Oh, my poor readers. You came here for a food blog. And then I go AWOL for a week, and come back and rant about politics, and now I’m writing about my travels again, and to add insult to injury, this particular post is going to be incredibly picture-heavy, because Mont Saint Michel is so picturesque that I took something like 200 pictures in a 24 hour period, and while I have culled extensively, that still leaves a lot of pictures that are too exciting not to share.
So I apologise in advance for this. I shall try to come up with a really good vegan cupcake over the next few days, to make amends.
But without further ado, let us return to the Travel Diary, in which our intrepid heroines climb an incredible number of stairs, get hypnotised by the tides, and then spend the evening at an incredibly sound and light show.
Sunday, 24th August – Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel is hard to describe. My first impression was one of sheer horror – not at the island itself, which is truly beautiful, in a completely implausible sort of way (seriously, how do they get all those buildings to stay up? Well, actually, it turns out that they don’t, always, and have had to rebuild more than once. Also, great big pillars. But more on that later.), but at the flood tide of people swarming ahead of us as we left the bus.
It was like Versailles, only worse, and we were to be there for 24 hours.
This, after battling the Metro and its inexplicable love of stairs, with our heavy suitcases, was rather daunting.
As was the climb ahead of us – because one cannot, of course, expect a conical island which essentially has a medieval village and an abbey piled on top of it not to be full of stairs – and after two days with a lot of walking, my ankles, at least, were very sore…
So we climbed the narrow, cobbled streets and the wider, still cobbled, stairs, up and around the non-Norwegian hill of an island to collect the key for our hotel and, thank goodness, drop off our luggage. We couldn’t check in for a few more hours, but with our bags disposed of this was really not so bad.
Then we continued up more stairs and slopes, onto the ramparts for lunch. The French really do like their stairs. In Mont Saint Michel, this love-affair reaches its height, if you will pardon the pun. But there is really good reason for it.
It’s a fascinating island, actually. As far as I can tell, it just sticks up out of the landscape like a conical hill. I’m not sure whether it is circular or oval – in fact, it’s hard to determine its shape, because it is is absolutely covered in medieval buildings, packed tightly together, from bottom to top. Many of the buildings are churches. The ones that aren’t all seem to be named for Mère Poulard, who apparently made excellent omelettes.
The village is at the bottom of the island, of course, though there are various churches and chapels within the village, too.
Then you get up to the ramparts, which were built to keep out the English…
… though given that the island is surrounded by quicksand and fast tides, and is known for its mists and its storms, you might be justified in thinking that the ramparts are un-necessary. Indeed, pilgrims visiting Mont Saint Michel in medieval – and even more recent – times were advised to make their will before they left.
But evidently the monks and villagers of Mont Saint Michel liked to play it safe. And speaking of monks, the very peak of the island is topped by the monastery and church, now inhabited by two religious orders, one of monks and the other of nuns. (Evidently, they feel the same way about crowds that I do, as they were on holiday for August…)
The island is surrounded by an immense flat expanse of sand that goes all the way to the cliffs on the horizon – but when the tides come in, they are 14 metres deep, turning the Mont into an island. Of course, even when the tide is out – and it comes and goes with terrifying swiftness, you can see the deadly currents from above – you don’t really want to walk on the sand, as it is made more interesting by quicksand, sinkholes, sudden and dramatic flooding, and sudden fogs. Evidently the monks really did not like company.
We had cards for the museum, and had also planned to go on the guided tour, but there was this view, you see.
We sort of trailed after the guide for a bit, but we kept getting distracted by the fascinating tides, so in the end, the tour entered the Abbey while we were still out on the upper ramparts – because there really is nothing more fascinating than a tide line that goes all the way to the horizon. Nothing. Unless you are my friend, in which case there is nothing more fascinating than waterbirds interacting with a tide line that goes all the way to the horizon…
Eventually we tore ourselves away from the view, and entered the church, which was rather fun – Romanesque and chunky at one end, and Gothic and delicate at the other end, where it had been rebuilt after a collapse. There is a cloister, and a rather beautiful garden.
Underneath the church, there is a room full of huge pillars, that help balance the weight of the abbey on the uneven ground, and there are buttresses on the outside that provide a counterbalance.
There is also a huge wheel that was used to bring up supplies to the abbey from below.
After about an hour of exploring, we left the abbey and went back out to look at the view, only to discover that in the twenty minutes since we had last looked out a window, the tide had turned and had begun running in so fast that the endless beach we had seen earlier was already half covered with water.
So then we stood at the ramparts and watched, absolutely transfixed, as the tide came in.
It comes in all at once, or so it seems – you can almost see it moving. Certainly, if you close your eyes and count to twenty, then look back, you can see a difference in where the water ends.
I’ve never seen anything like it. We watched for nearly half an hour, unable to tear ourselves away.
But it was getting a little cooler, and we did want to know where we were sleeping, so we finally tore ourselves away, and went back to claim our key, and then find our room. Our hotel was actually not in the same place we had to collect our keys from, but was in a smaller inn further up and around on the island, and to our delight, once we had climbed the inevitable stairs to our room, it turned out that our window overlooked the very same island we had been watching so obsessively from above.
The only difference was that we were a little lower down, and that there was a gargoyle peering into our window from across the way (alas, he did not photograph well). The absolutely perfect room.
We watched the tide for a while longer, until we calculated that it must be totally in.
And then we went out for dinner, choosing our restaurant for maximum tidal views. And maximum galettes, because when one is in Normandy, it is necessary to have galettes. And crèpes. And cider, or, ideally, Calvados.
We had what was necessary, and it was very good.
By this time, my ankle was seriously displeased with the situation (I broke it five years ago, and occasionally it remembers this and complains), so we returned ti our room to write postcards, and watch the tide retreat.
It wasn’t quite dark yet, but the tide of tourists had finally gone down, so after a while, we went out again, to see the Mont at twilight, visit the little church opposite, and, as it turned out, be sung to by a choir of pilgrims visiting the Mont.
And then, sore ankles and all, we decided to look in on the sound and light show. My Breton friend had recommended this highly, and when a Breton tells you that the Normans have done something right, you should probably pay attention.
I’m so glad we did – it was the most magical evening. One tours the Abbey again, but in reverse order to the tour one does by day, and one enters different parts of it.
The entire Abbey now becomes a backdrop for what is effectively a medieval-themed art installation.
Pillars were lit dramatically, while graffiti and animated manuscript illuminations chased each other around them; black and white drawings and photos told the history of the Mont; Saint Michael fought the dragon in a huge Book of Hours; a cellist played Bach in the cathedral; a devil danced in a fireplace; the trees in the cloister were lit with tiny lights; and the scriptorium was flooded with blue light, while illuminated letters painted on glass dangled from the ceiling to be lit by passing floodlights.
It went on and on – every room held something different, and every room held something beautiful for the eyes and the ears.
By the time we got to bed it was well after midnight, and my ankle was swollen and throbbing, but it was absolutely worth it.
High tide was around 7:30 am, so we were up at 7 to see it.
It was a high tide, alright.
We went for breakfast next door, and supervised the tide over our scrambled eggs and ratatouille and little fried potatoes (ratatouille for breakfast! With little fried potatoes! Why don’t all hotels do this?).
Then we decided to do a little more exploring before the tourist tide came in.
We found some lovely, wild-looking corners of the island.
I especially liked the seagull perching on the head of the saint that topped the steeple on one of the little churches.
We then climbed the Mont once again from the bottom.
In fact, I excused myself from going all the way to the top, as my ankle really still had a lot to say about people who make it walk all over every stair in France.
Finally, we retreated to our room to pack, take one final look at the tides, and then catch the shuttle back to the bus stop.
And the bus back to Rennes.
And the train back to Paris-Montparnasse.
And the Metro to Gare de L’Est.
And the train to Thionville.
And the train to Trier.
And the bus to our youth hostel.
Ten hours in transit, oh my. I will say that Gare de L’Est is very good. They seem to have grasped that people travelling a long distance might actually have luggage. So while they do share the French fetish for stairs, there are also escalators. Escalators! This is not, alas, the case in Montparnasse, and certainly not in the Metro.
The only up-side to this is that it is apparently not physically possible for a Frenchman to see a woman struggling with a suitcase and not offer to carry it. This was really very fortunate for me, because while I do not like being a poor, helpless female, my ankle was absolutely killing me by this time, and my suitcase seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. So a big thank you to French chivalry from me.
And now, we are in Trier. We went out to a Croatian restaurant for dinner, and I was served what can only be described as a cheese volcano – tasty, but I could feel my arteries hardening with every mouthful. Moreover, I regret to report that not only does our hostel have a lot of stairs, it also has a distinct lack of Frenchmen itching to show off their manly French muscles by offering to carry suitcases! This is a sad reflection on German culture, if you ask me.
And speaking of culture, I shall leave you with one more little insight into French culture that we noticed while travelling. We actually had a bit of a scare when we reached Thionville, because we were supposed to be taking a train from Thionville to Trier, but when we got to the platform, no such train seemed to exist. The sign and the announcement both claimed that our train was, in fact, going to Apach. Which, as you have probably figured out, is not Trier.
What it is, is the last town on the French side of the border. Apparently, the people of France would prefer to pretend that the land beyond the border does not exist. Except, that is, when it comes to building nuclear power stations just a few kilometers to the south of the border, just where the wind would blow any unpleasantries north into Germany…
Because while chivalry is an important part of being French, it turns out that giving the finger to Germany is even more important – especially if you live in Alsace-Lorraine.