Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Archangel

That would be the Archangel Michael, slayer of dragons, who, according to legend, appeared to St. Aubert, a French bishop, in the 8th century and ordered him to build a church on a rocky islet off the coast of Normandy. Aubert dillied and dallied and ignored the angel's instruction until, again according to legend, Archangel Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger!

Flash forward some 1300 years, and you find yourself today gaping at what has evolved from that humble 9th century place of worship to one of the World Heritage Site's great monuments, Le Mont-Saint-Michel, where we spent a couple of days this past weekend. Between the final French presidential elections on Sunday and the big May 8th holiday on Tuesday (honoring the end of WWII) we were all happy to escape Paris. The grey skies and rain showers followed us all the way but didn't slow us down one bit.

The unique location of the site can best be appreciated from high up on the island, looking down onto the old tidal causeway on the left -- covered at high tide and revealed at low tide -- and the adjacent raised roadway along which today's shuttle buses ferry the more than 3 million tourists who visit each year.

Over the centuries the coastal flats have changed dramatically. Polderisation to create pastures has increased sediments and silting, to the point that today, a huge government project involving a hydraulic dam and the Couesnon river is underway to remove the accumulated silt and to make Mont-Saint-Michel a true island again. Presumably farmers will be compensated for the salt marsh pastures they will lose, which probably means that one of the best known products of these marshes -- salt marsh lamb (agneau de pré-salé) -- will be a little harder to find! The flavor, color and texture of this lamb is like no other, and was a favorite item on the dinner menu at our hotel (yum!)

Once you get onto the island itself, the narrow, winding streets around the base are lined with wonderful old buildings. Formerly the homes and businesses of medieval guilds and families, they now host the usual flashy gift shops, cafés, restaurants as well as a few hotels. There are about 40 permanent residents, and I would imagine they all flee at the height of the summer season!

Luckily for us, the grey skies and the elections kept the numbers of visitors reasonably manageable and, led by our three intrepid adventurers, gave us a chance to explore.

A relic of the Hundred Years War -- when the English tried repeatedly to seize the island -- this wrought iron bombard is all that is left of their final failed siege in the early 1420s. By this time, Benedictine monks had taken over the monastery and established it as a place of pilgrimage, as well as being clearly an impregnable stronghold.

Meanwhile, a small maritime museum on the main street held rapt interest...

... with this display of little model boats from centuries ago.

Other museums offered glimpses of  "days of yore", including dashing knights in gleaming armor...

...and at something called an Archeoscope -- a sort of "son-et-lumiere" show in a small theatre -- this beautiful model of Mont-Saint-Michel floated up out of a bed of water.

All these diversions served a useful purpose in getting us (especially me!) up the mountain to the Abbey, without realizing quite how much we were climbing. I made it a point not to count the number of steps, for fear of giving up halfway.

Always, the brooding presence of the Abbey itself was above us, its buildings wrapped around the pyramidal shape of the island. It's a remarkable work of architecture, two blocks of 3-storey buildings perched on the steep rocky slope. And all somehow achieved in the 13th century!

I plodded along doggedly, up one final, long flight of stone stairs...

...keeping my eyes ever upward to the spire with the Archangel standing on top...

...passing some nuns on their way down, and a troop of boy scouts unfurling their flag for their march down...

...until I finally got up to the terrace from where you enter the Abbey. (Younger legs arrived ahead of me and waited patiently!)

Any leg fatigue vanishes as soon as you walk inside the Abbey Church. Built in the early decades of the year 1000 and known as the "Merveille" ("Marvel" or "Miracle"), it sits almost magically on top of the rock, 80 meters above sea level, on a platform 80 meters long. An incredible feat just to get the materials up there, let alone create these soaring columns and arches reaching up to heaven.

Our French guide, Christian, was also a miracle. He spoke in such clear and measured tones, mixed with much humor, that we were able to follow along pretty well.

He also managed to hold the attention of the younger members of the group, who being by now completely bilingual, understood every word!

Leaving the Abbey Church, we descended down a short level to the cloisters, wrapped around a small central garden.

 A place of prayer and meditation, the double row of small columns, slightly out of line, are spaced to allow for a slow and measured pace.

Another short set of stairs down found us in the Refectory, an equally stunning space with its barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling and its long tables and benches, where the monks took their meals in silence. Even though it was a prominent religious community, there were just 40 monks who were resident up until the time of the Revolution.

The next level down brought us to the Scriptorum, where the monks studied their texts, and painstakingly worked at their manuscripts. During the French Revolution these priceless documents were, happily, spirited away and can now be seen in a museum in nearby Avranches. The Abbey itself was converted into a prison by the Republican Regime until 1863 when it once more became a Monastery. In 1874 it was declared a historic monument, and has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979.

When seen today from a distance, the throngs of people and the tourist shops vanish into the misty grey skies, and Le Mont-Saint-Michel stands alone, serene and majestic -- a great iconic presence, an image of Paradise to believers, and a testament to the skills of an earlier time. A "Merveille" indeed!

À bientôt, and thanks to Matthew for many of these photographs!


  1. Beautiful photos and description, made me feel I was there. Thank you! Susan

  2. Great blog - sorry been busy with elections!!! think Archangel Michael had the right idea!!! x

  3. I remember being here years ago, so nice to have this revisit, thanks!!

  4. Was fortunate enough to go there once.