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Mont St Michel – must see

A thousand year old monastery on a tiny French island is utterly remarkable – who knew?
by Steve McKee on September 17, 2008

Going in, I had a vague notion that Mont Saint-Michel was unique. Still, I didn’t expect it to be as fabulous as it was, so rich and dense with architectural interest and layers of history. About an hour into our exploration I believe I spontaneously blathered to Melody something like “This is the coolest place on earth. Ever!” And my twelve year old son, when later asked if he liked it, said simply “What’s not to like?” So there you have it; all age groups give the place thumbs up.

Mont Saint-Michel (pronounced “mohn sahn mee shell”) is a thousand year old monastery and gothic church built on the top and sides of a big steep rock with a Norman village wrapped around the lower side of the rock, filled with stairs and paths that wind throughout, like a labyrinth. As if that weren’t interesting enough, half the time it’s an island, the other half of the time it’s a big rock surrounded by miles of sand and silt. When the tide comes in, the water can be seen to sweep over the surrounding sand bars. Centuries of pilgrims venturing to the Mont to seek the blessing of Archangel Michael completed the last leg of their long journey by following the slowly retreating tide across the silt of the tidal basin – the rhythm of the cosmos coming into play during their trek. Too cool.

many many stairs

Mont Saint-Michel is sort of like Venice meets Alcatraz, only steeper – that’s how I would describe it. Later I heard Melody tell a friend that it was Renaissance Faire meets Harry Potter. The foremost “street” there is very narrow and is filled with tourists during the day (Venice-like) but the crowds leave by twilight and if you have a room at one of the small hotels (tucked into the old buildings) you have the evening to explore further. The tall stone walls of the buildings are lit up at night like some sort of fairytale. At the very top of it all is the steep soaring church steeple with a golden statue of Michel himself.

The monastery and church stay open in the evening and take a good hour or two to explore because of the three or four different levels with all the winding passageways and stairs. My senses were on overdrive just checking out all the turns and new rooms and experiences. I happen to be quite fond of a good labyrinth – there’s not that many you’ll get to experience in your life – and this one was a doozy. Many of the arches and passageways were tastefully lit and some of the big stone rooms hosted a cello player or a harpsichordist or oboe player. The music was first sensed only as a figment, luring us through the various spaces, until we found a musician set up in the center of some big stone gothic room filling the space with wonderful acoustic music. Nice.

Waiting for the tide at Mt St Michel

If you time it right you can arrange to be at the top level on the big “west terrace” during the half hour when the slowly rising tide reaches such a height that it then rushes over the tops of the big flat sand bars. You will be lined up along a short stone wall with a highly international crowd of visitors, all of you with your digital cameras, your various languages and your shared enthusiasm for one of the great spectacles in all the world.

I took a photo every five or ten minutes always from the same angle so I could later create a sort of time-lapse view of the water turning us into an island once again. (Except for a causeway to the mainland that keeps a road always available.)

During the day we avoided the crowds (mostly French tourists, some Brits, Italians and Spaniards, very few Yanks) that filled the narrow street that winds up the hill by choosing to take advantage of the low tide to explore the sand bars encircling the Mont, walking barefoot in the soft silt. The kids chose to stay in one place and have kid-type fun digging a channel to divert a small rivulet into a larger waterway. Wesley was particularly fond of finding a pocket of particularly wet “quicksand” and sinking in up to his knees.

We unanimously decided we needed more than just one night’s stay to do this place justice, but doing so would require a hotel switch. So midday we hauled our suitcases across the narrow street to a different hotel, this one tall and narrow with tudor plank siding. Four flights of stairs later we were in our rooms under the roof peak of the old tavern. You must not be put off by stairs in Mont Saint-Michel; they are what this place is made of.

We let the kids have the room with the bay view this time; instead Melody and I would “settle” for a room with a view back towards the soaring walls of the monastery and cathedral and steeple. Returning to our room after twilight, we turned off our room light and took in the sight of the Mont lit up. The uplights emphasized different features of the buildings than we had seen during the day, so the eye could now delight anew at this most picturesque of places.

We felt fine letting our twelve year old roam on his own, sort of like on a cruise ship where there’s fun exploring to be had but with built-in limits to the straying. We gave the kids twenty euros and let them find dinner for themselves (crepes probably) thus letting them practice their international skills, while Melody and I strolled the narrow lanes and steps, watching the tide come in while the sun set. On the way down we found a garden that overlooked the water that was a perfect place to exchange a kiss.

A happy episode occurred later when the kids encountered us on a side lane and I heard my daughter call to us in a sort of euro accent “Mama! Papa!” Somehow that created in me a sort of brief but perfect moment when everything came together and I felt like I totally belonged to that place and that moment. It was then that I knew then that I loved Mont Saint-Michel and that Mont Saint-Michel loved me. (Okay, that last sentence is almost a direct rip-off of the last line from the “Paris Je t’aime” movie but it totally works for me.)

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