I have taken you to the riverside village of Dinan before on this blog. It is sometimes called “the prettiest town in Brittany,” so it certainly holds an allure for us. It takes about 20 minutes from our Dinard apartment to drive to Dinan, located on the Rance, where the river narrows. Earlier in the week we took the pilgrimage for the first time since moving here. Rick Steves recommends that if you have the chance to visit only one place in Brittany, choose Dinan. Here the tourist destination is not particular buildings, but the whole town itself. It is one of the most authentically preserved places anywhere.
The old town is filled with half timbered buildings, many dating from the thirteenth century. The cobbled streets add charm and atmosphere. Most of the original city walls are still standing and there is a fourteenth century castle open to the public. If it weren’t for the cars, one could certainly be transported back to the Middle Ages without having to exert much imagination. Many of the buildings have upper floors that substantially overhang the ground floor, adding a lot of interest. Apparently taxes for home owners in Medieval times were calculated from the square footage of the bottom floor only. I wonder how many clever solutions have been developed down through the ages to save on taxes?
Historically, Dinan was a strategic Channel port, connecting France with England and Holland. The Rance River at that time was open to the sea, of course, and existed before the port of San Malo. As ships got bigger, however, Dinan became impractical, St. Malo built up it’s port and became the primary landing spot, which it remains to this day. It wasn’t until the port of Dinan lost relevance for European trade, in the Middle Ages, that the walled city on the hill, now the main attraction, began to be settled. The town now overlooks the river, rather than being built on its shores, which is perhaps more typical.
The rue du Petit Fort, a 750 meter long street which leads from the town above to the port below, drops 75 meters (300 ft.) in that short distance. It is a very steep but agreeable stroll past charmingly preserved buildings along well maintained cobbles. Dinan is designated a city of art and history. Many craftsmen make Dinan their home and there are dozens of galleries and crafter’s shops along this road. Dinan began a concerted effort to preserve their town and historic buildings at the very beginning of the twentieth century, before most cities and citizens were thinking about such things. During WWII the town was spared. While St. Malo was turned into a rubble, Dinan was not touched. This good fortune, along with the inherent Breton pride of its inhabitants, has kept the town as a true authentic relic of the past. But at the same time, it is also a living, working town where 11,000 people make their home.
I particularly like the port, which is relatively quiet. There isn’t room for many boats, so the scene is down to earth, not flashy or show-offy. We took a nice long stroll along the water’s edge and watched as the local sailors worked on their boats. We met a dog who was lying on deck and greeting people as they strolled past. The restaurants were all closed due to COVID, but one can imagine the happy tourists as they lounge on the riverside once the weather and situation permit. We actually talked to the harbor master in his office, which was open when we walked by. We were trying to discover if it would be possible to launch our kayaks from the port. He assured us we could. It’s pleasant to imagine a paddle either down or up the river.
Dinan has a completely different ambiance than Dinard, just a few miles downstream. Ocean and river towns. I like them both. I’m “saying my gratefuls” as my grandchildren sometimes do, to live, at least temporarily, in such a rich environment. It’s so nice to be near water.