From the National Geographic Explorer in Europe

Sep 28, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer

The walled city of St. Malo

St Malo

Our voyage along the western coast of continental Europe is a cultural kaleidoscope. Today sees us in the inner harbor of St Malo, a very particular community in Brittany, itself one of the proudly distinctive entities of the much-talked-about “Europe of the Region”’ that has been an unfolding story over recent decades.

The Bretons owe their origin to the great migrations of European peoples that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe at the beginning of the fifth century. As Angles and Saxons from the area to the south of Lübeck (our first port of call on this voyage) moved to settle along the eastern shores of Britain, their Germanic dialects established dominance over the area that was to become England. Culturally threatened, some of the native British moved across the channel to join their similarly-Romanised Gaulish cousins to establish a “Little Britain” in this western peninsula of continental Europe.

Brittany has always faced the sea, with a long and distinguished maritime tradition that includes the likes of Jacques Cartier. The last meeting of the surviving Cape Horners, elderly survivors of the age of sail, took place in St Malo at the end of the twentieth century. The Falkland Islands were originally settled by fisherman from St Malo, the French name for the islands, les Iles Malouines, subsequently going into Spanish as Las Malvinas. Inland, the country people rarely strayed from their parish of birth, with the population still largely monoglot Breton-speakers on the eve of the Great War. Since the end of the Second World War, the language has declined catastrophically but there are signs that it may at least be saved through the Diwan movement for Breton-medium schools that have increased in popularity in recent years.

Our morning visit took many of us to the architectural jewel of Mont St Michel that is being restored to its historic isolation by a gigantic wetlands restoration project. Soon the causeway built in the nineteenth century to connect the island to the mainland will be replaced by an elegant bridge allowing the tidal waters to flush out a century of silt deposits. Afternoon options included a tour of the restored intra-muros city of St Malo where, at the Town Hall by the St Vincent Gate, we saw the town flag flying proudly above the French tricolor: for St Malo is one of only two towns in France to have the right to do this, a further example of its particularity. Participants in a long hike along the coast at Cap Frëhel were rewarded with fresh local oysters and wine on the aft-deck following their return.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales.  Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally.  He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world.  In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals.  In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City).  He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

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