by Julie H. Ferguson
I glimpse St-Malo from the sea just as Jacques Cartier did on his voyages home from the New World in the sixteenth century: the sun illuminates the old town behind its medieval ramparts and towers. I’m riding the early morning ferry from Dinard across the Rance Estuary for a day trip to explore how St-Malo remembers Cartier, a native son. This town has bred explorers and seafarers for over 500 years and Cartier discovered Canada on July 24, 1534.
As I walk just inside the walls, St-Malo’s granite mansions tower above me – from their upper floors, merchants of old kept watch for their heavy-laden ships returning from the Indies and Peru. I start my search at the Musée d’histoire de la ville in the Great Keep of St-Malo’s castle, which is now city hall, but I find little of Jacques Cartier here.
However, I know the history I seek will be in the cathedral. These millennia-spanning sacred places hold the stories of communities’ celebrations and calamities the world over. As I climb, its spire leads me onward through streets seething with tourists. Buskers entertain at every crossroad, delicious aromas waft from cafés and bakeries, and boutiques beckon…
St-Vincent’s does not disappoint. I gaze at a vast stained glass window back-lit by the morning light. It depicts the Bishop of St-Malo blessing Cartier before his first voyage to the New World. It is a replica of the original dedicated in 1958 after the destruction of the cathedral in World War II. A plaque donated by Quebec in the floor marks the exact spot where Cartier knelt to receive his blessing. Jacques Cartier’s simple tomb, discovered beneath the rubble of war, is adorned with fresh flowers today—someone cares. Cartier died aged 66 in his own bed in Limoëlou, northeast of St. Malo, which has a museum well worth visiting.
I hunt for a crêperie for lunch as I love the paper-thin Breton pancakes, both sweet and savoury. I visit the crêpe chef and try my hand at swirling the runny whole-wheat batter on the griddle with a wooden scraper. It’s not easy. My Crêpe Cartier arrives smothered in flaked almonds and maple syrup, and I want to lick the plate.
To walk off lunch, I circle the ramparts. On the western rampart I find a statue of Cartier—as no one knows what he looked like, his face is guesswork. Cartier leans into the wind and waves, his hand on a wooden tiller, his eyes on the horizon. A plaque here tells me that Pierre Trudeau unveiled it 1984 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Cartier’s discovery of Canada, but it does not mention it was in the name of France.
I scan the horizon too and imagine Cartier’s top-heavy carrack, La Grande Hermine with all sails set, bobbing like a cork into the English Channel. Canadians may claim Jacques Cartier, but I’m delighted that we also share him with the citizens of St-Malo who honour their intrepid seafarers today as much as they did in 1534.
© Julie H. Ferguson 2012
If you go:
- Best months to visit: May, June, and September.
- Weather – unpredictable, even in summer.
- I prefer to stay in Dinard as St-Malo is overcrowded in summer and the hotels intra muros, within the walls, can be noisy.
- Old St-Malo is not readily accessible for those with mobility issues.
St-Malo tourist office has all you need to know about accommodation, restaurants, tours, museums, activities, etc.
Jacques Cartier Museum, Limoëlou Manor, Rotheneuf
Dinard-St-Malo ferry takes 10 minutes; €6.90 return. This company also offers good local cruise tours.
About the author:
Julie H. Ferguson is an addicted travel writer and photographer who is intensely interested in the history and culture of foreign lands, as well as Canada, and her stories and images reflect this focus. She never leaves home without her cameras and voice recorder, always looking for the colour and sounds that captivate readers everywhere.
Julie is also the author of twenty-six books, including four about Canadian history and seventeen travel-photo portfolios. Her travel articles and images have appeared in global markets, both print and online.