Saint-Malo is a city on the French Brittany coast, famed for once being the home of the corsairs and its enormous tidal range. The city has a walled old part called Intra Muros, within the walls, which is crammed full of historical sights and atmospheric lanes.
Set mostly within the ramparts of this old city, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr takes full advantage of a locale where times seems to have stood still.
The book’s story takes place during World War II and tells the tale of a blind, young girl called Marie-Laure, who escaped Paris with her father to shelter in Saint-Malo, and a German boy of similar age called Werner, whose just-as-haunting experiences of the war are set against those of the girl.
As the story is told from the perspective of a blind person, the descriptions of the places are even more important, and the entire walled city of Saint-Malo is brought to life superbly by the author, so much so that even if you haven’t visited, you feel that you know your way around.
Visiting, though, is even better: You can follow in Marie-Laure’s footsteps and see the sights she experienced through touch, sound, and smell, and even taste.
To prepare, read or re-read the book so that it is fresh in your mind as you step through the fortified gates and back in time in Saint-Malo. If you are still reading, I will try not to give too much away as I share these special Saint-Malo sites.
4 Rue Vauborel
This is the address of the house in which Marie-Laure and her father seek shelter with Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle Etienne LeBlanc and his housekeeper Madame Manec. Six floors tall with an all-important attic, it should be easy to find. On the northwestern end of the walled city, close to the Bastion Saint-Philipe and the long path out to the lighthouse Phare Mole des Noires, lies the narrow Rue Vauborel. Alas, while the house number exists, the exact house is very much in the author’s imagination. But you can certainly see where he got his inspiration; the tall buildings are very unique and typical of Saint-Malo’s Intra Muros.
Pro Tip: Did you know that in medieval times, the wealthiest citizens lived in the heart of walled Saint-Malo, whereas today everybody wants a sea-view home?
Entrance To The Beach
Steps away from Rue Vauborel lies the Poterne D’Estrees, the gate that leads from the road through the ramparts to the beach. Madame Manec shows Marie-Laure the way and Marie-Laure experiences the ocean, the coast, the roar of the waves, the smell of the sea for the first time. She touch-explores the tidal pools and collects shells, which her Uncle Etienne teaches her more about.
In the chapter entitled “The Rounds,” Marie-Laure’s way from the house to the beach reads like this: “Twenty-two paces to the intersection with the Rue d’Estrees. Forty more to the little gate. Nine steps down and she’s on the sand and the twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her.”
Pro Tip: The beach is a lovely place for sunset.
The Island Of Grand Be
Whenever Marie-Laure and Madame Manec go to the beach, they sit close to the Island of Grand Be, one of two tidal islands that are exposed and accessible at low tide. Grand Be houses the tomb of Saint-Malo-born writer Francois-Auguste-Rene de Chateaubriand.
Pro Tip: Do walk out to the island at low tide, but make sure you return in good time as the tidal range here is nearly 40 feet, and the water comes in fast.
Fort National On The Island Of Petit Be
While you are exploring the two tidal islands at low tide, arrange a tour of the Fort National, which was, in the book and in real life, a prison under German occupation. Reportedly, in August 1944, 380 locals were locked up by the Germans, without food, for six days. You can only enter as part of a tour, and the history lesson ties in nicely with your retracing of Marie-Laure’s steps through Saint-Malo.
Pro Tip: Plan your visit such that it coincides with low tide.
Cathedral Of Saint-Malo
The chapter entitled “In the Attic” begins, “For all of Marie-Laure’s four years in Saint-Malo, the bells at St. Vincent’s have marked the hours. But now the bells have ceased.” The Cathedral of Saint-Malo in the Parish of Saint Vincent within Intra Muros, is in fact, the church of St. Vincent. Dating back to the 1100s, the steeple of the church was bombed and damaged in WWII, quieting the bells.
Pro Tip: Inside the cathedral you can find the tomb of local Jacques Cartier, who “discovered” Canada.
The Locked Grotto
This secret cave full of snails, set right in the ramparts (and whose key Marie-Laure was entrusted with by Crazy Hubert Bazin), really is quite a magical place. Difficult to find, it truly is a hidden grotto. Just behind the current Hotel Les Chiens du Guet, which translates as Hotel The Watchdogs, next to a larger red door, lies the small entrance to the grotto, locked by a metal gate.
The Bastion de la Hollande was built in the late 1600s in the same spot and was guarded by 24 English Mastiffs, who were let loose in the old town each night and whose kennel was in the grotto.
Pro Tip: Go up from this spot to the ramparts to read the historical marker and see the canons left over from the Bastion.
“Twenty-two paces down the Rue Vauborel. Then right for sixteen storm drains. Turn left on the rue Robert Surcouf. Nine more drains to the bakery.“ Sounds straightforward, but in the real Saint-Malo, it is not that easy. Trying to find the bakery that plays such an important role in All the Light We Cannot See is impossible without a house number, or an actual boulangerie still in its place. It could have been the place that is now a piercing parlor, or where the pizzeria now is. That’s fiction for you.
Pro Tip: Do not fret for too long; just around the corner on Rue Broussais lies the quirky Cargo Culte, a cafe cum antiques shop, a perfect place to stop for a lunch and a coffee before heading onward.
Saint-Malo’s largest square, right at the main entrance to the walled city, is mentioned regularly throughout the book, be it when Marie-Laure and her father arrive, when they sit and watch the Germans drive in, as the place where the posters calling for the surrender of all firearms are displayed on the ancient trees, or as part of the daily route Madame Manec takes around the neighborhood.
The square is perfect for people watching and is incredibly impressive, with the Chateau de Saint-Malo towering over it and the pretty Hotel Chateaubriand to the side. Alas, it is a parking lot as well, but you can simply imagine the scene from the book’s chapter “Etienne:” “Sunlight flashes from the hood ornaments and chrome fittings as the little procession grinds to a stop on the ringed gravel drive in front of the soaring lichen-streaked walls of the Chateau de Saint-Malo.”
Pro Tip: Climb up to the top of the tower in the castle for superb views across the roofs.
The Hotel Of Bees
Werner had been surviving for four days under the rubble of his hideout, the Hotel of Bees, when he first hears the radio transmission of Marie-Laure, thinking he is delirious. The Hotel of Bees, which was described as having bright-blue shutters and selling ice cream in its cafe, sadly does not exist in Saint-Malo. That said, it was located on Rue de la Crosse, as is the Hotel Porte St Pierre, with its restaurant opposite, selling, among other things, ice cream. So, with a little bit of imagination, this will do nicely.
Pro Tip: The hotel is a simple, low-cost option if you are looking for a place to stay. Ask for a sea-view room on the upper floors, which look out across the ramparts with unparalleled views of the islands and the ocean.
I hope you enjoy following in the footsteps of Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo, reliving this amazing book in an amazing setting. Spending the night? Here are my recommendations for how to spend a perfect day in Saint-Malo.