No trip to northern France would be complete without a visit to Mont Saint-Michel, a 250 acre tidal island located just a half mile off the Normandy coast. Topped by the abbey and monastery that lend their name, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is visited by more than three million travelers each year.
I believe a good portion of those tourists were present on the day of our group visit. Though we could see the rocky island as we approached, the small country road we traveled gave no clue to the hundreds of buses and cars we would join in the immense parking lot of the tourist office.
The public transportation to the island was swift, however, and everyone was in a happy frame of mind, so no worries. After a few minutes wait for our guide, we crossed the threshold of the ancient gate and began the climb that would take us to the abbey, but not inside, as a museum worker’s strike prevented our entry. (We were in France, after all, where strikes are a proud tradition as well as the best tool for the working class to preserve the power they have historically enjoyed.)
Though disappointed not to see the abbey, there was plenty to engage our attention.
The island itself exemplifies feudal society, with the humble homes of fishermen and other laborers at the base of the rocky island. The stores of tradesmen are located just inside the walls, with the great halls above the commercial area, and finally the monastery and abbey at the summit.
Inside the drawbridge, you enter the Grand Rue, the main road to the abbey. Along the way is the parish church, Eglise Sainte-Pierre, a small 15th century building dedicated to the patron of fishermen, St. Peter. A 19th century refurbishment, however, placed the emphasis on St. Michael. Both the chapel and the abbey feature depictions of St. Michael as the dragon slayer, as noted in the book of Revelation.
Revelation 12:7-9, New International Version:
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Leaving the chapel, we enjoyed our first dramatic views of the marsh and mainland. The immense tidal bay that surrounds Mont Saint-Michel is one of the strongest in Europe, with 46-foot tides that rise and recede suddenly. It is dangerous to venture alone into the bay, but guided excursions are available and we saw many of these, mostly of school-age children, as we climbed above the fortress walls.
The pre Romanesque abbey at the summit was consecrated in 708. A community of Benedictine monks guarded it until the French Revolution. During the Hundred Years War it was the only part of northern France not to fall into enemy hands, though it was under siege many times. The abbey was symbolically returned to the order of the Benedictines in 1966, during the founding anniversary of Mont Saint-Michel.
Among other claims to fame, it is said the omelet was invented on Mont Saint-Michel by Annette Poulard in the early 20th century. Interred at the chapel cemetery with her husband, Victor, the couple’s epitaph reads: Here rests Victor and Annette Poulard, good spouses, good hoteliers. Deign O Lord, to receive them as they received their guests.
Throughout our visit the weather improved and I was able to capture a spectacular image of the island on departure.
If you’re a cycling fan, the Tour de France is headed to the northern coast of France today. Tomorrow’s time trial (Stage 11) will culminate at Mont Saint-Michel.