St Malo, the ancient walled coastal city in Brittany where beach, pirates, sailboats and Breton pancakes rule the day.
“Corsairs. The very name conjures up swashbuckling derring-do; ruthless crews in swift, silent ships, swooping in to rob and pillage, then stealing away to their safe harbours and secret hideaways… in St Malo.
Yes, St Malo – the pretty, walled city, ferry port and gateway to Brittany for thousands of British tourists. The town owed much of its early prosperity to its fierce and fearless seafarers who opened up the French spice trade in the East Indies – ranging as far from home as South America and the Falklands. (The islands’ Spanish name, Las Malvinas, comes from Iles Malouines, after a short-lived settlement there.)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, under letters of marque from the king of France (who shared their booty), the corsairs of St Malo roved the seas taking whatever they wanted from English, Dutch and Portuguese ships unfortunate enough to encounter them. Robert Surcouf, one of the town’s more illustrious sons, was famous for single-handedly killing 11 men in a duel with 12, leaving the last man alive to tell the tale.
The privateers, or pirates, of St Malo, left their mayhem at sea. Back home, in the outskirts of the walled town, they built fine country houses, called malouinières, and lived the lives of country gentlemen. A few of the 60 surviving malouinières, all within seven and a half milesn (12km), or two hours by horse from the port, are open to the public until the end of October.
Locals prefer to think of their corsairs as merchant traders. Marie Hélène Chauveau, owner of la Ville Bague, spent her teenage years in the Midlands, which may account for her British sense of humour and the statue of Long John Silver, complete with parrot, at the foot of her drive. Before leading visitors around a broad lawn to the mansion, she detours into a makeshift armoury to demonstrate gleefully a bloodthirsty collection of 18th-century weapons and tools of destruction.
The house, a 10-minute drive from St Malo in St Coulomb, dates from 1715. A typical malouinière, it consists of three large ground-floor rooms, with an upper floor of smaller chambers and a private area beneath a characteristically steep, pitched roof. Malouinières were built by local workmen inspired by the military architecture of St Malo. They have a rough-and-ready feel, compared with grand chateaux found elsewhere in northern France. The steep roofs were often constructed by ships’ carpenters and resemble the upturned keels of sailing ships.” read more here.
images © Vanessa and Michael Lewis