Nora and I took advantage of the one (!) sunny day last week to take a day trip to the amazing Mont Saint Michel, which is about 2.5 hours from Le Havre. We rented a teeny-tiny Fiat Panda that looked like it should have come with a wind-up key and which I seriously thought we would have to push up the Pont Du Normandy, the bridge that crosses the Seine estuary to the west of Le Havre.
Pont du Normandy:
But we did make it over (verrryyyy slowly) and we were soon rolling through the beautiful French countryside, which was astonishingly lush and green even in mid-November.
That part of Normandy is very flat and as Mont St. Michel is built atop a natural hill of rock it is visible from quite a distance, giving you a small tantalizing glimpse of your destination.
And it only gets better as you get closer!
It’s a gorgeous combination of natural and human construction which, to American eyes tainted by Disneyland, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and my personal favorite, Foamhenge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foamhenge), is difficult to grasp as a real site and not constructed from foam, plywood, and paint.
The sense of unreality is heightened by the fact that there is constant construction to maintain the rock and stone walls. I had the strange sense that I was catching people in the act of constructing this part of the rock and world itself, like it wasn’t quite done yet, but maybe they’d have it for us next week. A bit like the scene of the construction of the earth in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a great movie if you haven’t seen it).
As I have learned from the tourist pamphlet and Wikipedia, Mont St. Michel is located at the mouth of the Couesnon River and the rocky islet that housed it (originally known as Mont Tombe) was long a site of military resistance against invaders to the region. The current religious site dates to the early 8th century, when a bishop built a sanctuary to St. Michel., a.ka. the archangel Michael, a.k.a. “head of the heavenly militia”.
Wikipedia’s explanation for this is perhaps as interesting as the site itself: “According to legend, St. Michel appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger..” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Saint-Michel
The sanctuary gradually became a site of pilgrimmages and ultimately an abbey was built to house an order of Benedictines monks in the 10th century. The larger part of the current abbey on the top of the mont dates to the 13th century and by the 14th century a full town had sprouted up around the base of the mont. Over the centuries the mont fended off attacks by the English, lost its religious community during the French revolution and then served as a prison until 1863. Since then it has survived as a historic monument and a new type of pilgrim visits the mont in droves (mostly speaking Japanese, it seems, as evidenced by the local shop and menu translations).
There is a new roadway under construction for foot traffic to the mont, otherwise there is a shuttle and sometimes a horse-drawn carriage.
It is possible to cross the mud flats on your own as the original pilgrims would have but signs everywhere relate the danger of the area’s swift incoming tides and sucking quicksand. They even make an appearance in the famous Bayreux Tapestry of 1067:
We did not see the mont at high tide so below is a photo from the web for reference:
Mont St. Michel is also known for unique souffle-like omelettes developed by the now famous (and ubiquitous) Mère Poulard (mother Poulard):
which of course we had to try! But after being pointedly ignored by the staff at the original La Mere Poulard restaurant and without the power to burn holes in their skulls, we ended up at its satellite cafe deeper in town, where over the course of two hours I had an omelette and Nora had mussels. Half of our afternoon now gone before sundown, we hurried around the town before heading into the abbey:
walking along the ramparts around the town:
shadow of the mont over the mud flats:
heading into the abbey you can see rock bubbling up in the corners of walls, revealing how the building was built around and upon the substructure of granite:
views over the abbey walls to the wider Norman coast and the gardens and town below:
Inside the abbey:
a reception hall with massive fireplaces
a huge wheel installed to hoist provisions up to the prisoners when the mont was a prison:
and the track for the hoist:
roofs at sunset:
The sun set all too quickly and we still had a 2.5-hour drive ahead of us through pitch-black highways studded with jumping deer signs. Given that our car was probably smaller than a deer, this was not reassuring. We did have a fox dart out in front of us, but fortunately we missed it and that was our sole incident. Back in Le Havre I was told that we were lucky it was not a large wild pig….