Mystical Dinan is a must do when visiting Brittany, even if you can only manage two days. The history, art and medieval houses will astound you
Brittany, with its rich historic culture, is a perfect escape at any time of the year. Dinan is a gem of a waterfront town in Brittany, situated along the River Rance, twenty kilometres from popular Dinard and St. Malo on the north west coast of Brittany.
In France, Dinan is listed as a ville et pays d’art et histoire (town and country of art and history). For me, Dinan is both mystical and intriguing.
Cobbled streets and medieval architecture
The only way to capture this mystique is by strolling through the town centre, through the narrow cobbled streets packed with and 13th and 14th century half-timbering architecture, all beautifully restored. There are at least 120 of these houses in Dinan; no wonder it is reputed to be the best medieval town in Brittany.
The Bureau de Tourisme, situated in Rue du Château will provide maps of the town centre. The leaflets use different colours to direct visitors to the old town, the rampart and religious monuments. Almost everything worth seeing is contained in the old city.
Head towards the old town at Place des Cordeliers and Merciers; lean against the facades, dart in and out of the many boutiques if only to capture this medieval knights and dragons atmosphere. The houses might look somewhat fragile as they lean towards each other but artisans and craftsmen in the shops have existed here for generations working side by side.
The town square nearby called Place du Guesclin is named after the Breton militant, Bertrand du Guesclin, famous for fighting against the English in the 100- year war. Every Thursday, market day, it becomes alive, vibrant and colourful with a multitude of vendors and buyers.
When in Rue de L’Horloge, look out for the clock tower. Dating back to 1498, it chimes every quarter of an hour. It’s worth climbing the 158 steps up to the tiny balcony especially on a clear day; the views of the nearby countryside and the towns are quite spectacular.
One of the prettiest traffic free lanes in Dinan is Rue Jerzual (which turns into Rue du Petit Fort) leading to the River Rance and the old port. The walk is steep, even invigorating, but as you wend your way down and up again, enjoy the craft shops, the art galleries, the weavers, and museums. You can always stop for a drink at one of the many cafés and bars at the old port. A thousand years ago much trading and exporting went on here. Just think of the traders who used this very port, who trudged up the Rue Jerzual with all their goods.
Today, the river is canalized with locks and a towpath.
Chateau and ramparts
Dinan has a walled citadel consisting of 10 watchtowers and four gateways which run two miles around the town. The Tower of St. Anne and the castle are highlights within the walls; these buildings were formerly used as residences, prisons, artillery platforms. Today it hosts a small museum which can be visited in the summer.
Every two years in July, Dinan prepares for the Fête des Ramparts; locals dress up in medieval garb and the streets are decorated with flags for the two day festival. The town becomes quite busy with medieval things including food, drink, games and craft.
The most visited religious monument is St. Saviour’s Basilica; visitors come here to admire the mixture of architectural styles (Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque periods) and to see where Bertrand du Guesclin’s heart is laid.
Just behind the Basilica, backing on to the rampart is the Jardin Anglais (English garden) built on the old cemetery.
Fancy a cruise down the river?
Corsaire runs a daily boat service from Dinan to Dinard and St. Malo along the River Rance between June and September. The trip lasts around two and a half hours.
Where to stay
Le Papillion is a quiet friendly hotel and bar situated right on the water front. Costing 58 euro for a comfortable room and hearty continental breakfast, this is good value. Le Papillion also prepares snacks such as mussels and chips for lunch. Pascal, the owner, knows his birthplace well, enjoys a good chat and is happy to answer all questions concerning Dinan.
If you fancy being in the town itself, and don’t mind the chimes of the clock tower (they stop between midnight and 7am) there is the Hotel de la tour L’Horloge which will cost you between 47 – 58 euro. From some of the top floor rooms you can even view the clock tower.
More up market is Duguesclin, situated near the ramparts at Rue de Brest. Here you can rent an apartment or studio if you fancy staying longer in Dinan. The hotel also has a swimming pool and fitness centre. Prices vary depending on the season; a studio costs around 90 euro per night in the busy month of August.
What to eat and drink
Dinan has a multitude of restaurants to choose from, both in the old town and near the river. Eat like a local and visit one of the many creperies. Creperies specialize in crepes, flat pancakes which can be both savoury and sweet. La Bigouden in the town centre at Place des Cordeliers is good value with a wide range of crepes to choose from. Have your crepes with cider (cidre) or a Muscadet, Breton wine. Try the galette complete which comes with ham, egg and cheese.
If you like seafood, go to La Lycorne (the Unicorn) at Rue de la Poissonerie as they specialise in it - especially mussels - but make sure you book if you plan to go in the evening.
Getting to and from Dinan
Dinan is only four hours by train from Paris. There are good connecting roads between St. Malo and Dinan if you’re driving from the coast.
Condor Ferries assures a regular ferry service from Guernsey.
Ryanair has direct daily flights from Stanstead to nearby Dinard in the summer.