Saint-Malo: All the Light We Cannot See

Teen says…

My mom read a book she loved so much she wanted to share it with us. During our road trip, on the stretches between destinations, we’ve been listening to All the Light We Cannot See , by Anthony Doerr. For those of you who have read the book, you may recall how the majority of the book takes place in old-town Saint-Malo, France. For this reason, we have all been looking forward to coming here, to see where the writer got his inspiration. Maybe even to see No. 4 Rue Vauborel for ourselves.

Unfortunately, I felt that historic Saint-Malo as a whole, had passed its hayday; it no longer carried the charm of an old French, walled city that we had anticipated. It was interesting to see the town because good books are always the best inspirations but I see why most people only spend the day here. Yes, they have some pretty good restaurants, yes, it’s surrounded by good beaches with pretty warm ocean currents, and yes, it has an awesome ice cream shop with an endless list of flavors and huge portions, but charm-and-activity-wise for a teen, It’s a bit lacking.

Huge portion sizes at Sanchez

Mom says…

In 2015 I read a book so captivating I couldn’t put it down; so encompassing, when I finished it, I felt aimless and bereft. The book was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. It’s an incredibly well researched, poetically written and deeply moving tale of two figures divided by a horrific history. Much of the book is based in Saint-Malo, France and focuses on the town’s near total destruction in August 1944, when ally forces bombed 3/4 of the town to liberate it from German occupation.

I was determined someday to visit Saint-Malo, to see for myself this story of total ruin to resurrection. Sadly, Saint-Malo has not risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Instead, after a 16-year rebuild, from 1944-1960, Saint-Malo has only succeeded in replacing it’s buildings but not in re-establishing its romantic stronghold as a fortified city harboring Corsairs, partisans and shell-loving girls.

A few scars remain from the 1944 liberation bombing of Saint Malo, like this in repaired block at the corner of Place Vauban.

Today, the town is choked not by The ruble from ally bombs but instead—even in the era of COVID—by tourists and vehicles, the numbers of which it wasn’t designed to support. Entering through the city gate felt like being swallowed by a granite kraken; tall, grey buildings and narrow, emotionless alleys. I wandered the ramparts and narrow city streets looking for the heart of old Saint-Malo but I did not succeeded in finding it. Instead, what you will find, should you choose to visit Saint-Malo, is: copious day-trippers, streets lined with high-priced souvenir shops and boutiques, a bounty of crêperies and bistros and, up on the city walls, majestic views of the horizon and all the light you cannot see from below.


2 thoughts on “Saint-Malo: All the Light We Cannot See

  1. Absolutely loved that book. Sad to hear of your findings, but, as is true of so many places in Europe, there are too many tourists !!!!!


    1. Too many tourists is usually the case but definitely not this year. We really felt like Paris was empty. I think everyone (or at least all of the French) must have been in Saint Malo. I can’t imagine how busy or touristy it must be during non-COVID times


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