When I shared this picture of the goat grazing in a field near St. Michel on Facebook, one of my daughter’s friends queried: ‘Where is that? Is that a real place?’ That is a fair question. Mt. St. Michel does evoke thoughts of fantasy novels or worlds constructed for computer games. And the best thing about it is that view from a distance rising above fields and mud flats.
It is one of those places we knew we had to see once. This October we found ourselves with 5 unplanned nights on a trip to Paris before our apartment would be available. A quick tour of some of the places we had always wanted to visit in Normandy seemed manageable. We trained to Caen (it was only 15 Euro apiece with Prems tickets booked far in advance and printed on our computer) We picked up a car and drove to St. Michel and a B&B on shore for our first night. I had though we would prefer to be off the Island since the view at night would be so wonderful.
Late October is a fairly uncrowded time for this site and only a few of the parking lots, which cover acres, were in use when we drove over to see as much as we could that first afternoon and evening. The lots are a long ways — maybe half a mile — from the bus stop for the shuttle that takes people across the causeway to the Mont. Alas this set up seems to be designed to force people to walk through a tacky strip mall as it would be simple for the shuttle to run from the parking lots. There is a bus for employees and the handicapped that comes a little closer to the lot, but even that requires a fair hike for the disabled. We saw people on crutches struggling their way to the disabled pick up. On the other hand it is hard to imagine a site less suited for someone with mobility issues than Mt. St. Michel as the island itself is all steep stairs. There is a magnificent view of the Mont from the parking lot itself.Then the visitor is treated to a stroll by first ugly worker housing:And then several blocks of ugly strip mall and souvenir stands. In the old days, people drove across the mud flats and parked in lots that were underwater at high tide. There are many stories of people being caught by the tide coming in and drowned or foundering in the quicksand or losing their cars to miscalculation of the tides. This is all a thing of the past with the causeway. The shuttle only goes a short distance across the causeway; and this is actually the most scenic part of the walk. The tourist would be better served with a shuttle from the parking lot to the causeway and then walking across the causeway enjoying the magnificence of the Mont rising ahead.
The causeway is to be demolished and be replaced by a bridge which will supposedly prevent the silting up of the bay caused by the daming effect of the causeway.
The final stop of the causeway shuttle bus leaves you with a block or so walk to the base of the Mont. As we approached we could see the sea walls that protected the lower parts of the village and get a sense of the island. The Mont itself rises 300 feet above sea level and is topped by the Abbey. There are about 300 residents.
We were too late to visit the Abbey that evening, but we did have time to walk on the ramparts, have dinner and see the Mont at night.
I had read that to avoid the crowded central tourist packed commercial street, a traveler could walk up the ramparts to the left of the main entrance to the village, but it was blocked by construction when we were there so we walked up the center, stopping for hot chocolate early on. To reach the Abbey you run a gauntlet of boutiques, food vendors and souvenir shops.
We quickly found some stairs to the ramparts to avoid tourist hell. As you can see from the view down, the main street is exceedingly narrow. We were there in late October when there were relatively few tourists. I cannot imagine trying to negotiate this pathway when it is filled with the outpourings of dozens of tourist buses.
Our first evening we enjoyed exploring the ramparts. Buildings are of course stacked on top of each other. The island gets the brunt of ocean weather and the buildings are either stone or shingle. This jagged pattern at the window is typical of the shingle edging at windows and edges of roofs.
Lead roofs and Lead gutters and downspouts are also common in the island’s robust weather resistant architecture.
It is possible to walk along both sides of the island approaching the Abbey on the ramparts. There are watch towers here and there affording a defensive view out over the mud flats and bay. During the 100 years war, the Mont was the center of many battles but resisted being captured due to its easily defended structure.
Before the causeway was constructed, people walked across these mudflat to the island. I remember reading a mystery novel years ago where some fiddling with the clocks caused the victim to be caught by the galloping tides rushing across these mudflats; unable as all are, to outrun the tides, he drowned. Apparently these folks were paying attention to the tide tables.We had dinner in the evening in a restaurant on the ramparts near the top of the Mont with a nice view out onto the bay although since service didn’t begin until 7 pm (early for a French dinner) it was soon to dark to take advantage of. We had heard terrible stories about overpriced lousy food, but we had a reasonably priced and quite tasty if not spectacular dinner of the sort one can count on anywhere in France. The tide was coming in and would soon lift these floats.
After dinner and a cold stroll on the ramparts, we hitched a ride on the little navette used to ferry employees and the disabled to the parking lot. The little bus was virtually empty and it was cold, but this was an enormous mistake since we then missed out on some of the most spectacular views of the Mont at night close up. Here it is out the back of our bus.
The next morning, the weather was a bit more promising and we were excited to catch a glimpse out our window.
We arrived at the Mont prepared to hike up to see the Abbey before driving on to Bayeux to see the Tapestry.
We walked up the central tourist gauntlet which as you can see is relatively crowd free on this October morning.
There is a small church dating from the 15th century that serves the local residents about half way to the Abbey.It is named for St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen.
The last climb to the Abbey is steep. It was virtually deserted on this cold October morning.
The Abbey is built on the remains of a romanesque church built over the remains of a Carolinian church. The first Abbey was built in the 8th century. Because the Abbey backed the right horse in the Battle of Hastings, it was granted lands in England by William the Conqueror. Included was an island on which a similar Abbey was constructed and which was called St. Michaels of Penzance.
A Romanesque Abbey was constructed in the 11th century but much of it burned during siege in the 12th at which point Philip Augustus who felt guilty that his allies had ruined the Mont, authorized construction of new refectory and cloisters in the Gothic style and there have been a series of further constructions over the years.
There is a terrific view of the bay and surrounding islands.My favorite view of the Mont is across the fields with cattle and goats and sheep grazing in the foreground. (picture at head of this post) This is probably my second favorite. The shadow of the Abbey on the salt flats was stunning.
From this terrace at the top of our climb, we could enter the Abbey church here.
There are occasional chapels or religious artifacts or statues. This Madonna was carved in the 13th century from limestone found in Caen and polychromed; it was originally in the priory Montois de Ballant.
Cloisters are usually the high point of any abbey visit and this is definitely true of Mont St. Michel. Although heavily restored (the original limestone columns were replaced with granite in the 19th century and a garden created then also — before this time, it was not possible to build a garden on a roof of buildings because of water management issue) it is a lovely and inspiring spot. The shape of the Mont meant that the cloister could not be on the ground at the center, but rather on top of much of the structure.
I am not sure we would have loved Mont St. Michel in summer since we have a real aversion to crowds but it is a place that lingers in memory. It doesn’t seem like a real place. It is the stuff of dreams.