Like Giverny, Le Mont St. Michel is best savored after the day-trippers are gone. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is the third most visited site in France, very evident during the day. Luckily, Dianne arranged for us to be here for three nights – plenty of time to see the Abbey and pay our respects to St. Michael.
Dianne had warned me that there would be much climbing. After all, Le Mont is just that – a huge rock sitting off shore with a tiny village (population 50) and Abbey clinging precariously to it. We could see it when we were still a fair distance from the coast. It floated above the fields, like a mirage in the quirky light of dusk. As we drew near, we could see the mud flats and the salt marshes where sheep graze. It’s isolated.
In historic times when the tide came in, the community was cut off from the coast. In 1879, a causeway connected it. The French government built a new causeway in 2014, but the buses that deliver visitors from the parking lot stop some way from the island. This is not a place to drag all of your gear. So I pared down to just my backpack and we left the rest of our stuff in the car. It turns out that was a smart move, because we had to climb 162 steps to get to our room, most of them stone and outside, taking us from the lower level hotel lobby to the annex up the hill where we were staying.
Our room had a splendid view looking back toward the coast, where we had the pleasure of a brilliant sunrise every morning. We didn’t need the sun or an alarm to wake us; we had the seagulls. Laughing gulls, screeching gulls, clucking gulls; I’m not sure if each had his own sound or if they all made the range of vocalizations we heard.
Early mornings were also a time to see the inner workings of the island: deliveries, trash removal, sweeping. It’s critical to get supplies moved early up and down the one street in the village, because it’s impassible once the tourists arrive. Seeing this early flurry of activity gave us an appreciation for those who make their livelihood in this tiny village, dependent almost exclusively on tourism.
Our room also gave us a great view of the tide. When it was rising, we could hear the water rushing in and see it rising by the minute. Locals say that “the tide rises faster than a horse can run,” so it’s best not to stay out on the mud flat once it starts coming in. Most days the water does not come in that far. But high tides and king tides do occur and one completely submerged the causeway in 2015. Personally, I won’t go out there – it has areas of quicksand, bringing to mind a childhood fear of drowning in sand.
That one cobbled street winds its way up the hill, switching to steps about two-thirds of the way up, culminating at the Mont St. Michel Abbey at the top. The first monastery was built in the 8th century. According to legend, St. Michael the Archangel instructed the bishop of the nearby town to build a church there in 708 BCE; thus the name of the island. Pilgrimages to St. Michael began soon after, and Benedictine monks started building the present Abbey in the 10th century. With the exception of an amusing glimpse in a courtyard of the dragon (presumably the one St. Michael smote), there is little adornment in the church or elsewhere in the Abbey. This place was about prayer, and later prisoners, not impressing ordinary people.
When I saw the changes to Le Mont in a series of models, I wondered at the amount of material that had to be brought in and the skill required to build here. The monks left in 1790 during the French Revolution when the Abbey was turned into a prison. It has since been restored, and a community of nuns and monks from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, has been living here since 2001.
Despite the prominence of the Abbey, our favorite place on the island is the local parish church for the village, Eglise St. Pierre (St. Peter), with its sanctuary of St. Michael. It was built in the 11th century and extensively rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s mostly ignored by tourists who focus on getting up to the Abbey. The church is only steps from our hotel, so we stopped at this quiet refuge daily, lighting candles in front of St. Michael.
I’ve gained a new appreciation of Michael, the Protector, since my visit here. In fact, my favorite times of day are morning and in the last hours before sunset, when I can see the sun glinting off the statue of St. Michael at the very top of the Abbey spire. It feels like he is here, protecting this place.
Dianne and I were lucky to be on the Le Mont during the full moon, with its magical light – such a treat to watch the moon rise right outside our window for several nights running. It’s something the day-trippers never get to see. We were blessed on so many levels.
Despite the constant up and down, I highly recommend a visit here, but only if you can stay overnight. The visit just wouldn’t be the same in a day-trip.
For other essays on our rural France journey, see:
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