No.296: Normandie—Mont Saint Michel
“Abbey steep, thrust there, far from land,
as a mansion fantastic, amazing as
a dream palace, strange and improbably beautiful “
“The church was magical
the sun streaming in
the divine voices echoing off the walls
I adored the abbey
the mud was scrumdillilious
the best mud ever…”
Between rock and sea, a sheer-sided citadel-like abbey rises 80-metres out of the sand and water magnificently dominating the surrounding low-lying region of Normandie. This is Mont Saint Michel. Towering above an immense bay beset by the highest tides in Europe, the sea spills in over a dozen miles in the space of just a few hours, creating one of the most breathtaking sites in France.
Mont Saint Michel dates back to the 700s when at the “request” of the Archangel Michel a local bishop consecrated a small church on the point. Over the centuries Benedictines monks settled on the rock and continued building an abbey and monastery. During the Hundred Years War military construction was added to fortify the compound. In the early Middle Ages ascetic Christians known as hermits chose this site to live in complete poverty, and in an attempt to be closer to God, continued to the abbey towards the heavens.
It became a great spiritual and intellectual centre and was one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the western world. Multitudes of men, women, and children arrived by the paths to paradise—hoping for “the assurance of eternity, given by the Archangel at judgment.”
During the days of the French Revolution, the abbey was ransacked and nearly demolished and the remains were turned into a prison. It was restored in the 19th century and is now considered one of France’s national treasures.
Although an active religious community resides in Mont Saint Michel and it is still a place of pilgrimage for the faithful, it is now more of a Mecca of buzzing tourists. Over three million visitors make the trek each year. Aside from the astounding citadel-abbey and IMAX-like vista, tourists come to play in the tides. If you have ever been to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado you will understand exactly what type of sands surround the castle. At times the sea travels under the sand, creating traitorous pockets of quicksand, but most of the time it is merely harmless sinking sand, ready to delighting the young and old alike.
The small Normand village of inns, shops and taverns nestled below the abbey was built to house and water the pilgrims at the end of their journey. Nowadays as Superman rather crankily observed, “it represents the worst of humanity, packed like sardines” and pushing forward without regard for others. I was less bothered by the crowds. Instead they gave me an appreciation for what it must have been like centuries ago. The junky trinkets, hawking vendors, and overpriced scrummy eateries were all there to welcome the original pilgrims. Some things don’t change. At least we were afforded the modern conveniences of sewers and showers, clean drinking water and health codes. No plagues or rats; no stench of unbathed travelers, although the numbers of extremely overweight visitors—French no less—was an unsettling reminder of what awaits us in America.
Nonetheless, this picturesque meeting point of sand, sea, and sky, is a trip worth making.