Some places we visit enrich us with good moments, good memories and good pictures to show our people back home. Some others have a deeper effect on us – they change the way we feel and how we see things. Mount Saint-Michel, in France, was one of those.
I knew that Mount Saint-Michel is one of Europe’s most famous landmarks. But I had also heard of the huge summer crowds, and of how commercial it has become. I had seen pictures of its narrow alleys so packed with people going up to the old abbey that I wondered how they could possibly get there. 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 when I travel, and for that reason Mount Saint-Michel was not on 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 a few days driving the beautiful coast from Roscoff to Saint-Malo – from where on clear days we could see Mount Saint-Michel on the horizon – 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 reserved a hotel online and drove under heavy rain from Saint-Malo to Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy.
We arrived at the parking lot, on the continent side, by late afternoon – cars are not allowed on Mount Saint-Michel. Freezing and hungry, waiting for the last bus, we could not see anything due to a 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 shower and a bed.
But then, all of a sudden – as we approached the final stop – right in front of us was Mont Saint Michel, magnificent and imposing, in full view. It took my breath away. It rises 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 Saint-Michel is a testament to the ingenuity of man, as well as a sample of the structural hierarchy of feudal society: God on top, then the abbey and the monastery; below that the great halls, then stores and housing. At the very bottom, outside the walls, were once fishermen’s and farmers’ housing. Steep and narrow streets form a very harmonious architectural body, and the church steeple at the very top is so high that it seems to pierce heaven. Above it all sits a golden statue of Archangel Michael, as if defying the heights.
The mount is an almost perfect circumference of about 3,000 feet, and most of the time it’s surrounded by vast sandbanks. It becomes 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, Mont Saint Michel was particularly difficult to reach, due to quicksand and very quickly rising tides.
We got off the bus and looked for our hotel, maneuvering 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 Mont Saint-Michel). 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 Mont 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 where I got some literature about Mount Saint Michel. Why do so many people feel the need to see it once in their lives? I would soon find out.
After dinner we decided to walk around a bit, seeing not a living soul on the faintly lit street winding up to the abbey. We used the flashlight of our cell phones to climb the stone steps, and once at the top we stopped to catch our breath. There was an eerie feeling up there. Looking around, I was overcome by the sight of the bay below: to my right, the lights of Saint-Malo; on the other, the brightly lit coast of Normandy. The silence was heavy and the night felt immense. When I looked up to the shiny gold statue of Archangel Michael, on top of the church steeple behind us, 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 on it that I had not seen on 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. 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, looking forward to learning more about the place; Clara said 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 window. It looked surreal.
But how did this all 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, a pious priest said to perform miracles. In his dream, Aubert saw Archangel Michael, who told 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 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 came; this time the Archangel was so mad at Aubert, that he pushed his finger against the bishop’s forehead, burning a hole in it. A hole he woke up with and that was visible to all until the day he died, 15 years later.
We know about this fantastic tale today thanks to a 12th-century monk who collected regional tales passed down from generation to generation, saving them from disappearing.
History tells that 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 in France in the Middle Ages. In the year 966 AD, a Benedict abbey was built. Partly burnt in 1203 by King Philippe II of France, when he tried to capture the mountain, he later compensated the monks by paying for the construction of the monastery known as La Merveille (The Wonder).
The whole island was fortified in 1256 and resisted many sieges during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France from 1337 to 1453. 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 war. That girl was Joan d’Arc, perhaps the greatest French hero of all time.
Mount Saint-Michel 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 sleeping peacefully in her bed, and her muddy boots by the door. She later told me she had walked on the sandbanks. “At night, with no lights?” I asked. She joked that she had been protected by the Angel, and it didn’t sound like a joke.
The sun was out when we left the hotel. A few tourists were walking around taking pictures, and we did the same. We joined a tour group to visit the abbey, the church, the monks’ garden, the cemetery and the famous Refectory. Very impressive! After the tour, Clara wanted to go to mass, and was disappointed when told that they only happen a few times a week, ‘not today’.
We left Mont Saint-Michel after lunch, still awestruck. After getting our car in the parking lot, I told Clara I was intrigued by the tale of the Saint-Aubert Relic I had read about the night before. “His skull is in a church in Avranches,” I added. She looked at me with her big, inquisitive eyes, intrigued.
Leaving Mount Saint-Michel behind, on the road back to our home-base in Roscoff, I couldn’t resist: I took an exit towards Avranches.
To be continued as A French Skull with a Hole