Emerald Coast is a gem St.-Malo: Once an independent nation, this city on the coast of Brittany in northwest France is charming, historic and cheap.

January 21, 1996|By Barry Zwick | Barry Zwick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Another misty day in Brittany and no way to spend my big wad of francs. All I could do was drink Campari for 20 cents a shot, bicycle through the medieval lanes of this ancient walled city, jog atop the great stone ramparts, wade into the English Channel, play low-roller games in the casino, chow down cheap crepes or quenelles, board the mini-train at the city gates or take the sea shuttle to the posh resort town of Dinard.

Then again, I could listen to the free brass band at Place Chateaubriand; walk out to the Petit Be before the 50-foot tide turned it into an island; shop for UCLA Bearwear or Levis for less than they cost at home, or take the bargain bus to the abbey at Mont St.-Michel, an hour's drive to the east.

I ended up doing it all. I could not waste any time. After all, my first-class hotel room was setting me back $75 a night.

Here, in northwest France, a mainly low-budget crowd from northern France and Britain's Channel Islands shares unbelievable values on France's Emerald Coast, the Poor Man's Riviera that stretches east/west along the channel north of Rennes.

Within the 90 blocks of cobblestoned alleys in the heart of the Old City lies a wonderland of chocolatiers, charcuteries, boulangeries and brasseries, towered over by the striking St. Vincent Cathedral. When I visited, tourists in shorts were lying on the floor of this heavy, Gothic church, staring up in awe at the majestic vaulting in the 12th-century nave.

St.-Malo was not always just a cute little fishing village. For four years, beginning in 1590, it was a free and independent nation, with its own parliament. It sent ambassadors to the capitals of Europe, and pirates to England. In time it became a world leader in piracy and remained so until the 19th century. It remains a free-spirited, spunky little city. Its coat of arms proclaims, "Ni Francais, ni Breton, Malouin suis." I am neither a Frenchman nor a Breton, but a man of St.-Malo.

Every Saturday night during the summer, St.-Malo sets off fireworks and puts on a lighthearted sound-and-light show in the courtyard of city hall, the former castle of Duchess Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), to commemorate the golden years of independence and the glorious centuries of piracy.

On an excursion train tour I took to orient myself to the confusing rabbit warren of twisting streets in the Old City, the driver proudly referred to St.-Malo as the "corsair city." The tour, conducted in French and English, began at the gates to the city and rolled on rubber tires for half an hour past the former homes of pirates, patriots, priests and explorers. Shopkeepers and little children waved to us.

Local assets

Whatever one might feel about the residents elsewhere in France, in St.-Malo they are positively an asset, in fact a joy. Their courtesy and unrelenting cheerfulness were, for me, wondrous to behold after four days in Paris. (My last memory of Paris was being yelled at by a jeering mob for letting the door of a coin-operated pay toilet close behind me as I left.)

After the train ride, I stepped into Le Charly's Bar on Place du Marche aux Legumes and ordered Campari. The bartender filled a 5-ounce wine glass to the brim and charged me five francs, about 90 cents at that day's rate of exchange. In Paris, I had paid 35 francs, more than $6, for a single shot no bigger than a thumbnail.

As a before-dinner drinking crowd surged into the Place Chateaubriand and then into the byways, I took refuge at the Pub L'Encrier, Bar Mexicain. There was nothing visibly Mexican about it, certainly not the men playing darts in the front, the PTC big-screen TV blasting MTV or the French woman holding court, drinking coffee and tonic and smoking a cigar. At a time when the dollar elsewhere in France wasn't going very far, a Tuborg here cost me $2.50. It had cost more than $7 in Paris.

Dining pleasure

For dinner I chose a romantic restaurant that was frozen in ages past. At Faisan Dore, the Golden Pheasant, I ordered the kind of classical meal that hasn't been served in Paris for a generation, certainly not in such generous quantities, and certainly not for the $18 I paid.

In the morning, the sun was shining, the air was cool and the beaches were packed. Taking advantage of the low tide -- at high tide there would be 40 to 50 feet of water -- families hiked out to the Petit Be to tour the 17th-century Fort National, a massive fortress with a dungeon, and teen-agers shrieked in the seawater pool. A few souls braved the 20-minute walk out to the Grande Be, where St.-Malo native son Francois Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) is buried. Chateaubriand is best known to us as a piece of meat, but in St.-Malo he is hailed as a great Romantic novelist.

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