Cancale, on the Bay of Mont St-Michel, is one of the most picturesque fishing harbours in France, writes Jean-Louis Guéry.
Sheltered under Pointe de la Chaîne, with its back to the prevailing winds, Cancale was one of the famous cod ports whose fishermen went off for months each year to Newfoundland and the North Atlantic. During this era the women of Cancale developed a reputation for being brave and resourceful and, as with many fishing communities, they had to run the town and their families while the men were away at sea.
Mention Cancale to a Frenchman and he will think of oysters, assuming, of course, that he’s not thinking about them already. Cancale specialises in these most succulent and aristocratic of shellfish, and the colourful waterfront is lined with bistros and restaurants offering tantalising menus of fruits de mer and dégustation d’huîtres. You can also buy oysters and mussels from stalls on the quay – little light takeaways, Breton-style.
Oyster cultivation in Cancale
Two stages of oyster cultivation are carried out at Cancale – maturing and cleaning. The vast acres of beds well out in the bay are used for maturing, and the oysters stay out here on their tidal racks for two years in mesh sacks, known as poches. The strong currents of cool water through the Bay of Mont St-Michel create ideal conditions for the young molluscs to flourish, and teams of cultivators go out regularly in their specially designed flatbottomed boats to turn the poches at low water.
Later, the maturing oysters are moved to the cleaning parcs (or dégorgeoirs) just below Cancale harbour, where they gradually flush themselves with mud-free water. The mud is cleaned off the shells by passing the oysters along a conveyor through jets of water. It’s a long patient process, but then eating shellfish is a serious business in France. Some of the best oysters from the Bay of Mont St-Michel are usually four or five years old when they appear on your plate.
Eating the fruits of the sea
Cancale is a charming seaside town with a very traditional atmosphere and it’s always pleasant to wander round the harbour and watch the oyster boats in action. There’s an enticing choice of restaurants on the quayside and Le Continental, on Quai Thomas, is a long-established favourite for a generous Plateau de fruits de mer.
A delightful coastal footpath runs from Cancale out to Pointe du Grouin. Following this route you come first to Pointe de la Chaîne where the tiny Rimains islands extend seawards.
As with many small ports, Cancale suffered attacks from enemy fleets over the years – the Spanish, Portuguese and English all had a go at various times. There’s a local story that in the wall of Cancale’s presbytery you can see a cannonball that was fired towards the town by English ships in 1779. In the late 1700s, a fort was built on the largest Rimain island, now a secluded private residence.
Our introduction to Cancale is an edited extract from The Normandy Coast from the Air: Cap de la Hague to Cap Frehel by Jean-Louis Guéry, published by Adlard Coles Nautical. The paperback version carries excellent colour maps, with minor coastal roads and campsites clearly marked.
Cycling around Cancale
It's possible to follow the D76 south out of Cancale (it later becomes the D155) and around the Bay of Mont St-Michel to the east, passing through the bayside villages of St-Benoit-des-Ondes and Cherrueix en route. See our Organised tours section for self-guided ideas. See here for the Mont St-Michel route to the D-Day Beaches.
Getting to Cancale
The D201 follows the coast from just north of Cancale and continues around the peninsula to St Malo, which has a daily Brittany Ferries service from Portsmouth. The ferry port a short ride to the town centre; the railway station and its links to Rennes and Brest is 850m from the port.
The tourist office is located at 44 rue du Port, and is reported to be much more helpful than the website.
Accommodation in Cancale
Remember that nearby Mont St-Michel is one of France's top tourist attractions – book all accommodation in advance in July and August, as well as during other holiday periods and over long weekends.
The Cancale-Mont St Michel hostel is located in Port Picain and has information on local bike hire. Camping France lists seven campsites within easy reach of Cancale. There are several other campsites are scattered right around the Bay of Mont St-Michel (and usually marked on maps and well signposted). Check here for links to accommodation in France, including hotels, gîtes, gîtes d’étapes, B&Bs, self-catered and campsite options.
For more information on Brittany, see our regional guide.