Mont St. Michel: Magnificence on a Mudflat
|Tideflat of dreams: "If you build it...they will come."|
By Rick Steves
I love to scamper, at low tide, shoes in my hands, far from shore, across the mudflat in the vast Bay of Mont St. Michel. Splashing across black sand and through little puddles, I head for a dramatic abbey reaching to heaven from a rock surrounded by a vast and muddy solitude.
For more than a thousand years, the distant silhouette of this island abbey sent pilgrims' spirits soaring. Today, it does the same for tourists. Mont St. Michel, among the top four pilgrimage sites in Christendom through the ages, floats like a mirage on the horizon — though it does show up on film. Today, 3.5 million visitors — far more tourists than pilgrims — flood the single street of the tiny island each year.
Since the sixth century, hermit monks in search of solitude lived here. Location, location, location. The word "hermit" comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "desert." The next best thing to a desert in this part of Europe was the sea.
Imagine the "desert" this bay provided as the first monk climbed the rock to get close to God. Mix in the mythic tide, which sends the surf speeding eight miles in and out with each tide cycle.
Back then, before the causeway was built, Mont St. Michel was an island. Pilgrims would approach across this mudflat mindful of a tide that swept in "at the speed of a galloping horse" (well, maybe a trotting horse...12 mph, or about 17 feet per second).
Quicksand was another peril. But the real danger for adventurers today is the thoroughly disorienting fog and the fact that the sea can encircle unwary hikers. (Bring a mobile phone.) Braving these devilish risks for centuries, pilgrims kept their eyes on the spire crowned by their protector, St. Michael, and eventually reached their spiritual goal.
Drive in slowly on the causeway, watching out for fine views and crossing sheep. Park in the pay lot near the base of the island. Very high tides rise to the edge of the causeway, which leaves the causeway driveable...but any cars parked below it are left underwater. (You'll be instructed where to park under high-tide conditions.) There's plenty of parking, except midday in high season. When the tide is very high, careless drivers can become carless drivers. A few years ago, a Scottish bus driver (oblivious to the time and tide and very busy in a hotel room) lost his bus...destroyed by a salty bath. Local police tethered it to the lot so it wouldn't float away.
Around the Bay of Mont St. Michel is polder land — farmland reclaimed by Normans in the 19th century with the help of Dutch engineers. Today, this reclaimed land is covered by salt-loving plants and grazed by sheep whose salty meat is considered a local treat. The river below Mont St. Michel marks the historic border between Brittany and Normandy, who have long vied for Mont St. Michel. (In fact, the river used to pass Mont St. Michel on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today, the river's route is stable and the abbey is just barely — but thoroughly — on Normandy soil.)
In 1878 a causeway was built, letting pilgrims come and go without hip boots, regardless of the tide. While this increased the flow of visitors, it stopped the flow of water around the island. The result: Much of the bay has silted up, and Mont St. Michel is no longer an island. A new bridge and dam (barrage) on the Couesnon River should be completed by 2014 (dam construction is well underway), allowing the water to circulate — so Mont St. Michel will once again be an island (with a shuttle to zip visitors between the island and a 4,100-space parking lot, with modern hotels at the tip of the causeway).
Though a dreamscape from a distance, Mont St. Michel becomes grotesquely touristic through the midday. In summer the main street, lined with shops and hotels leading to the abbey, can be a human traffic jam. It's some consolation to remember that, even in the Middle Ages, this was a commercial gauntlet, with stalls selling souvenir medallions, candles, and fast food. Today, the village's 30 full-time residents continue to live solely for its visitors.
The actual abbey of Mont St. Michel is the reason to visit. Saint Michael, whose gilded statue decorates the top of the abbey's spire, was the patron saint of many French kings, making this a favored sight for French royalty through the ages. St. Michael was particularly popular in Counter-Reformation times, as the Church employed his warlike image in the fight against Protestant heresy.
|Tough prison sentence? During the French Revolution, the atheistic government kept 300 priests here.|
Mont St. Michel has been an important pilgrimage center since A.D. 708, when the bishop of Avranches heard the voice of Archangel Michael saying, "Build here and build high." With brilliant foresight, Michael reassured the bishop, "If you build it...they will come." Today's abbey is built on the remains of a Romanesque church, which stands on the remains of a Carolingian church. Visiting the abbey, imagine the headaches and hassles the monks had when they built it. They ferried granite from across the bay (without the causeway back then) and hiked it uphill.
Monks built on the rock to get as close to heaven as possible. The downside: not enough level ground to support a sizable abbey and church. The solution: Four immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform supporting each of its wings. In 1421, the crypt that supported the apse collapsed, taking its end of the church with it. Today's crypt boasts immense columns (15 feet around), rebuilt with a determination not to fall again.
Peaceful cloisters connect various rooms where monks could tend their gardens (food and herbs for medicine), meditate and read the Bible. The great view tickles tourists today, but it was of no use to the monks. The more secluded a monk could be, the closer he was to God. (A cloister, by definition, is an enclosed place.)
During the Revolution, monasticism was abolished. Church property was taken by the atheistic government, and from 1793 to 1863, Mont St. Michel was used as an Alcatraz-type prison. Its first inmates were 300 priests who refused to renounce their vows. (Victor Hugo complained that using such a place as a prison was like keeping a toad in a reliquary.) From these prison days, Mont St. Michel still has a big tread wheel — the kind that did heavy lifting for big building projects throughout the Middle Ages. Teams of six prisoners marched two abreast in the wheel (hamster-style), raising two-ton loads of stone and supplies up Mont St. Michel.
Mont St. Michel is ringed by a fine example of 15th-century fortifications. They were built to defend against a new weapon: the cannon. They were low, rather than tall — to make a smaller target — and connected by protected passageways, which enabled soldiers to zip quickly to whichever zone was under attack. The five-sided Boucle Tower (1481) was crafted with no blind angles, so defenders could protect it and the nearby walls in all directions. While the English took all of Normandy, they never took this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn success against the English in the Hundred Years' War, Mont St. Michel became a symbol of French national identity.
While Mont St. Michel has 1,200 years of history, much of its story has faded over time. The statues of various saints carved among the columns were defaced (literally) by French Revolutionary troops. Almost none of the original windows survive — victims of fires, storms, lightning and the Revolution. The abbey's archives were taken to nearby St. Lô for safe keeping during World War II — and were destroyed there during the D-Day invasion in 1944.
In 2001, after more than a millennium as a Benedictine abbey, Mont St. Michel's last three Benedictine monks checked out, and a new order of monks from Paris took over. But the place has retained enough of its charm and mystique to capture the imagination of any visitor, whether pilgrim or tourist.