Some places we visit enrich us with good moments, good memories and good pictures to show back home. Some others have a deeper effect on us – they change the way we feel, how we see things. Mount Saint-Michel, in France, was one of those places.
I knew that Mount Saint-Michel is one of Europe’s most famous landmarks. I had also heard of the huge summer crowds there, and of how full of shops it has become. I remember seeing pictures of its narrow alleys so packed with people going to the old abbey on top, that I wondered how they could possibly move. About 3 million people visit Mount Saint-Michel every year; it’s part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. But crowded places are not what I look for in my travels, and Mount Saint-Michel was off my bucket list. Which would have been my loss, had I not changed my mind.
I was in the area exploring nearby Brittany with my daughter Clara. After few days driving the beautiful coast from Roscoff to Saint-Malo – from where on clear days we could see Mount Saint-Michel in the distance – we decided to give it a try. It was a cold and grey winter in Northern France, and encouraged by the idea that most people don’t travel in such weather (we actually prefer it), we reserved a hotel online and drove under heavy rain from Saint-Malo to Normandy.
We arrived late afternoon at the designated parking lot on the continent side – cars are not allowed on Mount Saint-Michel. Freezing and hungry, waiting for the last bus – and still unable to see Mount Saint-Michel due to the heavy fog – I started to think that perhaps the trip hadn’t been such a good idea. On the bus, tired and in a somber mood, I could only think of a shower and a bed. But all of a sudden, as we approached the final stop, right in front of us, magnificent and imposing, was Mount Saint Michel in full view. It took my breath away.
Rising hundreds of feet above a rocky islet, amidst vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides, on the very top of the mount stands a Gothic Benedictine abbey, surrounded by a medieval village. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, Mont Saind-Michel is a testament to the ingenuity of man, as well as a structural hierarchy of feudal society: God on top, then the abbey and monastery; below that come the great halls, then stores and housing, and – at the very bottom, outside the walls – the fishermen’s and farmers’ housing. Stone houses on steep narrow streets form a very harmonious architectural body, and the church steeple on the very top is so high that it seems to pierce into heaven. Above all sits a golden statue of Archangel Michael, as if defying the heights. The mount is an almost circular circumference (about 3,000 feet), and most of the time is surrounded by vast sandbanks, becoming an island twice a day when the tides are high. Before the construction of the 3,000-foot causeway that connects it to the continent, it was particularly difficult to reach, because of quicksand and very fast-rising tides.
We left the bus and looked for out hotel, walking narrow cobbled streets still wet from the rain. I’m glad we were given a code – when we booked Les Terrasses Poulard – or we would have been stuck outside: with the shops closed, and the last bus to the continent departed, there was not a single soul around (only 50 people actually live in Mount Saint-Michel, people working there live on the continent). Once we were buzzed in, our room key and a note were waiting for us at the front desk, but the hotel was totally empty.
A heavier silence fell upon the whole place, after dark. Suddenly, the tide was much higher, and the causeway to the continent got partially covered by water. We walked up the stairs of a steep street, looking for a place to eat. That proved to be an easy choice – there was only one restaurant open. Off season never looked so off season as in Mount Saint-Michel.
The restaurant was almost empty, but we had wonderful crepes (the best in France are in Brittany and Normandy). After dinner we stopped at the small bookstore to get some booklets. I had many questions: what is Mount Saint Michel? Why do so many people feel the need to see it, once in a lifetime? I would soon find out.
After dinner we decided to walk around a bit, crossing with no one on the faintly lit street winding up to the abbey. We used the flashlight of our cell phones to climb many stone steps, and when at the top stopped to catch our breath. There was an eerie feeling up there. Looking around, I was overcome by the sight of the bay below: on one side, the lights of Saint-Malo; on the other, the brightly lit coast of Normandy. The silence was heavy, the night felt immense; we could not say a word. When I looked up to the shiny gold statue of Archangel Michael, on top of the church steeple behind, a sense of magic took over me: I never felt so small – yet so protected – as I did then; tears came to my eyes. When I looked at Clara’s face, it had a serene expression I had not seen in her in a long time.
We stayed there for some time, mesmerized by it all, quiet and alone in the dark, our only company the shining archangel above us. All of a sudden it got very windy, but before we started our descent back to the hotel, Clara uttered a gut-felt ‘wow’!
I went to bed with the booklets I had just bought, Clara decided she was going to walk some more. When she left the room, I looked once again at the statue of the archangel, seen in all its splendor from my room window. It looked surreal.
But how did this all start? How did this strange place come to be?
Legend tells that it was the 8th century, and that a Catholic bishop in the nearby village of Avranches had a dream. His name was Aubert, and he was a pious priest said to perform miracles. In his dream, Aubert saw Archangel Michael telling him to build a church in his honor on nearby Mont Tombe, at the mouth of the Couesnon river. The problem was, the place was a steep hill on the bay where no one lived, only sheep grazed.
Aubert ignored the Archangel’s request, but had the same dream days later. It is said that he then visited Mont Tomb, only to decide that nothing could be built there. A third dream happened; this time the Archangel was so mad at Aubert, that he pushed a finger on the bishop’s forehead, burning a hole on it. A hole he woke up with in the morning, and was visible to all until the day he died, 15 years later. By the way, we know about this today thanks to a 12th-century monk who collected regional tales passed down from generation to generation, saving them from disappearing.
Aubert finally built an oratory on Mont Tomb, following detailed instructions from the Archangel. Now called Mount Saint-Michel, it rapidly became a pilgrimage center and one of the most important religious destinations of France, during the Middle Ages. In the year 966 AD a Benedict abbey was built. Partly burnt by King Philippe II of France, in 1203, when he tried to capture the mountain, he compensated the monks by paying for the construction of the monastery known as La Merveille (The Wonder).
History tells that the island, which was fortified in 1256, resisted sieges during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France – from 1337 to 1453 – and that the English could not conquer Mount Saint-Michel despite repeated assaults on the abbey’s strong fortifications. When news of the island’s stand against the English reached a young peasant girl in Orléans, south-west of Paris, the tide would turn against England in the Hundred Years’ War. She was Joan d’Arc, perhaps the biggest French hero of all time.
Mount Saint-Michel again had an important role in the French Wars of Religion, from 1562 to 1598. But the monastery declined in the 18th century, and only seven monks were living there when it was dissolved by the French Revolution of 1787. A state prison under Napoleon (1804 -1815), it remained a government prison until 1863. In 1874 it was classified as a historic monument of France, and restored. The golden statue of Archangel Michael was only added in the 19th century.
The next morning I noticed Clara’s muddy boots by the door. She explained that she had walked on the sandbanks. ‘At night, with no lights?’ I asked. She joked that she had been protected by the Angel. Strange as it was, it didn’t sound like a joke.
The sun was out when we left the hotel the next morning. Few tourists were walking around taking pictures, we did the same. We then joined a tour in English, to visit the abbey, the church, the monks’ garden, the cemetery and the famous Refectory, and learning about the fantastic stories of the places. After the tour, Clara wanted to go to a mass; she was disappointed when told that they only happen few times a week, ‘not today’.
We left Mount Saint-Michel after lunch, still impressed. After getting our car in the parking lot, I told Clara I was intrigued by the tale of Saint-Aubert Relic. “His skull is in a church in Avranches”, I added. She looked at me with her inquisitive eyes, not believing.
Leaving Mount Saint-Michel behind, on the road back to our base in Roscoff, I couldn’t resist – I took an exit towards Avranches.
To be continued as A French Skull with a Hole