It was by sheer luck, though, that I was able to visit Mont-Saint-Michel at all (pronounced “mohn san mee-shehl” [mɔ̃ sɛ̃ mi.ʃɛl]). The very day I had chosen to visit Mont-Saint-Michel was the first day in weeks that the tourist bus was running between Saint-Malo (where my hostel was) and the Mount, with maybe one or two other runs more for December. I paid the exorbitant 20 € for round-trip service but didn’t complain because this really freaky coincidence made the whole visit possible. One hour later, the bus driver dropped the dozen or so of us riders off at a brand-new parking lot south of the Mount on the mainland. Although it was really cold and intensely windy, the sun was at least shining and—yes—a rainbow had appeared with one arm ending right next to the Mount. I took the free tram across the bridge instead of enduring half an hour of cold ocean wind on foot.
|Interior of the abbey|
|Bas-relief of the foundation legend|
For whatever reason, the bishop really didn’t feel like doing this until the third night, when the archangel basically smacked him upside the head to get his attention. Michael then had dew collect on the hill’s summit to demonstrate the church’s dimensions and even suggested Aubert send some monks down to Italy to pick up some of his non-bodily relics to use for consecrating the shrine (angels, after all, have no bodies, and this was one of Aubert’s objections). You can read more about the legend in this historical journal article here.
Of course, the Mount’s beautiful architecture makes this place stand out from other church-topped islands, but its significance to French religion and history are why, I think, it’s so important to the French. As I mentioned earlier, the Mount was a major French fortress during the Hundred Years War between England and France in the Middle Ages. The English laid siege to Mont-Saint-Michel not once but three times but couldn’t ever take it—even when they had control of the rest of northern France. After the French turned back the English tide into the Channel (see Joan of Arc), the Mount became a huge symbol of French nationalism and military triumph (I don’t need your jokes from the peanut gallery about their defeats in the 20th century, alright?).
I had lunch on Mont-Saint-Michel, and I probably paid as much for the experience as I did the tasty food. I ordered a galette, or a thin, savory pancake made from brown buckwheat flour and filled with ham, cheese, and a fried egg. Galettes are really popular to eat in the regions of Normandy and neighboring Brittany. For dessert I got a crêpe, or thin, sweet pancake filled with butter and sugar. Yeah, those two ingredients are basically all my sweet tooth needs to be happy.
So they’re building a dam right before the Couesnon empties into the sea, demolishing the causeway, and making new parking lots and a visitor center on the mainland. Hopefully in a few years (when restoration is scheduled to be finished) we’ll be able to experience the Mount as the tides have always treated it.
What has been your experience with sites like Mont-Saint-Michel that are often overrun by tourists? Do you choose to visit them despite the crowds or do you avoid them for “off-the-beaten-track” places? Comment below!
For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.