Mont St-Michel

On The Road Travel Essays

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Mont St-Michel

Unfortunately you will probably not see the Mont surrounded by the sea. This only happens at especially high tides at new and full moons (i.e. twice a month).

The abbey's origin goes back to the beginning of the 8th century when the Archangel Michael appeared before Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, who founded an oratory on the island, then known as Mount Tombe. This was replaced on what had been renamed Mont St. Michel, first by a Carolingian Abbey and then, until the 16th century by a series of Romanesque and Gothic churches, each more splendid than its predecessor. The abbey was fortified, but never captured.

The construction is a masterpiece of skill, granite blocks had to be brought from either the Chausey Islands or Brittany and hauled up to the site which at its crest was so narrow that supports had to be built up from the rocks below. There was of course no road then. The Island, being surrounded by shifting sands, was a dangerous undertaking to cross. Victor Hugo has written a most moving novel about a man who left the island too late to get to the mainland and was caught in the quicksands, drowning in the sand.

In fact, the quicksands continue to be a danger, which is why you shouldn't venture off the roads. Another danger is the tide rolling in, especially during the "spring tide." The word "spring" has nothing to do with the season. It refers to the way the tide "springs" on you unaware at the time of the year when the sun and moon are both pulling in the same direction. At this time, tradition has it that the tide races in at the speed of a galloping horse — an awesome sight to behold. At low time, the water retreats a full 10 miles out to sea.

Mont St. Michel was a place that attracted many pilgrims each year. It also attracted businessmen who set up hotels and souvenir shops. Those are, in fact, very old and during the 100 Years War, souvenirs were already being traded here.

Surrounding the Mont, as you'll see, are sheep grazing in pasturelands. Since the water is salty, the grass chewed by the sheep is salty too, and the sheep's blood have a very high salt content. This, in turn, makes the lamb served in this part of Normandy salty, and it's a flavor prized by local people and visitors alike. Another culinary specialty of the Mont: omelettes, which taste out of this world!

The whole construction, Abbey and town, is surrounded by ramparts. A walk on these ramparts affords a good view of the bay (access to the ramparts by bearing left to the steps leading to the Grand Degre Stairway).

Leave the bus at the bus parking, but set a departure time, giving about 2 to 2-1/2 hours here. You will then pass with your group through the ramparts by the outer and inner gates to get to the main street which is lined by 400 year-old houses. From here (watch out for it) you will take a stairway (Grand Degre) to your left, which leads to the abbey.)

You may find crowds here. Make sure your group is following you closely. When you come to the line of visitors, let your group line up there. Then you squeeze past them to the ticket office, announce an American group, get the tickets and a guide. Once you have that arranged, make your group pass the waiting crowds and enter. It should work!

There are English-speaking guides, but in order not to waste time, don't wait for one, unless it is supposed to take no longer than 15 minutes. Take a French-speaking guide and translate as you go along.

Ask the guide not to go into too many details. Leave your group free at the viewing platform at the back of the abbey. Repeat the time of bus departure (the guided tour will have taken about 60 minutes — let the guide know in advance that the tour should not last longer than this) and suggest to the students a walk on the ramparts. There should be enough time for coffee and postcard buying.

The following notes are made to help you with a possible translation. The official tour takes you floor-by-floor through a maze of passages and stairways, and not by building or period — and there will be a general feeling of confusion and frustration. For this reason, it is important to have a bus departure time set beforehand, because the group will slowly, but surely grow thinner. The tour takes in the Lacework Staircase.

The Church  The east end with its flying buttresses, turrets, balustrades is a masterpiece of delicacy and grace. "Inside there is a striking contrast between the simplicity of the Romanesque nave and the elegance and light of the Gothic chancel."

The Merveille (The Marvel)  this name has been given to the construction on the north side of the Mont which is superb Gothic. Built 1211-1218, this part contains the Refectory, Guests' Hall and Almhouse where in the olden times, the pilgrims were put up. From the outside, the Merveille is a fortress, "inside the evolution of the Gothic style is obvious from the simplicity which is almost Romanesque in the lower halls to the total mastery of grace, lightness and line in the cloister. The cloister appears as though suspended between the sky and sea. The colors of the stone add variety to the overall harmony of the intricately carved gallery arcades, each supported on a cluster of five, perfect, small columns."

Refectory  Somehow you seem puzzled by a kind of diffused light throughout the hall, although light appears to come only from two end windows. In fact, the architect made narrow windows at the top of the embrasures, adding an upper, secondary light.

From the Grand Degre one can also gain entrance to the Abbey Gardens for a small entrance fee, just in case you are asked about it. As the climate is very mild in this part of France, it may be interesting to enter the gardens.

On leaving Mont St. Michel, you may want to make a picture stop, depending on the weather, as the light should be good now for photos.

Going on to your next stop, explain the beneficial effects of the Gulf current on Europe generally, and on Brittany, Britain, and Norway in particular.


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