11 October 2019
I visited this historic site in the spring of 1980. At that time, the climb to the top and visit of the cathedral was pleasant and uncrowded. Times have changed but, because I am in the neighborhood, I have returned to climb again, wander its streets, and spend some quiet time enjoying the views from its magnificent abbey.
Mont-Saint-Michel is probably known most for its spectacular setting high atop a big pile of rock above the galloping tides of the northwestern coast of France. The island, upon which the village and abbey sits, is about a half-mile off the coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. The entire commune of Mont-Saint-Michel is little more that 17 acres with a population of about 50, all salesmen and cooks. Let’s face it, the island survives on tourist who want to climb their rock, walk their streets, and visit their monastery.
The island is known for its rushing tide. When the tide is low, one might be tempted to walk across the sands. However, the commune was also very defensible as high tides would gallop in and strand or drown any would-be attackers and stupid tourists. Tides can vary from modest to a whopping 46-feet! Today, there is a large parking lot and a road and shuttle from the mainland to the rock. There is also a horse-drawn carriage for hire.
The highest point of the island is just 302 feet above sea level. And on this spot is the 1067 monastery of Mont Saint Michel. The abbey gave its early support to William the Conqueror and his claim to the English throne and is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. The site and abbey retained its importance and influence through the centuries and for a time was a center of religious pilgrimage.
During the French Revolution, the abbey was closed and converted into a prison. In 1836, one cell was inhabited by Victor Hugo. As early as 1874, France recognized this site as an historic monument. Since 1979, it has been listed as a UNESCO site.
The town was constructed to accommodate a typical feudal society. At the top, “God, the abbey, and monastery” and below this, the great halls, then stores and housing, and at the bottom outside the walls, fishermen and farmers lived.
Inside the walls of Mont Saint Michel streets are cobbled, narrow, lined with shop after shop, restaurants after restaurant. Its one street forces you to “run the gauntlet” of commercialism in order to reach the abbey.
The beautiful Romanesque style abbey is a maze of rooms, great halls, kitchens, stairs and hallways. In its church, I am able to observe part of a Rite of Ordination for three nuns and two priests as they take their final vows. As I wander the maze of rooms open to visitors, I think of these newly ordained members of the clergy and hope they have a good map.
Outside, I am able to climb to the bastions and walk the walls. High above, a golden statue of the Archangel Michael blazes in the sunlight high atop the abbey’s spire. The tide is out. Sand and rivulets of water move inland from the sea. On patches of grass, sheep quietly graze, obviously either above the tidal mark or excellent swimmers. It’s a spectacular setting, except for the heavily armed army security who stroll the streets and walk the bastions.
On my way down the street, I spot several appealing cafes. It is to one of these restaurants that I relax and enjoy the history and views. A dinner of mussels and a glass of fine wine and I am ready for the walk back. The afternoon is sunny, the sea breeze brisk, and the sheep lack life jackets so I suppose they are safe.