Visiting Le Mont Saint Michel France
by Sheetal Goel
(Rennes, Brittany, France)
Le Mont Saint Michel France is listed as one of the top 20 places to visit. Therefore a ‘darshan’ (visit) of this place was a given for us. Moreover, its proximity to Rennes (where we stay) made it a rather convenient place to visit. Planning a suitable day to visit was guided by the weather forecast for the weekend since it can rain anytime and completely spoil the fun. Checking the suitable modes of transport (bus or train) along with their specific timings was also an essential component of the preparations.
Literature review through different travel related sites is an economical alternative to guided tours which are very expensive. I chose to do the former. While browsing the Wikipedia, I discovered that le Mont Saint Michel is identified as a world heritage site since 1979. Its history dates back to more than 1000 years ago and it stands out for its Gothic architecture. Also, le Mont Saint Michel France sits on a small island approximately one kilometer from the mainland, accessible by a causeway that was built in 1879. During periods of a tidal surge, this causeway gets submerged in waters of the English Channel, making access to the island difficult and risky. This information definitely ‘built up’ the excitement regarding the planned visit.
Several websites mentioned a popular legend according to which, “Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 AD and instructed him to build a church on this rocky island. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger. Following this, Aubert built an oratory on the 256 foot high granite outcropping and named it Mont-Saint-Michel.” This legend brought a smile to my face, especially the ‘hole in the bishop’s skull’ part, as it seems bizarre. We find an abundance of such stories in India, but probably every part of the world has its share of the same!
Visiting any place that has several tall towers with conical tops just fills up my senses. I think this has something to do with the images of castles created through the different fairy tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the like) I read in my childhood. A colonial hangover, I guess. Le Mont Saint Michel fits the bill as it is a pyramidal shaped structure perched on a rocky island. The visual treat begins from a distance itself while approaching the island. One is directly led into a lovely little town with narrow winding lanes full of shops selling local food or souvenirs. The town leads to an abbey which was built by the Benedictines in the 9th century. This abbey is believed to be an architectural mastery as the builders built a 3 – story structure on a steep slope.
The abbey has a paid entry (9 Euros) which could deter a budget traveler. But, coming back without going inside the abbey renders the visit meaningless. The moment I stepped into the abbey, I felt I was transported to a set of the movie ‘Sound of Music’ where the reverend mother and the other nuns sang the song, ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria’. We also saw a huge tap and reminisced Julie Andrews (from Sound of Music) rushing to wash her hands after her visit to the mountains. But of course, the abbey in Mont Saint Michel was occupied by monks who devoted their day only to prayer and work. The rooms in the abbey were organized around these two activities. It’s only natural that I found the place to be rather modest in comparison to the opulent castles and churches I saw in Rome and the Vatican. But it was actually a welcome change!
We had to climb several uneven steps to reach the terrace of the abbey which offered a lovely view of the statue of St. Michel on the conical tops of the towers, the parking lot below and the bay around the island. Needless to say, it was a perfect place to click photographs from all different angles. But, the climbing up and down left me complaining of sore thigh muscles the next day.
On the way back, I bought a fridge magnet of le Mont Saint Michel, as I always do on any trip that is memorable. Now with my son growing up, it takes much longer to arrive at a consensus on the ‘right’ magnet since he always has an opinion to offer. So much for being democratic……sigh!