Dinan is a medieval town, with roots going back to the 9th century. It is a very special place to visit as it retains so much of its medieval character and architecture. It’s known for its half timbered buildings which date as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. Sculpted wooden pillars support the upper floors which jut out above the street, offering shelter from the rain. In medieval times they also offered relief from taxes, as the tax rate was based on the building’s footprint.
The Celtic heritage of Brittany is very much alive here. The name of the town comes from the ancient Celtic words “Dunos” and “Ahana”: hill of Ahana, goddess of the living and the dead. Britanny’s ancient symbol—three linked spirals—signifying water land and air, is everywhere — on signs, jewelry and sculpted into the valley floor, visible from the ramparts.
On the weekends, musicians fill the streets and squares with music, ancient instruments and melodies echoing through the air. On even years the “Fête des Remparts” is held over the 3rd weekend in July, a great time to visit.
The Rue du Jerzual is probably Dinan’s most famous street. Steep and narrow, it descends from the old town on the hill to the port below. It is lined with restaurants, shops, and stone houses. But, it isn’t well suited for riding down or up with skinny-tired bikes!
So instead of taking Rue Jerzual we descended to the port on our bikes barreling down the paved road that winds around the town and under the huge Viaduct spanning the river valley below.
Sail boats, small motor boats and barges line the river on either side, along with plenty of cafés and restaurants.
We got there just in time to see the “Competition Nautique”, featuring long row boats fitted with elevated platforms designed for a nautical jousting match. The object was to be the first to knock the jouster off the other boat into the water. The crowd cheered as the boats faced off on the river until a well placed blow unseated one of the “knights”. Teams from towns all around compete for the honor of winning, with proceeds going to a local charity.
We rode out the path along the river, admiring the great variety of boats tied up on the bank. A beautiful old Dutch sail boat with wooden “leaboards” caught our eye. The leaboards look like a fish fin and function as stabilizers much like a center board or keel. These boats are designed to sail in rivers and other shallow waters.
A long low canal boat was tied up nearby. Pots of flowers and a couple of bikes stood on the roof. We met the English couple who have called it home for 10 years, traveling the rivers of France. What a life!
That night in the square in front of the Saint Sauveur Basilica a traveling troupe staged an amazing performance, juggling flaming batons, tossing them into the air, and blowing great clouds of fire up into the night sky, seeming to summon gods more ancient than the basilica.
The next afternoon the basilica was open and we explored its vaulted interior in the daylight. Rivallon le Roux, Lord of Dinan built St. Sauveur Basilica around 1120, after returning safely from the first Crusade. It was rebuilt and extended during the 15th and 16th centuries, blending many architectural styles.
Many of Dinan’s beautiful buildings have survived the centuries intact, and are still part of the living fabric of this lovely town. Its well worth a visit.