Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vacationing with Vauban

Cancale oysters, fresh from the ocean.
Three weeks ago, Nick and I were on the Brittany coast of France, in the town of Cancale, sitting in the sunshine on concrete steps and slurping raw oysters pulled fresh from the ocean, pried open by women who spend their entire day shucking oysters of all sizes and shapes for locals and tourists who visit their stands. There are normal-looking oysters for the ridiculously inexpensive price of 5€ to 8€ a dozen, and there are also oysters for sale as large as your hand that you’ll wonder how in the world people eat without dripping oyster liquor all over themselves. Then there are the briny Plate-Belons, les plates, the flat regional specialties that the women will tell you to eat as they are; you won’t even be allowed to buy a lemon to take away with your douziane. And no matter which stand you buy your huîtres, you’ll hear the same advice: when you’re finished eating, oyster shells get tossed into the sea; lemon rinds and plastic plates and knives go back to the stand.

What a lineup!
When the tide is high, those concrete steps disappear into the ocean. When the tide is out, sailboats sink lazily into the muddy floor of the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel. Nearby, men in waterproof bucket pants work the oyster beds on foot or by tractor, meters from where the fruits of their labor are distributed to happy stomachs. All day long, the silhouette of Mont-Saint-Michel sits on the horizon, an especially breathtaking sight against the tangerine glow of sunrise.

Even though it ends in an “r” – as the best oyster-eating months do – October is the off season in Cancale. Which is why we love it there. It’s the only place we’ve been to twice on vacation while living in Europe. I mean, let’s face it: fall colors + quiet seaside town + cheap, fresh oysters + the most unreal deep turquoise ocean you’ve ever seen, well, that all adds up to a pretty stellar vacation for this household.

Oyster beds in Cancale
Lest you think I’m in cahoots with the Cancale Tourism Office by using fancy phrases like “tangerine glow” to describe the sunrise, this post isn’t actually about my vacation. It’s actually about something interesting I learned while on vacation that ties back to Luxembourg.

(But I’m including a few more Cancale tidbits at the end of the post, in case you want to go.)

Anyway, if I had my way, I’d still be sitting on those concrete stairs right now, chucking oyster shells into the sea. My husband, however, is actually a normal human being who, despite his love of oysters, can only eat so many in one day. So, we added a few non-oyster activities to the list, like a coastal hike and a day trip to nearby Saint-Malo.

On the Port-Briac circuit
We had decided on the Circuit de Port-Briac, an 8.5 km circular path that follows an old customs trail along the coast, turns inland through cabbage fields and forest and then leads back to the upper town of Cancale. We climbed the Pointe des Crolles at the edge of town, investigated a monument to the town’s fallen soldiers from the first and second world wars, and took in the view of Cancale and its oyster beds from above. Trekking up and down the dips and rises of the dirt path, we eventually spotted what looked like some kind of a fort sitting on top of a small rocky outcrop in the ocean. Nick checked the brochure and reported that what we were observing was the Fort des Rimains, constructed in the late 18th century based on plans drawn up by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a battery designed to protect the larger eastern citadel of Saint-Malo.

Vauban? I was surprised. That guy is everywhere.

Fort des Rimains in Cancale
Those of you living in Luxembourg are probably quite familiar with Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. In fact, you’re probably so familiar with him that you probably refer to him simply as Vauban. He’s the man behind the star attraction of the Vauban Circular Walk, which follows much of the third and outer ring of fortifications that he added to Luxembourg Ville after the French took control in 1684. And you know him as the namesake of the Villa Vauban art museum, which is constructed atop the ancient site of the western guardpost of Fort Vauban, now buried beneath the city park (head to the museum basement to check out some of the remains).

Anyway, as I wrote earlier, we had been to Cancale before, but I hadn’t previously read or heard (or paid attention to) even a whispered mention of Vauban. So, I was even more intrigued when we visited Saint-Malo the next day, where more of Vauban’s fortification handiwork also still exists, in the form of the Fort du Petit Bé, walkable from the intra-muros (“within the walls”) of the Saint-Malo citadel, formerly a fortress island that has since been connected to the mainland. Vauban’s work in Saint-Malo included strengthening the town’s fortifications and adding the Fort du Petit Bé as well as two others, Grand Bé Fort and the Fort Royal (or Fort National). Although Saint-Malo was heavily damaged during WW2, the city has been reconstructed so well that you’d never guess what was destroyed.

Snapshot of Vauban
Vauban’s story is one of hard work, intellect and luck. He was born in 1633 and raised as a peasant child in a small town about 100km west of Dijon, called Saint-Léger de Foucheret at the time (Napoleon had the town renamed Saint-Léger-Vauban in 1867). The local priest taught him how to read and write. At 10 years old, he was sent to live with a relative, where he continued his studies and learned math, drawing and fortifications – apparently a required subject that time in many schools.

He went on to graduate, enlisted in a rebel army (glossing over this piece because it’s complicated and I don’t quite follow it myself) and after being captured, found a lucky break and eventually voluntarily switched sides and spent the rest of his life in the service of King Louis XIV. (Who, incidentally, adored oysters and had them sent from Cancale to his palace at Versailles.)

Vauban was only 22 when he received his commission as an engineer for the King. He advanced quickly, making a mark both with his ability to lay siege and capture towns in a strategic manner that often preserved the lives of his troops, and with his keen understanding of how to build and improve upon fortifications to strengthen defensive positions. He was also a military marshal who was known to have fought bravely – even when he didn’t have to – and was injured several times. It sounds like at the end of many battles, he was the guy in charge of making repairs to fix fortification battle scars and make improvements to them to further protect new or existing properties of the King.

Fort du Petit Bé in Saint-Malo
Innovative militarily, he invented a form of warfare called “parallel trenches” that was used until the end of the 19th century, whereby his troops would build trenches parallel to the walls of a city where it was more difficult for defending troops to fire at their attackers. Here, it was easier for Vauban's troops to plant mines that could make a breach to enter the city. The first and most famous use of this was in the Netherlands, in Maastricht. Vauban was also innovative where water was involved, fortifying cities near water sources in a way that involved flooding if enemy troops got too close. He is also believed to be among the first (if not the first) to employ ricochet warfare, firing rounds that could take out other artillery and would "bounce" inside a fortification's walls to create further damage from the same round.

Rewarded with several promotions, including governorship of Lille in France (within a citadel he constructed), Vauban remains one of the greatest military engineers in French history. And history continues to reward him; in 2008, twelve of his fortification sites in France were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Vauban Elsewhere
In addition to his work in Luxembourg, Saint-Malo and Cancale, Vauban’s handiwork was utilized all the way toward Germany’s Rhine (Louis XIV was pushing to control all land west of the river), at Aix-la-Chapelle (today’s Aachen, Germany) and Frieburg, Germany. In all, he built or modified more than 130 – or 160 or even 300, depending on where you look – fortifications. (There's an interesting map of some of his work in France here if you scroll down the page.)

Closer to Luxembourg, you can see great examples of Vauban’s designs, of course, here in Luxembourg Ville, but also in Bitche (France), in Bouillon (Belgium), in Namur (Belgium), Longwy (France), Strasbourg (France), and in Lille (where the citadel is still occupied by the French army) and Douai (France). And that's just the tip of the iceburg – there are plenty more examples further afield.

(See? He really is everywhere.)

If You Go to Cancale
Transportation: Last year we rented a car and drove, this year we took trains for most of the ride; I highly, highly recommend trains. You won’t have to fuss with traffic, filling up at the gas pump, or fumble for euros at the péage. Connections from Paris are frequent to both Rennes and Saint-Malo and you can rent a car at the train station in either spot, or take a bus to Cancale from Saint-Malo.

Activity Planning: Obviously, sitting outside and eating oysters all afternoon is a great place to start... If you want to rent bicycles, go on a hike, visit museums, take a boat ride or a horseback ride on the beach: visit the tourism office web site. Earlier this fall, there was a link where you could request free brochures, but I can’t seem to find it now. So, if you can’t decide what to do by looking at their web site, give them a call at +33 02 99 89 63 72 (they speak English) or e-mail them at and ask for hiking brochures, an activity guide, bicycle route maps and a Cancale city map.

(Obviously, the best meal in town.)
Where to Stay: There are several hotels that are probably perfectly lovely, but we’ve enjoyed staying at Le Querrien on both trips. The rooms are decorated in a nautical theme, complete with wooden oars as headboards. The hotel is away from the cluster of hotels next to the lighthouse and oyster beds, so it’s a little quieter while still being seconds away from seaside bars and restaurants. Their off season prices are a steal.

Where to Eat: Every restaurant that you see is going to offer their version of a seafood tower – a massive, two to three tiered platter of oysters, langoustines, crab, mussles and other seafood delights. It’s something to try once, and it makes for some good photos.

We visited Le Surcouf (7 Quai Gambetta) both last year and this year and had excellent meals both times and really, really wonderful service – I highly recommend it. There’s a restaurant for tasty galettes that’s appropriately called Le Crêperie du Port (1 Place du Calvaire). We also had a nice dinner at Le Cancalais (skip their soupe de poissons, though). Au Pied d’Cheval is a good place for oysters and bowls of mussels and has a fun rustic atmosphere. By the lighthouse, Chez Victor is good for a cup of local Val de Rance cider.

If you go, have a wonderful trip! And be on the lookout for sightings of Vauban's handiwork... 


  1. You had me at 5-8€ a dozen. Glad to have stumbled onto your post and will head your words regarding oysters and restaurant recs. Mille grazie!

  2. Yes - it's great when something so delicious comes at such a bargain price, isn't it?! Have a wonderful trip and eat lots of oysters!!

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