My husband and I recently decided to visit the famous island, Mont Saint Michel, with its gravity-defying Gothic Abbey, on the northwestern coast of Normandy. I typically do most of my exploring in Paris by myself, but this time my husband was tempted by the idea of visiting the ocean, getting out of the city on a romantic outing, and exploring a medieval site. So with a wave to our oldest two teenagers to mind the fort, and a reminder for them not to hurt each other or their younger brothers, my husband and I snuck out for an overnight away.
I was pleased to find that it was possible to take a train from Paris to Rennes, and then a bus to the island’s visitor center. Mont Saint Michel is about 1.5 miles from the Visitor Center and can be reached by a shuttle bus or by walking the causeway. We began our trip by reading the interesting information displayed at the center, where we learned about the bay, the importance of the ecosystem, and a glimpse of the Abbey’s history before heading to Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint Michel, formerly Mont Tombe, gained religious importance in the 8th century when the archangel Michel told Aubert of Avranches, the Bishop of Avranches, to build a church. In the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries there was a lot of building on the island (and a fire, which caused more building) to make the Abbey what it is today. As a matter of fact, it was not always an Abbey; it functioned as a prison many times over the centuries. The monks arrived in the 10th century and were expelled during the French Revolution. They returned in 1966 and now two communities of monks and nuns of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem live and hold services in the Abbey.
I had purposely timed our visit to be outside of normal tourist times. We arrived in the afternoon under stormy clouds and drizzling rain as many visitors were leaving. After the rain passed, we climbed the old stone steps (there are a total of 350) to find the paths that gave us access to a point overlooking the island. We were rewarded with panoramic views of the mud flats at low tide, and on the other side of the island, the bay.
We headed back to the causeway to watch the sunset. While we were waiting, we heard the tide rushing in. The sound of the advancing water was amazing. The water moves in quite fast, and at one point there was a whoosh, likely due to a phenomena called a tidal bore. The leading edge of the tide forms a wave that rides on top of, and in the opposite direction of, a river – in this case, the Couesnon River. The rapidly moving water transformed the flat, muddy area around the island into a glimmering body of water.
Victor Hugo referred to how the tides moved as “à la vitesse d’un cheval au galop” or, in English, “as swiftly as a galloping horse”. The tide at Mont St-Michel moves about as quickly as an adult can walk. This can be dangerous and there have been fatalities in the area in the past, so if you fancy hiking to the Mont it is highly recommended to find an experienced guide. Sometimes the bay is subjected to super tides. Recently, in March 2016, there was the biggest super tide in 18 years, which covered the causeway.
The intertidal zone in the bay is quite large and is a very rich ecosystem. France has completed several preservation projects to protect the area—which, along with Mont Saint Michel, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A dam was recently built on the Couesnon River. Most of the work is complete, and it interesting to note that, although it is not specifically mentioned, these projects should also help to protect the island against rising sea levels due to climate change.
The next day, I woke before sunrise and found myself one of the few humans out. I walked down a completely empty La Grande Rue to return to the causeway and was rewarded with a magnificent sunrise. It was still a bit chilly outside, so I returned to the hotel and found the staff had just started to arrive.
Later in the morning, my husband and I toured the Abbey. We chose the audio guide to help us wander slowly though the various buildings on our own. It was nice to listen to the guide and examine things at our own pace. As I wandered through the extraordinary Abbey that was built as a fortress, I was awestruck at the thought of the work that it took to bring those great stones to the island, up the hill and then place them. The Abbey is truly majestic; the walls are enormous, tall and thick. It is also well fortified, as the islet remained firmly under French control during the 100 years war. When you visit the site, be sure to look down at the floor to see the markings left by the ancient stonemasons. I would have enjoyed hearing stories about the workers that built this enormous structure and the methods they used.
After our tour of the Abbey, we found one of the many restaurants that offered the traditional pilgrim fare: the omelet. Omelets have a story of their own and deserve their own article. I recommend the omelettes at the Le Mère Poulard restaurant on La Rue Grande. I chose a version with St. Jacques (scallops), and was not disappointed; it was delicious. If you are not one for omelets, you can always try the local slow-cooked salt lamb (fed from the grass in the salt marshes).
Mont St-Michel has always been a place for pilgrims or tourists. The pilgrims today may have a slightly different agenda, but the intent is still largely the same. At least modern day tourists have a much safer way to access the island. The Abbey is truly, “Le Merveille” (the Marvel), a medieval architectural feat. Bishop Aubert was told by the Archangel that if he ‘built it, they would come’. And come they still do, to visit the Marvel and eat the traditional omelet with a nice glass of wine.