Welcome back to our drive-away on the routes of Normandy where we continue our trip. When we published the previous article we were in Vire, so let’s drive east towards the coast in a place called Avranches.
In recent history Avranches was one of the locks of the Atlantic wall, but the city is roughly two-millennia-old. Originally inhabited by the Abrincatui around the 1st century BC a Roman city was built to replace the Celtic Oppidum (Fortified City), this city would be called Legedia and would be destroyed by Saxon pirates in 280 AD. Once rebuilt it was integrated into the “Litus Saxonicum”, the defensive system set up during the late empire to repel the Saxon invasions. By the end of the 5th century the place becomes the episcopal see of the area.
The city enjoyed relative prosperity till the the Viking invasions. For about a century the area entered recession until the establishment of the Duchy of Normandy by Rollo in 918 AD. By 990 AD a Norman Bishop is installed by Robert “The Magnificent” father of William the Conqueror, the same who will downgrade this county into a viscounty. In 1055, Richard Goz is chosen by William to rule the viscounty in reward of its loyalty to the Duke. His son, Hugh will be granted the county of Chester following the English conquest by the Normans.
During the 11th century a large number of Italian intellectuals flooded the area following the conquest of Sicily. By the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman kings wish to unite Brittany and their wide empire, however in 1199 with the death of Richard the Lionheart the Dukes of Brittany swear their allegiance to Philip II of France, furious about the allegiance oath John Lackland has the Duke captured and executed, these actions opened a breach for the French Kings to invade and conquer Normandy. From that point Avranches will become a Royal stronghold and will be surrounded by solid walls. Since that moment and until the 1560s Avranches enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, however the “religious tensions” between Huguenots and Catholics led to a siege that led the “Holy League” troops to capitulate. A century later new tensions appeared around taxation and led to an uprising against Richelieu, who crushed it leading to the massacre of the population. The city was spared from war for roughly three centuries until the Normandy landings that destroyed most of the old city.
When visiting Avranches some landmarks cannot be missed such as:
The Grand-Doyenné (Lord’s manor)
The “Scriptorial” (Mont-Saint-Michel’s Manuscripts Museum)
If you are hungry we suggest you go to the restaurant Les Pieds dans le Plat located next to the Basilique Saint Gervais.
If you feel like spending the night in the city we recommend the 3-star Hotel-Restaurant de la Croix d’Or in addition you will be able to enjoy a fantastic gastronomical menu in the hotel.
Now let’s drive towards the picturesque island-abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel. Take the D456 and get on the N175 in Le Val-Saint-Père, take the exit towards the D40 and follow the direction “Le Mont St Michel” and enter the D43, when in Courtil follow the D75/D275 and then follow the signs, you cannot miss it. The journey should roughly take ½ an hour.
Let yourself be stunned by the beauty of the skyline rising from the sea, built on a tidal island the fortified abbey is a jewel of medieval architecture. Originally known as “Mont Tombe” (Mount Grave), the place was a sanctuary to a pagan god where a stone was used as a sacrificial altar. This pagan sanctuary will be replaced by a first oratory dedicated to Michael the Archangel as early as 709 AD. The mount was bound to the bishop’s seal of Avranches since the times of Charlemagne. Two Dukes of Britanny coming from the House of Rennes have been buried in the abbey. In 1204, the Breton people led by Guy de Thouars burnt the abbey under English Rule as retaliation for the assassination of the Duke by John Lackland. The Island was inhabited by clerics since 709, first as a sanctuary and then granted Abbey status by Duke Richard I of Normandy. However the abbey was closed down between 1791 and 1966. During the Hundred-Years War the abbey was the prize of fierce fights between France and England. In 1433, a fire broke out destroying part of the village of isle, seizing the opportunity Thomas de Scales led the English troops on a massive attack during the low tide, but were repelled abandoning part of their artillery. Since the 11th century the isle was also used as a prison. Between 1791 and 1966 the abbey was abandoned, during the French revolution it was even used as a state prison for priests and royalists and was slowly left to deteriorate. However, in 1874 the abbey was classified as “Monument Historique” (French Equivalent of Grade I listing)
As you will be probably hungry and tired after such long stroll in the narrow streets of the isle, we recommend that you have a nice meal at the Hotel-Restaurant La Mère Poulard, it is a real institution of Mont-Saint-Michel. It is a bit expensive but a unique experience, in addition it will offer you the opportunity to try the famous biscuits that have made it famous.
Once you are ready to hit the road we suggest you take the coastal road to Saint-Malo, last stop of your trip across Normandy, get on the D976 to Pontorson, then switch to the D19 towards St Malo/Dinan, then switch to the D976 and then get on the D997 which will become the D797, after La Grève switch to the D155 which will take you to the outskirts of “La cité corsaire” (The Privateer city)
Even though Saint Malo is in Britanny you need to go there to take the ferry back home so we have decided to guide you around the city while you are waiting to board.
The city was founded by the Coriosolites but not on the exact location of where it is now, while Saint Malo is an island the first settlers decided to settle in Alet just in front. Becoming an important trade port the Romans decided to fortify it by the end of the 3rd century but when the legions withdrew in 423 AD, Alet endured many attacks from the North. Around the 5th century Saint Malo settled in the isle that would later take his name, seven years after casting off from Wales on a journey to search heaven on Earth. Malo quickly became the bishop of the city, the Middle-Ages were quite calm even though the was constant rivalry between the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Brittany.
The period ranging from the 16th to the 18th century was the golden age of the city with the presence of explorers like Jacques Cartier and the development of the cod fishing industry. Saint Malo also became the haven of the French privateers with names like Duguay-Trouin or Surcouf but its rise would be stopped by the Revolution. During the Normandy landings Saint Malo was destroyed by allied bombs razing roughly 80% of the city, but to keep its unique looks all the buildings were rebuilt in the style of the Vauban style ramparts.
When in Saint Malo do not forget to visit:
The City Museum of History
The Jacques Cartier Museum
If you want a nice final meal we recommend you try the mussels at the Hotel-Restaurant La Gardelle.
Enjoy a final stroll on the quays before boarding and we wish you a safe journey home