Mont Saint-Michel Le Magnifique: Great Expectations on the Normandy Coast
“The following morning at dawn I went toward it across the sands, my eyes fastened on this, gigantic jewel, as big as a mountain, cut like a cameo, and as dainty as lace. Then nearer I approached, the greater my admiration grew, for nothing in the world could be more wonderful or more perfect.”
~Guy De Maupassant, The Legend of Mont Saint-Michel
My high school French teacher Josephine Downey was one of those marvelous instructors who took her students far beyond verb conjugation and language lab dialogues. We would eat French food, sing French songs, listen to Edith Piaf records and vicariously travel the regions of France through her stories and photos. By the time I had completed three years in her classroom, I had mapped out my own dreams of all places French that I wanted to visit one day in Paris and beyond.
One day happened for many of the places on my long-ago list except Mont Saint-Michel. The eleventh century abbey never quite fit into my travel plans, too far from Paris to work as a day trip, an island unto itself along the rugged shores of Normandy. But with our Crystal Symphony cruise ship docked in Saint-Malo, I would finally have a chance to journey to the famous Mont, and I was as intrigued as I was when I first learned such a place existed.
The sky was overcast when we boarded the bus at the Port of Saint-Malo for the hour-long drive. As we rode along the countryside, our lovely French guide Claudia talked about being in Finistère, this most western part of France that literally means “end of the earth” in Latin. She told us about legends of the area passed down from the Celts and about the Briton language still spoken by 40,000 residents in this part of Brittany. It was an interesting talk, but I was having trouble concentrating. Like a child going to Disneyland for the first time, I was just too excited!
And then suddenly in the distance, there it was, shrouded in a hazy backdrop like the mirage of a distant land. It was a magical sight and one of those moments I will carry with me for a long time.
Our bus dropped us off near the footbridge where we would be catching a shuttle to the island. The bridge was completed in 2014 and is a big boost for visitors, allowing shuttle as well as pedestrian access to the abbey. Its construction on stilts lets the water below flow freely, usually keeping the bridge dry during high tides.
The shuttle ride was like looking through the slowly zooming lens of a camera. Details began to come into focus. Buildings that seemed to be village houses were lined along the base. Windows and spires and the yellowish shade of the granite began to appear. Scaffolding teetered at the very top, wrapping the spire that held a gold statue of Saint Michel.
We entered the walls through a wooden door under a heavy stone archway, arriving at the cobblestoned main street of the medieval village. We wound our way past shops and cafes and soon began climbing the first of many stone stairways, stopping at various spots before reaching the top.
As we were taking in our surroundings, Claudia spun the story of how Mont Saint-Michel came to be. As the legend is told, an eighth century bishop named Aubert dreamed that the Archangel Michel told him to build an oratory dedicated to him. Aubert ignored the dream and then had a second vision of Michael. Once again he ignored it, but Michael appeared to him a third time, putting a mark on him and ordering him to build the oratory on the spot where Mont Saint-Michel now stands.
Construction of the abbey began in the 11th century and continued over the next centuries. Mont Saint-Michel became a stopping point for medieval pilgrims who made their way across the flats. Today about 40 people live on the island.
The views from the top terrace look out on the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, a swirling blue and brown landscape of mud “flats.” During low tide, Claudia said that visitors can walk the flats with a guide who understands the bay’s quicksand and quickly changing tides. She told us that the tide comes in at about 12 miles per hour – “the speed of a galloping horse.”
We entered the abbey and began our tour in the magnificent church, slowly making our way on a designated route that would take us to the bottom of the Mont.
Next we visited the tranquil and flower-filled cloister.
We wandered through crypts, the refectory and rooms that had once been the center of life at Mont Saint Michel. Every room had a cavernous feel, austere and dark and Gothic. It was fascinating and at the same time almost impossible to imagine life in such a remote and isolated world.
We reached the bottom of the final staircase and found ourselves back outside where our tour had begun.
With free time to explore the medieval village, Herb and I looked for a lunch spot. We kept noticing the name Poulard on restaurants and souvenir shops – even on a hotel – finally deciding on La Mère Poulard Café. We later learned that Anne and Victor Poulard were an institution on the Mont, opening their first restaurant in the late 1800s and welcoming guests to their inn. Anne Poulard was known for her omelettes, but we opted for the area’s specialty, buckwheat crêpes.
As morning turned into afternoon, visitors seemed to be pouring into the narrow main street. The scene in the medieval village was a sharp contrast to the quietness we had experienced while wandering through the abbey, and I was thrilled our group had arrived early.
We met Claudia and the rest of our group at the designated time, retracing our steps to the footbridge, onto the shuttle and finally back to the bus. Everyone seemed to be taking one last photo, not quite ready to leave.
As our bus pulled away, I watched Mont Saint-Michel disappear as quickly has it had appeared on the horizon. Within minutes, we were traveling along a pretty coastal road, heading back to Saint-Malo. We passed multi-green-shaded farms, sandy beaches with aqua blue waters and old stone buildings that looked like the color of Mont Saint-Michel. It was a longer and more scenic route than we had taken to get there, offering a chance to sort through my thoughts and the memory of the morning.
Great expectations can be risky traveling companions. They fit neatly into our maps and guide books, but they come with a consequence. After all the time we have spent envisioning an experience, what if the actual experience doesn’t live up to what we had imagined? What if the present moment alters the past thoughts and dreams we were so certain would be true?
For that young girl in a long-ago French class, those great expectations did not disappoint. They were alive and well at Mont Saint-Michel, on a late spring day in Normandy.