The medieval town of Dinan in Cotes d’Armor, Brittany, is like somewhere from the imagination of the brothers Grimm. It’s brimming with fairy tale pretty streets, guarded by a castle and full of enchanting houses, cobbled hills and pretty squares, surrounded by ramparts built between the 13th to 15th century. Perched on a hill above a gentle river with a pretty little port, if you were to write a wish list for a fairy tale town, Dinan would have it all.
Guide to the best things to do in Dinan
When I went in late spring, which is a great time to go as you won’t find it too crowded, it was unusually overcast for the time of year, but not cold. The clouds didn’t matter. This place is quite simply magical at any time of the year. Quaint higgledy piggledy half-timbered houses lean against one another. They have been hugging for centuries, some of them date back 700 years. Church bells ring and birds sing in the trees. The town has kept its medieval integrity by deliberately limiting traffic lights and road signs so they don’t spoil the views.
Steep streets with amazing views
When you visit Dinan, wear comfy shoes and be prepared to walk or you’ll miss the best of it. Much of the town is pedestrianised which makes it an absolute joy to wander. It’s hilly in places. Rue du Jerzual for instance, which half-way down becomes rue du Petit Fort. It’s one of the most picturesque streets. The cobbles run from the top of the town to the port along the river Rance. But, don’t worry about the steepness, there are plenty of places to stop for a break, a meal and to browse quaint artisan shops. The houses and shops on this street have really wide windowsills. The style dates back to the middle ages. Then, people didn’t go into shops, they bought from the window and the shopkeepers used the sill as a countertop.
Around halfway down this hill, by the Porte de Jerzual (the ancient city gate), is a staircase to the remaining ramparts. Look out for it as it’s easy to just stroll by. It’s open to the public and you’ll get truly great views over the street and town. Most of the 2.7km of ramparts are now privately owned. The city council sold them off many years ago and locals built houses on and against the old city walls and walkways. The chateau of Dinan is still there, but today it’s an interesting museum where you can discover the history of Dinan.
The prettiest streets and squares
Head to the square of Place des Merciers to see some of the most beautiful houses and shops. Take a break in rue de la Cordonnerie. The locals call this street “thirsty street” (rue de la soif) as there are so many bars!
Climb to the top of the 40m high Tour de l’Horloge to enjoy spectacular views over Dinan and the surrounding area. It’s said that on a clear day you can see as far as Mont-Saint Michel.
Basilica of Saint-Sauveur
Behind the Basilica of Saint-Sauveur (a very short walk from the centre of town) you’ll get the most remarkable views over the river Rance. Afterwards visit the church (12th-15th century) to discover a legend. Saint-Sauveur Basilica holds the heart of a French hero – Bertrand du Guesclin. Born in Brittany about 1320, it’s said he was so ugly his family disowned him. He became a soldier and when Dinan was besieged by the English in the 100 Years War he defended the town with his brother Olivier. An English soldier, Sir Thomas Canterbury, kidnapped and ransomed the unarmed Olivier when he took a walk in the countryside. Du Guesclin fought for the return of his brother and won. The English withdrew their forces.
He became a Constable of France (military leader). However, some Bretons considered this a traitorous move because Brittany was not part of France at the time. Du Guesclin requested that when he died he be buried in Dinan. But his remains were taken to the Basilica of St Denis in Paris where French Royals were interred. His heart though, was taken to Dinan. It’s position is marked with a gold heart.
In front of the Basilica is a square with a few bars and restaurants, it’s a quieter part of Dinan, largely frequented by the locals as visitors don’t know it’s here.
Boat trip on the river Rance
One of the prettiest places in Dinan is the port area. You’ll find ancient stone houses, shops and bars looking onto the lofty Lanvalley-Dinan Viaduct which was inaugurated in 1852. Hop aboard the Jaman V boat to cruise the river Rance. You can buy tickets at the tourist office or the ticket kiosk when its open – it’s at a brown cube like hut, next to les Terraces restaurant at the bottom of rue du Petit Fort.
This hour long trip will take you under the viaduct and down to the little town of Léhon. An audio guide is available in English and full of fun facts such as how donkeys used to pull the barges along, but when one wasn’t available, the boatmen’s wives would have to do it. The riverbank is filled with flowers and fauna, including an exotic Japanese plant which looks like a giant rhubarb. First planted in 1917 by a gardener from Léhon, it has colonised the banks of the river. And you can also take a boat to and from Saint Malo to Dinan, or a dinner cruise. Details: www.vedettejamaniv.com
Where to eat in Dinan
Just wander the cobbled streets, you’ll find plenty of choice. There are also lots of restaurants along the river Rance, many with terraces overlooking the Viaduct offering great views.
Le Colibri: I loved this smashing little bistro with a lovely early 20th century vibe interior. The food is sublime – seasonal, fresh and innovative classics. The chefs work closely with local producers. If you love great food – go here.
La Fontaine du Jerzual, on arguably Brittany’s prettiest street, is a creperie, brasserie and tea salon. Enjoy traditional Breton crepes at this lovely restaurant that’s loved by the locals. It’s in a beautiful location, is comfy and stylish inside with a big terrace area for sunny days. It’s not expensive, the staff are friendly and they do a great Kir Breton!
Maison Pavie B&B is truly special. Built in the 15th century, this listed building is simply exquisite from its half-timbered, arcaded exterior to its elegant interior with ancient wood floors. There are lots of original features but you’ll find it has all mod cons. It’s not often you’ll sleep in a 600 year old bedroom with a big, luxurious bathroom! The sitting room overlooks the Place Saint Sauveur with its looming Basilica. Owner Jérôme is also a marvellous cook (guests can dine here). He bought the building in 2010 and worked with architects to renovate it renovated to a luxury level with interior design good looks. The house is named after a former owner, French diplomat and explorer Auguste Pavie.