The Emerald Coast is a stretch of Brittany coastline running broadly from the famous Mont St. Michel in the east to Cap d’Erquy in the west; a distance of nearly 200 miles. Starting in 2016, Sue and I walked the entire path. We completed it in two – week-long – sections; east from St. Malo to Mont St. Michel, and west from St. Malo to Cap d’Erquy.
St. Malo is an obvious starting point if you live in the UK. There is a daily ferry service from Southampton, which takes you there overnight and back during the day. Relatively inexpensive for foot passengers, the journey takes around eight hours; and you get to sail past many of the islands in the Channel; including the Isle of Wight, Jersey, Guernsey and Cezanne. On arrival you can look around the walled city before starting your hike.
The name ‘Emerald Coast’ is a relatively recent invention, being thought up for marketing the area in the 20th century. It refers to the noticeably green seas around the coast, made verdant by abundant sea-life. Traditionally, the area was known as the ‘Clos Poulet‘ or chicken coup, a particularly unappealing name corrupted from the Latin ‘Pagus Aleti’ (Alet’s Land).
Brittany derives its name from the settlers from Britain who came to the area from the fourth century onward, possibly, to escape the encroaching Anglo-Saxons who were colonising what was to become England from the east. Hence the region shares much in common culturally with the English west country, Wales and Cumbria. The, now rarely spoken, native tongue of Breton shares much in common with Welsh and other Celtic languages. More apparent is a shared love for Arthurian legend and general mysticism.
The climate is generally similar to that of southern England, although perhaps a degree or two warmer on average. Rainfall is frequent, although we only had one day of really torrential rain in our two separate weeks in the region. The following walk was in late June 2017.
Sunday: Guimorais to Point du Grouin (around eight miles)
Departing the ferry on Sunday morning, we were met by our taxi driver who took our luggage to our next destination and dropped us off in a small village called Guimorais. We headed towards the coast to join the GR34 (grande randonnee or long-distance footpath) along the coast. Following the path is easy, as it is clearly marked with red and white painted bars at regular intervals.
Aside from the craggy coastline and great views back out across the bay towards St. Malo, perhaps the most notable
sight is Guesclin island. Topped by a medieval fort, now a private house; this small island was once occupied by Henry III King of England, for a brief period in 1207. Site of many battles against the English, and later occupied by Nazi Germany, the island has a rich history.
Crossing the headland, we caught our first glimpse of the Bay of Mt. St. Michel to the east. We then made our way to our first hotel, the Hotel Point du Grouin. From the hotel you could see the craggy islands now serving as wildlife reserves and light-house off the coast.
Monday: Point du Grouin to La Houle (around six miles)
Although, not that far in distance, this was perhaps the most difficult part of the walk. The path led up and down some quite tricky paths, often with a sheer drop to the rocks below to one side. Luckily, the weather was fine so we didn’t risk slipping on the paths. Our walking poles (Sue christened her two which she had borrowed from a friend, John and Charles Wesley) were an invaluable aid on this section.
Resting in the first large bay (Port Mer) I caught my first sight of Mt. St. Michel, barely visible as a small, grey triangle on the horizon. Awkwardly holding my binoculars against my phone’s camera, I was able to snap a first picture. You can see it just to the left of the cliff.
We continued along the coast until reaching the resort of Cancale. Famous for its oysters. Cancale oysters are renowned throughout France and are farmed on large beds just out to sea. I’ve had oysters before, and not enjoyed them. However, my mind was changed by tasting these oysters which, when served with lemon and caramelised onion sauce are delicious.
Walking through Cancale to La Houle, we reached our next stop. Ty Lilli, a nice bed and breakfast on the seafront. In the evening, we dined out on a Breton speciality – gallettes – a savoury pancake filled with various items such as eggs, cheese and ham.
Tuesday: La Houle to Mont-Dol (11 miles)
The next day took us along the ‘polders’ (land reclaimed from the sea) and then inland. The bay of Mt. St. Michel has the largest tides in Europe, with the sea going out over six miles at low tide. The tide moves fast too, at a brisk walking pace of around 4 mph.
The polders were easy and flat walking, but the weather turned very wet as we headed inland towards our next stop; Mont Dol, a small, rocky former island some miles inland. By the time we reached Mont Dol, we were thoroughly soaked.
However, our hotel wouldn’t allow us in until 4.30pm, and as we had arrived by around 3pm we needed to find some shelter. We noticed that the village church was open during the day, so decided to go there. However, we found out that we were in the middle of a requiem mass; but were made to feel welcome.
The rain had started to subside, so we made our way up Mont Dol to a tower with a statue of Mary on top, keeping watch over the local area. We were able to climb to the top and see right out as far Point de Grouin.
On descending the hill, we had dried out and were let into the hotel. The hotel was comfortable, and dinner was served in a separate restaurant. After dinner, drinks were served in the drawing room, all very nice, but a little awkward.
Wednesday: Mont Dol to St. Broladre (11 miles)
We continued our journey inland to first visit the medieval town of Dol de Bretagne. Dominated by a spectacular cathedral, this town is reputed to be the home of ‘House of Stewart’, who became kings and Scotland and later the unified kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Our first stop was the cathedral; dedicated to St. Samson who travelled from Wales to found a monastery on the site in 548. 300 years later work began on building the cathedral, which took another 500 years to complete. (To be fair it was repeatedly destroyed by the Normans, the Vikings and the English.)
After the cathedral we found a very amusing restaurant ‘The Round Table‘; with a number of Arthurian themed dishes and drinks, including ‘Lady of the Lake’ gallettes (seafood if I remember rightly) and Lancelot beer.
We next headed further inland and found the ancient ‘menhir’ (standing stone) not far from the town. This gigantic stone had been placed there during the stone age. (Asterix fans, may recall that Obelix made and delivered menhirs for a living!)
Near to the stone, we found a board explaining three legends about this mysterious stone’s origins. Firstly, it was reputed to have been thrown by the Devil from Mont Dol at the cathedral. However, the Devil’s aim wasn’t too good and he overshot by some considerable distance! Secondly, it was believed to have fallen from heaven to stop a battle between two brothers on the field. And finally, legend has it that the stone imperceptibly moves into the ground a little each time someones dies. When it is completely buried, the end of the world will come.
Moving on, we now had to make it to our next stop, La Petite Ange in St. Broladre. As we’d already had quite a packed day, we didn’t arrive until around 7pm. Set in a relaxed farmhouse, we were befriended by the farm cat, who we found sleeping in our suitcase the next morning!
Thursday: St. Broladre to Mont Saint Michel (12 miles)
Our recommended route took us through the hills and then along the river to the bay of Mt. St. Michel. However, we decided to take a short-cut, head for the sea and then simply follow the path towards Mt. St. Michel. When we emerged by the sea, the Mont was now much nearer than when we had last seen it. And it was fascinating to see it gradually approach.
At last we reached the barrage over the River Rance, which drains into the bay, and saw the Mt. St. Michel in all its glory. There are a few hotels on the island, but most visitors stay on the mainland, from where you can either walk to the Mont over a bridge, or catch a free shuttle bus.
We easily found our next accommodation, La Jacoterie, not far from the footpath.
Friday: Mont Saint Michel
Although, Mt. St. Michel is the second most visited tourist attraction in France (after the Eiffel Tower) I’d never been there. Sue had seen it from the road when on a school trip to Normandy though, but hadn’t visited it.
The first big question though is, is the Mt. St. Michel in Brittany or Normandy? This was a highly contentious issue when the Dukes of Normandy vied with those of Brittany for control of this important religious site. The river marks the border between Brittany and Normandy, so as it then flows around the island, an argument could be made for each. However, officially, it’s in Normandy.
Work on Mt. St. Michel started in 709, when the Bishop of the local diocese was instructed by the Archangel Michel to build a shrine in the island. Initially, the bishop refused, but the angel visited him one night, making a hole in in head, to ensure that the bishop got the message. 300 years later, there was a thriving community of Benedictine monks living in abbey on top of the rock.
Construction continued over the next 900 years, with ramparts being built in the 14th century to protect it from siege from the English, and the spire actually not being in place until the late 19th century. Today, and for most of its history, Mt. St. Michel was home to a monastic community; however, after the French Revolution it was converted into a prison, when much of its interior decorations were lost.
We were lucky enough to attend a service of Vespers in the evening, open to the public. Although only 12 monks and nuns live in the abbey, the wonderful acoustics of the building made their voices sound like that of a much larger choir.
Saturday: Guimorais to St. Malo (11 miles)
Having reached our destination, all that remained was to be dropped back off at our initial start point, and then walk back to St. Malo. Going pack onto the rocky coastline was quite different to the flat polders we had walked along for much of our trip.
We reached St. Malo after a few hours walk, and then strolled around the rampart of the town. Our ferry left at around 10am the next morning, and by Sunday afternoon we were back in England, having now completed the Emerald coast path.