Everyone who’d ever been there said I had to go. My friend Allen told me it was a longtime dream and goal of his to make it there. I had seen pictures of the place since I was a kid, and it truly is one of the world’s most magical sights (and sites). But still, I wasn’t all that fired up about it. It sounded like a nice idea, but it wasn’t something I’d been looking forward to with bated breath.
Nevertheless, after spending the night in the Normandy town of Combourg, I had a spring in my step as I loaded up Claire the car and got on the road early to my next destination.
Mont St. Michel.
A quick bit of history on this fabled island and its Benedictine monastery:
Part fortress and part religious sanctuary, the monastery dates from the eighth century, a combination of imposing Romanesque and fantastical Gothic architectural styles. The small village below the monastery has a population of 50 full-time residents (as of 2015), who host around three million visitors a year.
For hundreds of years, the faithful have made pilgrimages to this holy place. During the Middle Ages, pilgrims would walk across the bay at low tide, which was extremely dangerous. It was said that those who braved the quicksand and quickly rising tides should first make out a will, because there was no guarantee they would make it to the island and back safely.
In the 19th century, France built a road to Mont St. Michel that made it possible for more pilgrims as well as tourists to visit, but there was a major flaw in the design: it blocked movement of the seawater, which was not only unhealthy for the Couesnon River’s eco-system, but it caused a massive silt build up around the island. In 2014, thankfully, the road was removed when a new causeway was opened, which allows the water to once again flow freely and restore the natural balance around the island.
It was still fairly early when I pulled into one of the car parks by the recently constructed bridge, but the place was already filling up with tourists. In spite of a few dark looming clouds, I joined a healthy crowd of fellow visitors on the walk to Mont St Michel.
My first view of this mythical, magical-looking place had not been what I expected, but it was hardly a disappointment. The day was gray and foggy, and when I looked out to the island, all I saw was a low series of rocky shoreline. There was no monastery, no spiked tower soaring into the heavens. Nearly all of the island was lost inside a cloud, and the Abbey had completely vanished from sight. It was really wonderfully enchanting…
Not being as intrepid as those pilgrims from the past, I opted out of trekking through the marshes and quicksand of the bay, and made my way to Mont St. Michel across the 1.6 mile footbridge. As I neared the island, the gauzy blanket surrounding Mont St. Michel began to loosen its hold, and by the time I was nearing the end of the causeway, the haunting, otherworldly fortress was completely visible.
When I first stepped foot on Mont St Michel, I took a few moments to remove my shoes and venture onto the sand in the bay, and walk out a bit between the island and the mainland, so that I might connect even just briefly with those centuries of faithful visitors.
Soon it was time to start the real sojourn, and I joined the masses of other visitors who were strolling through the utterly charming, postcard-perfect medieval streets of the village. The narrow cobblestone streets were lined with heavenly looking patisseries and baguette shops, souvenir shops catering to every taste level (I say this with affection, as my own personal taste tends to run to the lower end of the souvenir spectrum). There were quaint tavern-looking bars and beautiful restaurants, and occasionally there would be a doorway or a passageway leading to an inviting, winsome hotel.
The scenery is all quite picturesque, but the hike itself is rough-going. The incline is steep, and was made none the more pleasant on the day of my visit, by the sheer number of people making the same ascent as myself.
Moving up the winding, constricted street, shoulder to shoulder with a sea of other tourists, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was visiting Mont St. Michel in the wrong way. Instead of coming for the day en masse with a large portion of those three million visitors, the island would be much better seen and explored by staying on the island in one of those gorgeous hotels, enjoying good, unhurried meals in the lovely restaurants, and seeing the sights before and after the waves of tourists had passed through.
Aiding in this plan, the evening tides often come in high enough to cover the causeway, turning Mont St. Michel back into a proper island. This undoubtedly must empty the streets, sending the tourists scurrying back to the mainland.
That’s the way to experience Mont St. Michel but, at least for me, it would have to wait for another time. Right now I had a mountain to conquer and a marauding horde to overcome in my quest for the summit.
And it was in the middle of this climb that I had a meltdown as I neared the top of the steep incline, which involved an old, beat-up piece of emotional baggage, a movie star, California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway, and a nun carrying a lawn mower. Was I experiencing enlightenment? Was this tourist’s daytrip really a pilgrimage after all? Hmmm… That’s a story for the book.
Post-meltdown, I eventually summited, and toured the remarkable Mont St. Michel monastery. My favorite bits were the brass sculptures which appear to be parts of an enormous mythical, eagle-like creature that lives within the monastery – a claw here, a beak there. I also loved the narrow passageways between the buildings. It was all spectacular and sublime, ancient and mysterious, and strangely ethereal.
I managed to make my way down and get back off the Mont just as the real throngs of tourists were starting to show up. Once I was back in the car, I plugged in the address for my hotel in Deauville, the famous, glamorous seaside resort town where I would spend my last night on the road, before taking Claire back to the rental car office in Rouen.
On the way to Deauville, I made an unplanned stop along one of the country roads, at a funky antiques-salvage store. It was the Route 66 sign in the window that had caught my eye and piqued my interest. How could I possibly pass up the place?
There I met Gabriel, the owner of the establishment, who seemed to be a huge fan of Americana, which made up the majority of the items he had for sale. He showed me around and I met his two lovable, languid dogs, who also spoke (well, understood) only French. Thankfully, my French was strong enough that day to converse a bit with them as well as their owner. I was even able to understand Gabriel when he explained that he wants to go to the US to buy an Elvis-style Cadillac convertible. He already was the owner of an extended-cab truck with double back wheels, which he had parked out front.
Gabriel was what could best be described as a French good ol’ boy, and he shared his thoughts on the world with me. Turns out, it would be one of the best conversations in French that I would have with anyone. Not only because I wasn’t really called upon to have to speak much myself, but also because I managed to grasp a lot of what he was saying. It was all about French politics and what was currently happening in the country. “Les jeunes sont perdus” (“the young are lost”), he kept saying.
I was thrilled I could understand this. Finally, I felt, I’ve made it to France. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my entire trip. Or at least during my week on the road.
I came away from this day feeling as if it had been an incohesive one – a peculiar mix of random, disjointed stimuli. And despite my awe at the majesty and beauty of the entire place, it is those ancillary experiences that I recall first when I think of my visit to Mont St. Michel.
In my next post, I meet back up with Cornelia and Emily in Rouen, site of one of their most hilarious, infamous adventures…
The causeway leading to the isle of Mont St. Michel.
Top Row: Too cozy by half — the path to the monastery; timeless passages and corridors.
Middle Row: It’s all about the selfies and texts; solemn and graceful, the monastery chapel; a seagull perches atop a “birdcage” containing a mythical golden eagle-like creature.
Bottom Row: An enormous gazing ball adorns the lawn below the monastery walls; a “pilgrim” explores the bay at low tide; the Mother Road, a la Francaise.