Thursday 11 April 2013

Mont Saint-Michel, France

Have you ever wondered how it is to spend a night at The Rock? No, not San Francisco's Alcatraz but a much older rock on the other side of the pond.  

Le Mont Saint Michel, named after the archangel Saint Michael is a rocky islet off the coast of Normandy in Northwestern France. It started out as a stronghold in the 6th century that later became an abbey in the 8th century. It was one of history's most popular centers of pilgrimage in earlier times. Well, it still is actually but nowadays the Mont gets hordes of tourists instead. 

Count the big K and I among those awe-struck tourists to make the pilgrimage to the Mont. Most visitors would do the Mont as a day trip from Paris (quite tiring, if you ask me) but we wanted to take our time to visit and feel the place. So, we decided to spend not only one but two memorable nights right inside the wall! 

During the French Revolution, Mont Saint-Michel was turned into a prison. Thanks to a campaign launched by influential figures that included Victor Hugo in the early 1800s, the Mont was declared a historic monument in 1874. In 1979 Mont Saint-Michel was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. 

To get to the Mont, we took a two-hour TGV train ride from Paris Montparnasse to Rennes. From there it was another hour and a half by bus to the Mont. 

Are we there yet?!
What a sight to behold! We couldn't believe we were here! We'd only seen pictures of the Mont in books and magazines. I couldn't stop taking pictures! Good thing we were seated at the first row of the bus. 
This sign was prominently posted at the entrance of the Mont warning motorists of the high tide times. Better move your car before the tide comes in or you get to claim your car in jolly old England.
The causeway is the only access connecting the Mont to the mainland. It also doubles as the monument's sole car park when the tides come in and submerge the other car parks. (Note: This trip was in 2010. Presently the car parks are located at the new terminal at the mainland just before entering the causeway. There are regular shuttles that can take you up to the Mont's entrance. Or you can always walk if you're up to it. I made another visit here in 2013. You can read about it here.) 
Another view of the causeway during low tide as seen from the ramparts. 

The big K and I stayed at Le Mouton Blanc, a hundred-plus year old hotel housed in a 14th century building. No ghost experience this time, thank God! You can read about that spooky episode in this blog post.

We stayed in a simple double room on the second floor (that would be third floor in the US) that was facing La Grand Rue or main street. Actually it is the  only street in the Mont. The street is lined with little shops, inns and restaurants and leads right up to the abbey at the top of the hill. 

During the day Grand Rue is understandably quite busy with visitors but after the day trippers have gone and most of the shops have closed, one can somehow imagine how it would have been to walk the street all those hundreds of years ago. 

The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel

The abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is perched at the very top of the hill. The Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem is the community now living inside the abbey. 

This was how food and supplies were brought in to the abbey in earlier times. 
A close-up look of the monastery's service elevator, no longer in use of course. 
Daily masses are still held at the abbey.
Interior courtyard.
View of the mainland from inside the abbey. 
A plaque commemorating the Knight defenders of Mont Saint-Michel.
Mother and Child icon inside the abbey.
Archangel Saint Michael whom the Mont was named after. 

As the story goes, the Archangel Saint Michael appeared in a vision before Saint Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches and asked him to build a church on top of the rocky island to which the Bishop continuously ignored. Exasperated by the constant disregard to his request,  Saint Michael drove his finger into the Bishop's skull and ordered him to complete the task. Voila! It is finished! Talk about getting the job done.

The relic of Aubert's skull complete with the hole can be seen at the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches.

The spires of the abbey as seen from the little cemetery at the foot of the hill.

The Tides of Mont Saint-Michel 

One of the things that make Le Mont Saint-Michel unique is its tides. It was also one of the main reasons why the monastery's defenses were never breached. As in, never, ever. 

The tide comes in so quickly - à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop - as Victor Hugo describes it, at the speed of a galloping horse.  The speeds at which the tides at the Mont rush in sometimes reaches one meter per second.

It still is dangerous to venture out alone in the bay. If you want to experience how it was crossing the bay just like what the early pilgrims did there are experienced guides that organize these walks (for a fee, of course).  

The case of the disappearing car park.
Mont Saint-Michel all lit up for the night. 
Quiet, haunting and a bit spooky walk along the Grand Rue at night. 

It had been another wonderful adventure with the big K!
Uh....Okay, now where do we get the bus to take us to the train station?
I don't think any bus can get through that water.
We finally figured out the bus stop was a further walk up the causeway during high tide.  
On the way back to Paris, we took the local train from the Pontorson-Mont Saint-Michel station connecting to the TGV station at Rennes. 

Helpful links:

Official website of Mont Saint-Michel

How to get to Mont Saint-Michel

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