Piety and Tourism: Mont St Michel
Finally, our last exploration led us to the highlight of our stay: the amazing Mont St Michel.
An estimated couple of hours’ drive from ‘home’, we decided nonetheless to take the scenic route through the countryside, rather than opt for the faster motorways north, then west. We set off toward Domfront, a small medieval town halfway between Argentan and le Mont. I was taking it easy with the driving. We enjoyed views across the green fields by the roadside, soft rolling hills dotted with sheep and cows. We passed through some lovely forests, leaves falling onto our car, turned softly golden in the autumn sun.
We sadly didn’t stop off in Domfront, conscious of the time, but we could see medieval church spires in the town centre as we passed. This was one place to aim for another time, as it had more ‘old’ architecture. But we nearly stopped in a picturesque village called Ducey not far from the end of our journey. One of the reasons to stop would have been to take photos of their black and white sheep – not black heads and white bodies, but black dots covering their white fleece. Never seen suchlike before. But we had bypassed them too fast.
As we came closer to Mont St Michel, we could see the outline of the hilltop from a distance, the land being flat for miles land-inward from the sea. The abbey appeared shrouded in mist. In the car park, we found cars from many different countries parked: France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, UK, Ireland, Poland, Netherlands.
It was approaching noon when we entered le Mont through the main gate and the abbey itself was closed but of course all the restaurants and cafés were open. It seemed like we were entering a strange world, a Disneyland! The Tourist Office was closed for lunch, too, so everyone was aiming for the foodie places. Tacky gift shops lined the narrow lane up the hill right from the entrance and the place immediately struck us as extremely touristy. It reminded me of Heidelberg or Rothenburg in Germany – quaint, narrow medieval streets with shops displaying large ‘buy me’ signs above cheap souvenirs. There were coasters, sweets, plastic swords, plates and cups printed with a photo of the Mount, and a few religious icons – Mary and Child or St Michael, holding aloft his sword – made of cheap plastic or pewter. You name it – it was there!
We picked a half-empty restaurant as they had ‘galottes’ on their menu, the local speciality of dark wheat pancake with savoury filling that we had enjoyed so much in Bayeux. But on ordering our drinks we discovered that they didn’t serve those at lunch times. Well, ok then. Very disappointing. But we ordered a bottle of yummy local cider and picked our food: mussels in herb & cream sauce for me, and an omelette ‘au Mont St Michel’ (whisked in copper bowls for the light, frothy consistency) for hubby. Both tasted delicious. We had some lovely local apple tart as a dessert. Not bad at all for a tourist outlet.
After our meal, we walked up the steep path towards the abbey, following it as it wound its way up the hill like a coiled snake. Being good tourists, we stopped off here & there to have a nosy in the shops. At the entrance to the abbey, we bought our tickets (reasonably priced at Eur 7.50 each, plus Eur 6.00 for the audio tape for two) and in we went. The buildings were incredible, set on three levels, and it must have been quite a feat to undertake such a construction task on such tricky terrain. We were enlightened when we spotted a ‘lift’ on the side of the rock where the stone blocks were pulled up by a clever hoist system. I had noticed it from the approach to the site, and it was fascinating to see the system from inside.
The church, crypt and refectory of the abbey were breathtaking. The church itself was infused with light through large windows, as was the refectory. The crypt was located underneath the church and its stone pillars, huddled closely together in places, were built in support of the weight of the church above. Fascinating architecture!
The tour took us a couple of hours, listening to our audios while wandering from room to room. Some groups were quicker, overtaking us, but we wanted to take our time to enjoy the atmosphere. Even though the Mount was crawling with tourists, you could still end up in a few corners without seeing anyone. Bliss!
The audio recording was very helpful to explain the different stages of building works, and the uses of the various rooms: refectory for the monks’ dinners, eaten in silence; church with a sealed off area for the current resident brotherhood; reception room for official visitors in the olden days; lower reception area for the poor and the pilgrims. Very well put together and worth the money.
The sweeping views over the bay from the terraces were incredible, overlooking miles of sandy beaches where the sea had withdrawn from earlier that day. I couldn’t spot the water with bare eyes (even with glasses!). When the tide returned, all that sprawling sand would be covered again, and the water reached the foot of the mount, including parts used as the car park. We spotted groups of people walking along the beach and seabirds hovering over the reeds in the marshes to the side of the abbey grounds.
On our way down, we walked along the ramparts, marvelling at the steep drops next to the thick outer walls. We stopped off in a shop to buy a bottle of local cider that we had tried in the restaurant, and a map A.D. 1215 for my writing reference. Then we slowly headed back to the car, ice cream cone in hand. As we sat down on a stone wall just outside the enclosure, we were surrounded by tame songbirds, keen on a bite off our waffle cones. They came within touching distance. Scary! With all this twitching around us, we even forgot to take a photo of the little pests.
We took our time driving back, still enjoying the countryside as we passed it by. Again, we failed to stop to take snaps of the black and white sheep of Ducey but took a note of the place for another holiday.
This trip was definitely the highlight of our holiday and we can only recommend it. I’m in no hurry to go back there soon but maybe in 20 years time to see how it has changed. Still, it’s a breathtaking sight that nobody on a holiday in Brittany or Normandy should miss.
Mont St Michel Photos
The pics only half show the amazing architecture. :-)