My recent article about our visit to Bayeux, France, and the Normandy beaches received enthusiastic responses from a number of interested people. The next stop on this railroad trip in France was at Mont Saint Michele, an island six tenths of a mile off the coast encompassing considerable history and architectural appeal.
It is an island of 247 acres, 301 feet high at its highest point and about 3,000 feet in circumference. From the mainland, it looks like a monument built to the Middle Ages. Cars and buses use a manmade causeway to reach it. It is completely surrounded by water at high tide, except for the causeway. Some people have been known to walk on the tidal flats around it at low tide, getting rescued at best and drowned at worst when the tides came in at a rapid pace.
The island has some similarity to the huge granite "stacks" remaining after resisting the tides for thousands of years off the shores of the Oregon coast. Upon first seeing it, it gives one the idea of a mythical fairyland and a taste of medieval mystery.
We arrived by train at Pontorson on the mainland, the nearest station to the causeway, and took a cab from there to the island.
It was June and the weather was fine and all the small shops there were crowded. They offered everything from fine French china to touristy souvenirs. The street that we followed was cobblestone and hard to walk on pulling our rolling suitcases. We read that there are 3 million tourists a year on the island, and it seemed that they were all there that day. Not withstanding the shoppers, we still enjoyed looking at the shops' wares and the architecture.
We located the hotel where we had made reservations for overnight. Most visitors come only during the daytime; we chose to stay overnight for a two-day visit after reading Rick Steves' book, "Europe Through the Back Door."
Mont Saint Michele was built, in a sense, from the top down. First came the Benedictine monastery and abbey built on Roman ruins at the top of the island in the 700s, said to be one of the most remarkable examples of mediaeval religious architecture and one of Christianity's most important pilgrimage sites from the 8th to the 18th century.
Next came the great halls, the work and study areas of the monastery, built in the middle ages. Further down on the island are the stores, hotels and houses of the permanent residents, only 50 or so presently. Surrounding all this are the massive stone walls and fortifications representing the military action of years gone by.
Inside these battlements, we found our hotel, the Croix Blanch, and checked in uneventfully. Our room was nice though small, with a private bath, and looked over the city walls to the tidal flats beyond.
Dinner on the deck adjacent to the hotel dining room was memorable. A seafood platter containing fish with names unfamiliar to us but delicious to eat, cool summer breezes now that the sun was going down, conversation with a young American man at the next table all contributed to the ambiance. The young man was traveling alone through France on his motorcycle, and we judged he wanted our companionship for this evening. So we all walked up the hill together as night was falling into a place my wife had always wanted to visit.
The abbey in the twilight was beautiful, mystical and spiritual. Medieval music was playing all through the dark halls. Candles were glowing and you could imagine the presence of long gone monks gliding about the tall stone columns. My wife says it was the most romantic, evocative place she's ever been.
It had been a long trip from London through the Chunnel to the farmland of northern France to Paris and then with a change of stations, to Caen and then Pontorson and finally to the Island, but it was worth it. As blogger Dr. Kurt Buzard said, "If I could imagine a piece of heaven on earth I think this is what it would look like."