From the National Geographic Explorer in Europe
Sep 28, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
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.