By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
In France, if you have time for only one stop in Brittany, make it the ancient riverfront city of Dinan. It's about four hours west of Paris by train and one from Mont St-Michel, but it seems a world away. You'll awake to the sound of roosters.
Dinan's hefty ramparts bundle its half-timbered and cobbled quaintness into Brittany's best medieval town center. While it has a touristic icing — plenty of crêperies, shops pedaling Brittany kitsch and colorful flags — it is also clearly a work-a-day town filled with locals who take pride in their Breton culture. Music stores, for instance, sell more Celtic music than anything else. It's hard to imagine that this music was forbidden as late as the 1980s. In fact, in the recent past, a child would lose her French citizenship if christened with a Celtic name. The animosity started in 1491, when Brittany's Duchess Anne was forced to marry the French king and feisty Brittany was forced to become part of France. Today the locals — many with red hair and freckles — are free to wave their flag, sing their songs and speak their language (there's even a Breton TV station and radio station).
Dinan isn't about museums, castles or other must-sees. Frankly, I wouldn't go through a turnstile here. The attraction is the town itself, delightfully preserved because it escaped the bombs of World War II. Enjoy the old town center, scramble the ramparts and relax at the riverfront harbor. The sprawling town square, Place du Guesclin (gek-lahn), is named after a 14th-century military leader famous for victories over England. For 700 years, merchants have filled the square to sell their produce and crafts — these days, vendors are out in force on Thursday mornings.
Dinan's historic commercial center, Place des Merciers, is lined with picturesque half-timbered and arcaded buildings. The structures date from the time when property taxes were based on the square footage of your ground floor. To provide shelter from both the taxes and the rain, buildings started with small ground floors, then expanded outward into upper floors, with roofs that nearly touched their neighbors'. In medieval times, shopkeepers would sell their goods in front of their homes under the shelter of their leaning walls. After a disastrous 18th-century fire, a law required that the traditional thatch be replaced by safer slate.
For the best town view, walk past Dinan's basilica (of little sightseeing importance), through a pleasant English Garden to St. Catherine's tower. From here, you enjoy a commanding view of the old port and the River Rance. Nearby is the best stretch of Dinan's impressive fortified wall, starting at the Jerzual gate. While the old port town below was destroyed repeatedly, these ramparts were never taken by force, only by seige. Today the ramparts guard only the town's residential charm — gardens, wells and homey backyards.
Follow the steep and scenic Rue Jerzual down to the old port, the birthplace of Dinan a thousand years ago. It was once an export and fishing port, connected to the sea, 15 miles away, by the River Rance. By taxing river traffic, the town grew. But because this location was so exposed, the townsfolk later retreated to the bluff behind its current fortifications. The river, now canalized with locks and a towpath, is great for lazy walks, boat rides and bike rides. If you're hungry, park yourself at one of the restaurants at the port. Les Terrasses is good, with a riverfront terrace. To go local, try the specialties: galettes (crêpes) and cidre — alcoholic apple cider served in bowls. To say "Cheers!" in Breton, say, "Yec'hed mat!"