Mont Saint-Michel: Islet abbey is postcard perfect
You see it on the horizon 15 miles away and mash the gas to get there a little faster.
That is the seduction of Mont Saint-Michel, between Normandy and Brittany, France. It rises to the sky like the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.” So you break into a sprint like Dorothy and Co. just so you can get there and touch it.
Unfortunately, your first impression is of gift shops, fern restaurants, crowds and cheap hotels. Is this what the monks were praying for 1,000 years ago?
But once you climb past the tourist traps and reach the great castle at the summit, you’ll be in for a thoughtful, soulful experience in this Gothic Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St. Michael.
Those are the two sides of Mont Saint-Michel. You can look down from a balcony at the tour buses and cars parked 200 feet below. Then you can turn and walk into a dark, ancient room filled with columns and buttresses.
And you’re alone.
Even when business is brisk, it’s easy to wander off by yourself. I once found myself in a room filled with 6-foot-wide granite columns, a bench to sit on and a stained glass window that let in some light. And I thought, “A monk could really do some thinking in this place.”
That’s why it was built.
The story goes that hermits settled here in the fifth century, built two churches and founded a Christian community. Mont Saint-Michel evolved as a community through 1020, when the heavy lifting began.
For the next 200 years, waves of grand construction took place atop the hill. Visitors included William the Conqueror and Harold the Saxon.
Some facades and towers would collapse and be rebuilt over the next 600 years, but much of Mont Saint-Michel’s current look was established in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Mont is a wonderfully mysterious place to drive to early in the morning or late at night, even when the castle is closed. The tourists are gone. It’s quiet. The great place looms in the dim light and feels like how it used to be.
The quasi-island sits in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel about a half-mile from the mainland at high tide. It is about 3,000 feet wide and 260 feet high.
At low tide, the island is separated from the mainland by sand except for the road that now leads to it. At high tide, it is nearly surrounded by water, except for a causeway that leads to the fortified abbey.
A five-year project that starts next year will enable the sea to once again encircle Mont Saint-Michel. A tidal barrier near the island will filter sediment. A bridge will replace much of the current causeway.
No cars will be allowed; a shuttle will carry visitors to and from the island.
If you go to Mont Saint-Michel, be prepared to exercise.
I didn’t count how many steps it took to reach the top, but they were all uphill. And there’s no elevator.
Unlike most places in France, no dogs are allowed, although on the day we were there we saw one woman with little Fifi tucked under her arm.
As you exit the great castle there’s an outdoor garden patio and one final gift shop strategically positioned to take advantage of the moment.
My souvenir cost 7 bucks.