36 Hours in Rennes and St.-Malo

Metropolitan. Maritime. Mystical. Those are the three faces of France’s rugged northwest corner, where Arthurian legends, stone circles and Celtic traditions suffuse the forests and fishing villages. Now they are closer than ever, thanks to the two-year-old LGV train line, which links Paris to the regional capital of Rennes in just 90 minutes. On arrival, you step into an attractive university city of riverside promenades, grand stone squares and historical townhouses with one of France’s largest produce markets (which feeds a copious restaurant scene), along with a dense concentration of bars. A bit north, the walled town of St.-Malo enchants with its storybook streets and ramparts (destroyed in World War II and rebuilt), sea-swept rocky shoreline and proximity to France’s most mystical spot of all: the island of Mont-St.-Michel.

A Lancelot beer (5 euros or about $5.60) at a tree-shaded outdoor table at the Ty Anna Tavern, a portrait of log-beamed quaintness, is a fine introduction to two Brittany institutions: beer and half-timbered houses. Continue your architectural tour at Place du Champ-Jacquet, where a row of Renaissance houses — narrow and crooked — sag and lean against each other like Shakespearean drunks, and then to rue Saint Guillaume’s Ti-Koz, a 1505 masterwork of blazing red beams and carved human figures. End in rue du Chapitre, a stone-paved street with multiple stunning old edifices (especially numbers 18 to 22) that now house art galleries, architecture offices and chic boutiques. For cool Gallic goods, Made in Frogs sells everything from scented candles to bow ties.

The number of Michelin stars in Rennes has tripled — from one to three — since 2017, and the credit resides with two upstart restaurants along the otherwise nondescript strip known as rue de l’Arsenal. A dark, angular bachelor-pad space with Asian-tinged cuisine, IMA landed its culinary prize in 2018. Nearby Racines, which gained its star this year is run by the chef Virginie Giboire and is bright, white, plant-filled and cozy. A summer visit found a menu that included thick slices of red tuna with sea salt, accompanied by crunchy diced asparagus and mild green estragon sorbet — a study in freshness and textures — followed by a disc of shredded lamb with a chickpea froth as light as shaving cream (and certainly more tasty). Dessert was a trip to the tropics, courtesy of sweet-sour passion fruit and coconut cream on a financier, a small, moist rectangular almond cake. A three-course dinner was 55 euros.

Many of the nearly 70,000 college kids in Rennes pack the student dives and shot bars along rue Saint Michel. In other words, avoid this strip. Luckily, you can plunge into Rennes night life (and drinks) in classier venues. You half expect to glimpse Sir Terence Conran sipping a barrel-aged Negroni (12 euros) at a white marble table or along a plush turquoise banquette at Le Montfort, a chic liquor bar that takes a page from the British designer’s playbook. The drinks menu is a veritable library of spirits and includes Eddu Silver (8 euros), a light and lively Breton whiskey. For hop heads, the canal-side outdoor tables of Le Coin Mousse are a pleasant spot to sip some of the bar’s hundreds of French beers, including a local Drao amber (3.70 euros).

Some of the most powerful works in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes are some of the most macabre. Witness “La Dame d’Antinoé,” the mummy of a Roman-era woman excavated in Egypt. Still visible on the textile wrap, her painted placid expression and “fear not” gesture carry emotion after nearly 2,000 years. So do the plaintive face and outstretched arm of the eponymous saint being burned alive in the Florentine Renaissance masterwork “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” by Mariotto di Nardo. Beasts also meet graphic ends, as in Rubens’s massive, kinetic 1616 canvas “The Tiger Hunt” and in Veronese’s 1580 huge rendering of Perseus slaying the sea monster. The 20th-century works are a bit more cheerful, notably the playfully demented abstraction of Picasso’s “Buste d’Homme au Chapeau” (1970). Admission: 6 euros.

Even if your dietary restrictions include skinned rabbits and slimy cuttlefish, you will still find much to devour among the more than 300 vendors at the sprawling Marché des Lices, which has been operating since 1622. The street stalls sell mostly fruits, vegetables and flowers, while the two covered market halls lean more to prepared foods and meats. Indeed, potential picnic or train-ride snacks abound in the north hall, including fresh breads and pastries (at Fagots et Froment), award-winning dry sausages (Saucissons Léandre; 33-6-95-19-06-82) and all manner of cheeses, jams, ciders and wines. Between the two buildings, food trucks serve up dishes from around the globe — chicken tikka, falafel, paella, couscous — and Rennes’s answer to the hot dog: a grilled sausage with caramelized onions and cheese, wrapped in a buckwheat pancake.

Multiple daily trains make the 45-to-60 minute journey to St.-Malo, a fairy-tale town whose crenelated stone ramparts double as an elevated scenic walkway. Mount the stairs at the St. Vincent gate (next to Lion d’Or restaurant) and stroll clockwise. One side offers a shifting perspective from the elevated walkway of the town’s Gothic-style buildings and narrow cobbled streets, below, while the other side serves up a succession of expansive landscapes and seascapes: the marina, the long jetty, rocky outcroppings, tidal pools, golden beaches and the battlements of the Fort National, built under Louis XIV in 1689.

Famous for its maritime explorers and privateers, St.-Malo is even more stunning from the sea, and a sightseeing cruise by Compagnie Corsaire provides a 90-minute tour (21.50 euros) of the dramatic bay and coastline. Canadians will recognize the statuary form of the 16th-century navigator Jacques Cartier (the first European to reach Quebec) atop a mound of sea-ringed rock, while Brits (and others) can marvel at the gabled mansions and grand seaside hotels of nearby Dinard, once a popular resort for English royalty and celebrities. (The town even hosts the Festival of British Cinema in fall.) The winds surge and turn chilly as the boat heads into open water, where a scattering of tiny dark stone islands poke through the waves like crumbs spit up by the sea. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of their occasional companions: the dolphins of the bay.

The ocean’s edible bounty receives expert and elegant treatment at Restaurant Gilles, a modern and minimalist room with muted colors. Plunge into the thick and buttery shrimp bisque, which gets nuance and texture from chopped vermicelli and roasted croutons. (Oysters from nearby Cancale sometimes turn up as appetizers as well.) Better still, the thick hake with tomato coulis on Riesling sauerkraut shows off the French talent for light sauces and wine infusions that throw meat and fish flavors into relief. For dessert, consider local apples, which are sliced, baked, ringed with apple-cider caramel and used as the base for a mound of ice cream. A three-course dinner is 33 euros per person.

Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), who married two French kings and thus twice served as the nation’s queen-consort, ranks among the region’s most celebrated historical figures. She’s now available in beer form as Dutchess Anne Tripel (5 euros), one of scores of European brews for sale at La Fabrique, a neo-industrial bar with Chesterfield couches and club chairs. The menu, which takes up an entire wall, helpfully divides choices by taste (refreshing, powerful, bitter or acidic), color (amber, blonde, white, brown) and nation (including many Belgian, British and French brands).

Sometimes you have to poke a hole in a guy’s head to get him to act. That’s what archangel Michael reputedly did to Bishop Aubert around 708 A.D., and the nudge paid off handsomely: The bishop laid the first stones of what would become, over the course of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a stunning homage to the angel and France’s most spectacular religious structure, Mont-St.-Michel. Rising like a fantasy-novel vision from the Atlantic, the circular granite island forms the base for the walled village, ramparts, gardens and — at the summit — Gothic abbey (admission, 10 euros), whose soaring stone halls and cloister offer stunning panoramas of the coastal flats and ocean below. From St.-Malo, Keolis Armor offers daily round-trip bus service (23 euros) in summer and reduced service in fall. The bus typically departs at 9:15 a.m. for the one-hour journey and returns in late afternoon. Get there early to avoid the crowds, especially in the warmer months. Trips from Rennes are also available.

For those about to rock, bring your guitars and set list to Le Magic Hall, a 19th-century army barracks turned into a bewitching boutique hotel with its own soundproof rehearsal room for bands. The 19 rooms are dedicated to music, dance, theater and cinema, while the Bohemian-chic lobby is outfitted with vintage furniture, books and albums. Doubles in August from 75 euros.

Opened last year, Le Grand Bé is a big, splashy, four-star addition to St-Malo’s historical walled center. Its 56 rooms are minimalist with touches of color, while the restaurant and bar feature an eclectic design-showroom hodgepodge. Doubles from 139 euros.

The area around Place St. Anne is a picturesque and central base with a nearby metro station. Airbnb.com lists studio apartments from $50 to $75 per night in late August.