Low tide doesn’t have to be synonymous just with beached boats and sandy beaches stretching out to sea, it’s also the chance to discover new things. While hunting for shellfish is a classic, if you’re visiting Saint Malo, low tide also means the chance to visit firsthand some of the forts out in the bay. Thanks to centuries of warfare with the British, the city boasts an impressive defensive system stretching from Cap Frehel’s Fort LaLatte all the way to the Pointe de la Varde (Rothéneuf). Saint Malo can thank Louis XIV (1643-1715) and his military architect Vauban for its forts and improved defenses (or the British and the Dutch for being such great neighbors!). After canvassing the local coastline on behalf of the King, Vauban ordered the renovation/modernisation of Fort LaLatte as well as both the construction of new gun batteries and forts to protect the port city including that of the Petit-Bé. Despite two key attempts to take the city in 1693 and 1695, thanks to the forts Saint Malo would remain safe for over 170 years!
Le Fort National is the closest of Vauban’s forts to Intra-Muros, and perhaps the best known to visitors, however, the Fort du Petit Bé is also an easy walk from the walled city. The Petit Bé, a registered Historical Monument (1921), is only 700 meters from Saint Malo’s ramparts. Like its larger cousin, you can tell if the fort is open to visitors by looking for the French flag–when the flag is flying, the fort is open to visitors. At low tide, it’s an easy walk across the beach to reach the fort. Thanks to a free shuttle boat named “le Passeur des Bés,” the fort is also open to visitors at high tide. Once you make it to the island, you do need to be able to climb up the rocky path to reach the fort itself. While I wouldn’t recommend bringing a stroller (although I saw it done and it didn’t look easy), young children can follow the uphill path with adult assistance. Our girls climbed up and down by simply holding my hand. The fort is open to visitors from 11-18:00. Adult admission is 5€, a reduced rate (3€) is available under certain conditions and children under 7 are free. If you live in the area and are passionate about forts, a 20€-annual pass is also available.
While Vauban designed the overall defensive strategy for Saint Malo it was Siméon Garangeau, the local military architect, put his ideas into action. Garangeau designed a horseshoe-shaped fort. The horseshoe shape allowed defenders to cover the access to the bay and fire at will on enemy ships. All three natural waterways into Saint Malo come in range of the Petit Bé. The fort boasted both mortars (pre-targeted on specific points out in the bay) and cannon. Interestingly enough, Vauban wanted the fort commanded by a naval officer–a man able to “read” the thoughts and battle plans of enemy captains seeking to take the port.
If you understand French take advantage of the guided visit included with your admission. The guide we had was passionate about not only the fort and its restoration but about the military history of Saint Malo in general. I asked our guide about tours for non-Francophone visitors. While French will bring you a more in-depth tour, the guides want everyone to learn about the site’s history. Handouts about the fort are available in English. You could also try using one to supplement your school French and tagging along on a group tour. While the fort is relatively small, an effort has been made to set up basic exhibits about the fort and its history. One room deals with Vauban and his plans, while another includes a wonderful map of the entire defensive plan for the region.
All of this work is due to one man’s dream! After being abandoned for 150 years, the fort is alive again thanks Alain-Etienne Marcel. He convinced Saint Malo to let him restore the fort and work has been going on since 2000. Why Saint Malo and not the French Army or Navy? As artillery improved over time, the fort’s strategic importance decreased and in 1885, the French Army ceded Fort du Petit Bé to the city of Saint Malo. Marcel’s painstaking, often manual work, paid off from the beginning. The Petit Bé restoration won three prizes in its first five years under his care! Looking over the list, the one that seems the most appropriate–the Prix National de l’Association Vauban! Vauban would be proud knowing that his fort still stands guarding Saint Malo and welcoming visitors, maybe even you, today.