actually from the Bretagne region and come in two basic varieties: sweet or savory. The savory crêpe is made from buckwheat flour and is filled with savory things like ham, eggs, salmon... you name it. It is also traditionally accompanied by a glass of cidre, or alcoholic cider. My lunch crêpe included smoked salmon, fresh cream, chives, and lemon. Bob's sweet crêpe was covered in home-made caramel, also a traditional Bretagne food. The best part was that all of this food was cheap! Besides being on the coast, hosting fantastic fresh seafood, and being home to crêpes, this place is inexpensive! Man, we really need to get out of the city more.

After our great lunch, we explored the town. Filled with tiny streets that curve and twist, revealing new treasures around every bend, we let ourselves get lost. Sometimes the town felt like an Escher painting; we'd walk up a flight of stairs only to find ourselves in a courtyard we had just climbed from! We walked on top of the city walls, which afforded us beautiful views of the coast. "You know, Bobby," I said, "I think I want to retire here."*

After a very long stroll, we were ready for dinner. After reading that the region in well-known for its seafood, we were excited to see what the many restaurants offered. At around 7:30, we walked around, checking out the menus of different places. They all looked good, but they were all empty! Many years of traveling by both us and our parents has taught us that you don't eat at an empty restaurant. But it seemed like all the restaurants were empty. "They can't all be bad," we reasoned, so we picked on with a nice set menu and went inside. My meal started with soupe de poisson, or fish stew. Bob began with a terrine plate. Both were delicious.

Our main course was mussels and fries, a delicious combination. After eating the mussels, we dipped our fries into the onion and wine sauce that the mussels had been steamed in. All of this was accompanied by a Kir Bretagne. Unlike regular kir (white wine with a flavored syrup), Kir Bretagne is made with cidre. We ended the meal with a shared frommage plate and a plum cake. All for under 30 euros! By the time we were finished with our meal, most of the restaurants were busy. We've noticed this in Paris as well. It seems like many of the French take a very late dinner by our American standards. It is not uncommon to be invited to a dinner party that doesn't start until 8pm or later. We will have to work on adjusting our body clocks.

We ended our first day in St. Malo with moonlight meander through the ancient streets. How appropriate.

*Don't worry. I say this a lot when I'm in a beautiful place. I now want to retire to Hawai'i, Ireland, Maisons-Laffitte, and now St. Malo. I'm going to be a very busy retiree.

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