Like a Fairy Tale, Mont Saint Michel Abbey Emerges From the Mists Off the Coast of France
I never know what is going to ignite my travel curiosity. It can be an article in a magazine, a documentary, or a discussion with a friend. In the case of Mont Saint Michel, it was the latter. Some years ago, I was lying on a massage table at Balance et Harmonie Massage in Sarasota, Florida, as owner Nancy Bouffigny-Enmeier worked her magic on my sore muscles. Out of the blue, she began talking about her childhood in Normandy, France. She told me about a Medieval church, built on a rock, just off the coast of France. When the tide came in, water completely surrounded the tiny islet, but outgoing tides laid bare miles of sand. Her family would spend warm summer days romping on the sand beneath the fairytale castle. By the time I rolled off her table I was itching to know more, so she pulled up a photo of Mont Saint Michel on the Internet. I was hooked; someday I would have to see this amazing place.
When I finally decided to tour France, Mont Saint Michel was at the top of my list. I hopped on a train to Pontorson, where I was met by one of the owners of Au Bon Accueil Bed and Breakfast, a lovely old three-story stone house in the country. The owners, Jane and Paul, are Brits who relocated to France a couple of years ago to escape the rat race. Paul’s story is much like mine. He was the manager of a large grocery store, working horrendous hours and never spending time with his family. Paul’s moment of clarity came one Christmas day, when he received a phone call from the police that someone had broken into the store. At the end of the day Paul realized that his devotion to his employer was not reciprocated. His company didn’t care that he’d missed Christmas; they only cared about money and achieving goals. Not long afterward the couple decided to move to France and buy Au Bon Accueil.
Jane promptly made me feel welcome and showed me to a lovely room under the eaves on the third floor that had a nice view to the hills. After settling in I rejoined them in the dining room for a briefing on the area. My three day stay soon grew to four, and then to five, not only because there was a great deal to see and do in the area, but also because I connected so well with Jane and Paul. Once in a while, I meet people who are so warm and welcoming that they feel like extended family; that’s how Paul and Jane made me feel, so I took a much needed break from hurry-up traveling.
Early the next morning Paul drove me to Mont Saint Michel for the day. Our headlights barely pierced the thick fog shrouding the farmlands and old stone houses along the way. Halfway there, he detoured onto a narrow lane that wound up to the top of a hill. “If we’re lucky, we can get above the fog and see the spire of the abbey poking out the top of the fog bank,” he explained. Unfortunately, we were socked in so badly that the entire vista was a whiteout. Minutes later he deposited me at the foot of the causeway and I began the 30-minute walk in to the island. Halfway across, the fog finally began to dissipate. The fuzzy outline of the island slowly came into focus and then the abbey appeared. A brilliant sun quickly dissipated the remaining mist, leaving only an occasional wisp floating by. Within moments the granite ramparts turned golden and windows beneath the church spire reflected starbursts from the rising sun. I gasped in a lungful of icy air, as much for the stunning monument as for the crystal clear, icy blue skies. So far, I’d been tormented by rain nearly every day in France but on this day it seemed that the universe was going to reward me.
Anxious to get to the higher reaches before the daily tour buses rolled in, I bypassed the souvenir shops and cafes at the foot of the rock and headed directly for the abbey. Once inside, I headed up the steep stone stairway leading to the interior of the church, stopping to examine architectural features whenever prompted by the site’s audio guide. Mont Saint Michel is believed to date back to the year 708, when the Bishop of Avranches built a sanctuary in honor of the Archangel Michael on the barren rock. The mount soon became a major pilgrimage site and a village grew up below its walls. In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey and began construction of a Romanesque-style abbey church.
Though intended as a place of worship, the abbey saw several transformations through the centuries. During the Hundred Years War it was converted to a fortress; its impregnable ramparts allowed the French to thwart all English attacks, although the original Romanesque chancel at the top was destroyed. When peace finally came in the mid-fifteenth century, the monks resumed construction. A second great pillared crypt was constructed to better support the new church, which was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic style and completed in 1521. More than two centuries later the French Revolution, which sought to banish religion from the country, confiscated the abbey and converted it to a prison until 1863. Abandoned, the monument languished until 1874, when powerful figures such as Victor Hugo began campaigning for the restoration of what was again being seen as a national treasure. “Mont-Saint-Michel comes into view like a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid,” declared the famous novelist. It was subsequently named a historic monument by France and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Following my audio guide, I proceeded to the cloister, a grassy rectangular courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. Like the Benedictine monks that had come before me, I meandered down the cool dark passageways in silence, peering between polished marble support columns to the church spire high above. Perched on the very tip, a warlike visage of the archangel Michael held arms and scales that symbolized the fight against Protestant heresy.
Reluctantly, I left the sunny courtyard behind and stepped into the church just as a group of nuns in bleached white habits filed in for mid-day mass. With heads bowed they walked down the long aisle, formed a semi-circle around the altar, and began to sing. Their crystal clear voices reverberated off the high ceiling and limestone walls, sending shivers down my spine. Despite the chill inside the cavernous limestone church I couldn’t tear myself away. I pulled my coat close and settled on a hard bench, in absolute awe of the choir. The service concluded with an invitation to greet other members of the congregation but everyone seated around me had departed. As if sensing my aloneness, a priest strode down the aisle and stopped before me. A wide smile split his cherubic cheeks as he grasped my hands between his. “Bonjour, bienvenu!,” he said. “Merci,” I gratefully replied.
As if carried on the wings of angels, I floated through the rest of the self-guided tour, down the causeway, and later that evening, to the meeting point where Paul would pick me up. That utter sense of contentment stayed with me the rest of the night and through the next day. Even today, when I think of that heavenly choir I get goosebumps.