Mont Saint-Michel Le Magnifique: Great Expectations on the Normandy Coast

Posted by on Aug 15, 2016 in France | 2 Comments

mont saint michel

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!

saint malo france

Sailing into the walled port city of Saint-Malo, France.

windmill near mont saint michel

Windmill from my window, on the way to Mont Saint-Michel.

mont saint michel sign

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.

mont saint michel in distance

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.

mont saint michel from footbridge

mont saint michel ramp

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.

mont saint michel entrance

The medieval entrance to Mont Saint-Michel.

mont saint michel main street

Timber-framed buildings line the village main street at the base of the Mont.

mont saint michel post office

The charming Mont Saint-Michel Post Office.

mont saint michel walking up

Ready to begin our climb.

mont saint michel window

The top of every staircase comes with the reward of interesting views through intriguing “windows.”

mont saint michel gargoyles

Gargoyles surround the peaks of the abbey.

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.

mont saint michel nun

As we were listening to our guide, my husband noticed this nun carefully and quietly delivering the morning eggs. 

mont saint michel abbey front

The front of the abbey and entrance to the church.

mont saint michel numbers in stone

Stoneworkers’ markings on the exterior paving stones.

mont saint michel connecting buildings

A covered walkway connects two of the buildings.

mont saint michel architectural detail

Detail of an exterior wall.

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.”

mont saint michel flats with people

A tour group venturing out onto the Mont Saint-Michel flats.

mont saint michel flats at low tide

mont saint michel flats

The views were mesmerizing, with ever-changing patterns of colors and designs.

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.

mont saint michel nave

The stunning architecture of the church.

mont saint michel clerestory

The beautiful clerestory illuminates the space.

Next we visited the tranquil and flower-filled cloister.

mont saint michel cloister

The center of the cloister features a garden enclosed by boxwood and filled with Damascus roses.

mont saint michel cloisters

With Herb in the cloister.

mont saint michel cloister detail

Detail of the cloister arches.

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.

mont saint michel knights room

The Knights’ Room was used by the monks for meditation.

mont saint michel refectory

Tables in the refectory, where the monks ate their meals.

mont saint michel interior staircase

mont saint michel interior room

mont saint michel wheel

An enormous wooden wheel – the “grande roue” – housed in the cellar was used to haul supplies up to the Mont.

We reached the bottom of the final staircase and found ourselves back outside where our tour had begun.

mont saint michel outside stairs

mont saint michel bell

mont saint michel view

mont saint michel seagull

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.

mont saint michel la mere poulard

buckwheat crepe

Salad and buckwheat crêpes at La Mère Poulard.

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.

pontorson france fields

Farmers in the fields outside Pontorson, France.

beach near saint malo

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.

mont saint michel from bus

2 Comments

  1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie
    September 22, 2016

    Oh, I can so relate to that girl sitting in that French class, Mary, although not sure my teacher was as charismatic! I loved reading about you finally making it to Mont Saint-Michel. I was lucky to visit a few years ago and got an unusually mild December day. Mont Saint-Michel is just a magnificent sight!

    “Great expectations can be risky traveling companions.” I loved this line. I’m glad your experience didn’t disappoint! 🙂

    • Mary
      September 22, 2016

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Jackie! Those travel seeds are planted at an early age, aren’t they? I appreciate your taking the time to check out The Modern Postcard and look forward to reading more of your adventures!