Dinan – a Medieval Gem of Brittany

Dinan – a Medieval Gem of Brittany

Our friends from Finland spent a couple of unforgettable spring weeks with us in Brittany. March was the perfect time to do a little roadtripping, as it was nice to see some of the most popular attractions outside the busy tourist season, and enjoy the wonderful, historical places in somewhat more peace and quiet. Last time I wrote about our visit to the island monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Now we will continue our trip to a delightful medieval town of Dinan.

Shopping street with the tower of l’Horloge in the background. This bell tower from the 15th century is the tallest building in Dinan, and affords wonderful views of the river valley.

The city of Dinan at the crossroads of a major highway and the river Rance has always been strategically situated. It’s built high on the side of a hill, about 30 km (20 miles) inland from Saint-Malo. Once a Gallic fort, then a Roman garrison, it was fortified in the 13th century. The city walls and ramparts are almost completely preserved, with 10 of originally 14 towers still standing, as well as four city gates. The length of the entire wall is 2,7 km. The handsomest part of the structure is the Castle of Dinan, also known as the Keep of Duchess Anne.

Anne (1477-1514, Anne de Bretagne, Anna Breizh) was the duchess of Brittany, who during her short life was married to two French kings, namely Charles VIII, and his successor, Louis XII. She was a symbol of the independent Duchy of Brittany, which became a part of France after her death.

Today the castle is a museum, but it was still on winter break during our visit.

Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures.

Before the French Revolution, Brittany was a flourishing centre of flax (linen) trade for a couple of hundred years. One of the biggest trading ports was Saint-Malo, and Dinan profited greatly from its situation along the waterway. The flax was shipped to Spain, Portugal and England, and further on to the American continents. Flax was gradually replaced by cotton, but in its heyday it was used not just for clothes, but also sails for ships.

The old trading harbour is nowadays a marina for pleasure boats. You can get there on a fairly big boat – we saw a few sizable powerboats and several sailboats in the 30 ft range. You can actually travel by boat to the Atlantic from here, via Rennes and along the river Vilaine, but this is where you take down the mast.

I bet the harbour office in this marina is the oldest (and most beautiful) in existence, see for yourself below!

A long and narrow, winding street called rue du Jerzual leads from the harbour into the town centre. It’s one of the most photographed places in France, and it’s not really a wonder! The burgher houses date back to the 14th to 17th centuries. Half-timbered gables, towers, shingles and slate roofs abound! The houses lean each in their preferred direction, and behind the old shop windows you can now see fashion shops, art galleries, and – since we are in the heart of Brittany – crêperies.

We stopped in one of them for lunch. For the main course, you have a gallette, a thin pancake made of brown buckwheat and with savoury toppings, and for dessert a crêpe, the same thing made of wheat and sweet toppings. The best drink to wash it all down is a genuine Breton cider. The first sip often takes you by surprise, with its robust earthy aromas, but once your receptors get used to it, the traditional drink is really good.

In the summer this place must be swarming with tourists. Even now, in March, there were quite a few of us, mostly admiring and wandering around with our mouths open. Still, it didn’t feel like a historical pleasure ground, but a very authentic town where people are happily living their everyday lives.

Someone was hanging clothes to dry, an older lady was potting flowers in her garden, and as we passed, a truck came and dumped a load of firewood on the street, next to somebody’s gate. If there ever comes a time to trade our floating home for a house again, I wouldn’t mind one of these!

A little rain shower will not interrupt shopping in these old streets.

There are two large medieval churches in Dinan, this one is the Basilique du Saint-Saveur (the Holy Saviour) from the 1120’s.

Next, we continued our journey from the inland back to marine landscapes. More about that soon!

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