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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mont Saint Michel, France

 Writing by Bill & Pictures by Sylvia
After visiting the impressive American Cemetery at the Normandy Beaches we continued to travel south to Mont Saint Michel.  This abbey is one of France’s most iconic attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by more than 3 million people every year. It is famously located on a rocky tidal island (meaning it’s an island only at high tide; however, it is always connected via causeway to the mainland) almost a mile off of the coast of lower Normandy.  As we approached the Causeway, we noticed large flocks of sheep grazing on the flat land that lead up to the sea. Dikes (polderisation) and occasional flooding created salt marsh meadows that were found to be ideally suited for grazing sheep.

The well-flavored meat that results from the diet of the sheep in the salt meadows, makes agneau de pré-salé (salt meadow lamb), a local specialty that may be found on the menus of restaurants that depend on income from the many visitors to the mount.

From a distance you can see the protective walls that enclose the island village and abbey.  The abbey dates back to Roman times, and was founded by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches.  It was called Mont Tombe [a sanctuary] that was dedicated to the Archangel Michael, on October 16, in 708.  Officially the name became Mont-Saint-Michel some two hundred years later, when the church was built on top of this granite out-cropping by Benedictine Monks.  

The Romanesque abbey of today was not started until the year 1023.  It was built primarily as in those times for the church to enforce its authority during the crusades.  According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.  Ouch!
With the celebration of the monastic's 1000th anniversary, in the year 1966 a religious community moved back to what used to be the abbatial dwellings, perpetuating prayer and welcoming the original vocation of this place. Friars and sisters from "Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem" have been ensuring a spiritual presence since the year 2001.

We arrived in the late afternoon.  We had learned that it was best to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the biggest crowds.  We had also read that we needed to be careful where we parked as some of the lower parking lots were flooded at high tide.  The first lot we pulled into was at least a half mile from the island and we asked if we could find a safe place closer and the lot attendant directed us to another drive that took us much closer and we were able to find a parking spot along the main drive above the parking lots.  This proved to be a wise move because when we returned to the car later in the evening, the parking lots below us were partially flooded by the incoming tide. The tides are some of the most dangerous in the world.  This seemingly tranquil, quiet abbey stands so proud on the summit in rather calm looking tidal pools, yet the tides are fierce and have killed many people over the centuries.  The tides come in swiftly, changing between low and high tides up to 60 feet, and with a force of over 3 feet per second. These are the highest tides in continental Europe.  The tides in the area change quickly, and have been described by Victor Hugo as "à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop" or "as swiftly as a galloping horse".  We had a chance to view this fact up close and personal.  After parking we walked across a vast paved area that was down lower than where we had parked. 

We paused here to have our picture taken and went on to the entrance to the island. After finding the tourist office and paying our fees we made our way through the outer gate into the very narrow street that wound upward through the village. It was at this point we realized the guide books were correct about the crowds leaving in the late afternoon.  We felt like we must be going the wrong way as most people were making their way to the gate to leave.
In the village that wraps around Mont Saint-Michel are touristy shops, restaurants and even a few hotels.   At the same time as the abbey was developing a village grew up during the Middle Ages. It flourished on the south-east side of the rock surrounded by walls dated, for the most part, from the Hundred Years war. This village has always been a commercial entity to serve the needs of the monks that inhabited the monastery and also the pilgrims that came to visit.  Today the village continues to provide services to the many visitors that come every day.
With a permanent population of only 50 or so people, when the masses depart you are presented with an ideal opportunity to experience the atmosphere of what it is like to live here. Early in the morning or late at night the silence is broken only by the subdued and eerie chanting of the monks as they attend their religious rituals.

We began climbing up and up sometimes on streets and other times on steps.  It had begun to drizzle, as it had most of the places that we visited on this trip, and the cobblestones and stone steps became a little slippery.  We made our way up to a chapel and took refuge from the rain for a while and just sat and looked at the people and the beauty of the church.  Eventually we made our way out a small side door and continued our climb upwards.  Everywhere we looked were little hidden gems; a graveyard, a secluded garden, a tower and on and on we up climbed. 

I really had never thought I would be able to climb to the top. In fact, when we first saw Mont Saint Michel from a distance I made the comment that I hoped no one expected me to climb to the top.  But I made it - with many rests along the way up and back.

As we started back down on the other side we noticed the tide had turned and it was fascinating to watch as it rapidly came in around the base of the island, burying mudflats and rocks very quickly.  We took our time and finally made it back to the gate.  Imagine our surprise to find that the large paved area we had walked across to enter the village was not under a swirling mass of muddy water.  Now we saw why they had a raised board walk that went across to where the causeway ended near where we were parked. We sat and rested for a while and watched the faces of the people as we rested.  It was comical to see the reaction when they saw how the water had risen around the entrance to the village.  Eventually, we made our way across the boardwalk and found our car.  We noticed that several cars were still in the lower parking lots and water was beginning to lap around their tires.  As we sat in the car waiting for Michelle and Summer to join us, we saw the tide turn and, almost quicker than one would believe, the waters rushed the other way and the large paved area once again became dry land.  What a phenomenon!

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