Mont Saint-Michel

11 Mar

It was a dream to walk these sandy shores and cobbled streets.  And then there we were.  Mont Saint-Michel.

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Le Mont Saint-Michel, rising in the distance over the Baie and the salt flats where sheep graze.IMG_4148

Closer, from the causeway, it rises up like a fairy tale.  A slightly grim fairy tale on an overcast day in February.IMG_4147

The causeway is scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a bridge which will allow the tide to flow naturally through the bay rather than deposit silt around the causeway.  And provide spectacularly inconvenient parking for the handicapped.IMG_4370

Please do not wash your feet in the fountain.IMG_4159

And enter the single, narrow, winding street of the island.IMG_4156

La Mere Poulard is famous for a special type of fluffy enormous omelette.  We couldn’t get a table, but watching the kitchen was free.

(Not getting a table was amusing, in fact.  In our experience in England, if we stroll up to a restaurant without a booking and ask if there’s room, we’re likely to get a blank stare, no expression whatsoever or a mild expression of dismissal.  Here the maitre d’ appeared to be enacting a stereotype of the French.  “Ah, mais non!  Impossible!  Pas! De! Tout!”  With multiple emphatic hand waves, grimacing, shrugging and gesturing around the busy room.  Sure, he was telling us no, but we were in no doubt that he could see and hear us, unlike in England, where pretending inconvenient would-be customers are invisible seems more the style.)

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We stopped elsewhere for an omelette.IMG_4162

And moule frites — but of course.IMG_4357

One can walk through the pedestrian street, or cross up one of several steep stairways and circle the outside of the island along the walls.IMG_4355

The Mont towers over all.IMG_4353

I can hear all the Renaissance Festivals in the world breathing in envy.IMG_4352

Peek-a-boo.  At the very top of the spire is a life-sized sculpture of Archangel Michael.  (As “life sized” as an angel could be, I suppose.)IMG_4212

Once you finally reach the Abbey itself, you stroll up a series of interior stairs and then out to a large open courtyard.  Private or specialty tours can be arranged — access to some rooms are restricted to for-fee tours only.  But you are able to wander much of the Abbey on your own, after purchasing a general admission ticket — and children enter free.  The “Itineraires” guides on sale in the gift shop (which is accessible without a ticket, before the entrance to the Abbey complex) was an excellent resource for our self-guided tour.  (The shop’s larger, more expensive souvenir book, while beautifully illustrated, has almost nonsensically translated text which makes little to no sense.)IMG_4200

Look how far we’ve walked.  The abbey of Mont Saint Michel is pictured on the Bayeaux Tapestry — this place has been around awhile and has the needlepoint to prove it.IMG_4226

The interior of the Abbey church, a pilgrim destination for over a thousand years.  I wish I knew this couple in my shot, to give them a copy of a sweet photo of them seemingly all alone in this beautiful, rare spot.  I love the quality of light in this space.

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There is a traditional pilgrimage design to the church, with an ambulatory aisle encircling the altar.  Large crowds had to be accomodated, and this was a great way to move a large number of people through the space without disturbing priests or monks busy with prayers or mass, while allowing these pilgrims to see whatever was on display on the altar while and meditating at the various encircling chapels — with convenient donation boxes at regular intervals.IMG_4240

Exit the church to the cloister — an area where run of the mill pilgrims would not have been allowed.  The arches are staggered to better carry the weight of the roof and distribute the weight of the cloister on the supporting rooms below.  (At one time there was a pond, which leaked!)  The whole complex is in a thousand year process of falling down or being built up.IMG_4250

Sigh.

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Through the cloister, find the refectory, illuminated with cleverly recessed windows.

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The visitor’s hall — Kings and other dignitaries were hosted here.  The massive fireplaces were used for cooking, and for warmth.IMG_4264

I was amazed at how few people we saw as we wandered.  In this corner, Louis XI may have sat and pondered.  Why not have a seat and have a ponder of your own?

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The Promenoir, a room whose original purpose is no longer certain.  A room to stroll in inclement weather?  A dormitory?  An infirmary?  Library?

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Another large hall — la salle des chevaliers — the name a reference to the Order of Saint Michel.  Very fancy medieval toilets in this room.  You know, FYI.IMG_4319

What a view.IMG_4286

A chapel space — the crypt of the gros pilier — underneath the main abbey church (which we saw above).  These two pillars are directly beneath the altar.IMG_4295

Lots of wandering through chapels and stairs and treasuries … and here is a wheel used to pull supplies up to the abbey after it had been converted in to a prison post-Revolution.  We thought donkeys might have been used to power the massive pulley (as we saw at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight) but prisoners were apparently walked to death here.  A rather despicable history.  But a kind of interesting photo.IMG_4320

A walk around the outside of the complex gives you a sense of the crazy rabbit-warren construction.  Those three windows at the top left face the cloister we saw above.IMG_4330

Endlessly circling this massive structure was dizzying.IMG_4384Finally back on the mainland, looking back toward the island from a small dam.  The dam was created to help control the tidal wash of the bay and is part of the whole save-the-island project which appears to be sucking in thousands and millions of dollars.  Read more.  Without these changes, the island will soon become a peninsula, permanently changing the character of the site.

A dreamland place, created based on a dream (“Build here and build high” said Archangel Michael to the bishop of Avranches in 708ce) and now only existing because the modern world wishes to perpetuate a dream of the past.  Amazing.

8 Responses to “Mont Saint-Michel”

  1. Jeanne March 11, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Thank you for that photo tour! I wanted to see this place when we went to France, but events intervened. Now I feel like I’ve seen some of it.

    • Monique March 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

      Only too happy to oblige. It’s worth a special trip. 😉

  2. RMW March 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Never had the opportunity to visit Mont Saint-Michel but always curious about this iconic place…. now I feel like I have been there. thanks!

    • Monique March 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

      You’re welcome! I wish I had better and more photos … it’s a huge, amazing place.

  3. Michael Rooney March 11, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    Life-size angels are so hard to pin down.

    • Monique March 12, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      I’d make a joke about dancing, but this angel was armed and didn’t look in the mood for scholastic philosophy. Shish kebab, maybe.

  4. Aubrey Price Pettyjohn March 12, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    Beautiful post, Monique! We’ve visited St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Holy Isle (Lindisfarne) in Northumberland, and various other monastery-on-an-island type places. I truly thought a trip to Mont Saint-Michel was unnecessary after seeing all of those, but I was totally wrong. I enjoyed the visits, but compared to the real thing they are but weak simulacra. Your description makes Mont Saint-Michel go right back on my list!

    • Monique March 12, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

      Eeek! I’m so envious of your many visits! How wonderful to live in a world where ‘monastery-on-an-island-type-places’ is an actual category. 🙂 All your spots are still on my list …

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