The long journey to Mont Saint Michel
by Anja Weinberger
Probably everyone knows this. There are things or situations or simply thoughts that run through our minds more often than others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be superficial. In my case, it’s more like a feeling or a very brief snapshot that suddenly comes to mind. It usually happens during activities that I do frequently and that have a contemplative character – that’s a particularly nice description for boring household activities, which clearly include cleaning windows, mowing the lawn or ironing.
And in parallel, there are places in the world that I have visited several times, whether in dreams or in reality, and for which I often ask myself, especially during the everyday activities described above, what it is like there right now, or even what it would be like to live there.
I have always enjoyed visiting a place, a city or a region several times and thus getting to know it better. There’s a favourite coffee and a newsagent who greets you from afar. At the market, you know where to find the best bread and the most delicious cheese. You always stay in the same B&B and are incredibly sad when it suddenly no longer exists.
That’s what happened to us in Chartres, a small town not far from Paris, with a wonderful cathedral and just such a wonderful place to stay. Dreamlike because it is only a few steps away from the cathedral, because the peace and quiet in the well-kept garden is heavenly, because the delicious, mostly home-baked breakfast is placed on a huge tray in front of the door, because the building has been lovingly and cleverly restored, because “Sons et Lumière” is nowhere more beautiful than here and you can almost be there from your own window, because, because, because… Well, I could go on like this for a long time. Unfortunately, we now have to look for new accommodation, because our favourite host couple has moved to London with bag and baggage and children and dog.
In a completely different way, however, I feel the same way about Mont Saint Michel. Why different? Well, I’ve only been there once. In fact, if you want to be precise, it’s two times.
And the second time was actually the first time. I was 15, on a school exchange in Paris with a very nice family who took me to the coast for the weekend. But I was so longing for home at the time that I couldn’t appreciate the experience nearly enough. So let’s say one and a half times I was there.
But this mysterious mountain often haunts my mind. I try to imagine – while ironing – what it looked like there when construction began. I fly over it in my dreams – when I’m sleeping, not when I’m mowing the lawn – probably recently animated by all the drone footage circulating on the worldwide web. I wonder – while vacuuming – what it’s like to live there, with all the crazy tourists and in these ancient walls.
On our first visit in the early 80s, it wasn’t difficult to find accommodation. My kind, generous host parents simply reserved two rooms by phone the day before our arrival at the inn “La Mére Poulard” in the middle of the island. We started in the afternoon in the Paris suburb of Villeneuve and arrived a few hours later at the onset of darkness. At that time there was still the car embankment, over which one could simply drive up to the walls of the island. There we reached a large car park where we parked the car. At that time, it looked no different than any other car park outside any city. No parking fee, no marked parking bays, just a lot of washed-up sand. Because at high tide, the car park could be under water.
This touches on a basic problem that Mont Saint Michel has had for many, many years. The influx of tourists and the concomitant encroachment of people on this island wonder have led to the island changing. The car embankment and the car park have turned it into a peninsula; and the barriers that now exist mean that more and more sand washes up and simply stays put. Only very rarely and at particularly high tide is the Mont now a real island with water in all four directions.
At the end of the 19th century, this car dam was built and now, over 100 years later, conservationists and nature conservationists are trying to minimise the damage. The dam is being dismantled, car parks are being relocated inland, and an ingenious damming and flushing system is supposed to remove the superfluous washed-up sand over the years.
We tourists of the eighties grabbed our bags and marched the few hundred metres to the hotel. It was fascinating, even to my heavy heart: the narrow streets, the old, flickering lighting above us, the narrow staircase in the Auberge, the creaking of the steps and doors. But: everything else could only captivate me on the sidelines, because I was homesick. Hard to believe, isn’t it! I would like to explain a little bit about this stupidity, because otherwise no one could understand it. Shortly before leaving for Paris, I had fallen head over heels in love for the first time. So I couldn’t really make the most of this unique opportunity to spend the night on Mont Saint Michel. That’s how it was. Can’t anyone understand it? Yes, me for example, in retrospect; but the young girl of that time is not interested at all.
I still have a tiny travel guide from that time, the ISBN number has only ten digits and the translation from French into German is sometimes funny. The young man, who was just as much in love with me, gave it to me shortly before I left. The edges are full of little hearts and there are nice things written all over them. Today I have to say: it contains everything you need to know, in the neatest Times New Roman. But I was only interested in the handwriting.
And so – unfortunately – I missed out on a lot of information.
In the course of time, I was able to catch up.
On the way from Germany to our favourite destination, the Breton Atlantic coast, we passed within sight of Mont Saint Michel several times. It’s great how the cone suddenly appears. And in no time at all you’ve already passed it. I always took out my numerous travel guides and added a new piece of knowledge to the puzzle.
My primary interest was in the beautiful cloisters, because for a while I had been studying cloisters all over the world very intensively. The special thing here on Mont Saint Michel is that this small piece of land did not offer enough space for all the buildings that belong to a proper cloister. So you had to build up high and, strictly speaking, you had to build out wide.
And so, in our particular case, the cloister is on a two-storey substructure in which there is a crypt at the very bottom, the knights’ hall above it, and at the very top this hanging garden open to the sky. Yes, a hanging garden! Of course, that’s not really true, because the cloister sits firmly and securely on the hall below.
And yet I felt that way, even while reading the many guidebooks, which of course all have several pages to describe and advertise the number one destination in Normandy.
The cloister can be reached through a door on the left at the end of the Romanesque nave of the monastery church, just before the northern arm of the transept branches off. You now find yourself in the middle of the southern long side of the cloister and can stroll around the outside at your leisure. It quickly becomes clear that this location is unique. To the west, three unbricked arcade arches open towards the sea and you realise how high up you are. Originally, another part of the monastery was to be built on this spot, and the middle of the three arcades would then have become the passageway to the chapter house. As astonishingly imaginative and well thought-out as the monastery building on Mont Saint Michel is, it lacks this hall, which is very important for the daily life of the monastery. Presumably the monks switched to other rooms to discuss important administrative matters and the like, always assuming that the next phase of construction would follow.
However, this never happened and so today we can enjoy the overwhelming view through the open arcade over the mudflats. It is not without reason that this entire northern, Gothic part of the monastery complex, i.e. the late part in the building history, is called “La Merveille”, i.e. “The Miracle”. After all, it was built vertically upwards on pure rock over many, many metres.
After having been tempted by the mountain cone a few times in passing, we now wanted to pay it a visit in person. So we went in search of a hotel. Of course, it turned out to be not so easy to turn our wishful thinking into reality. We wanted to be close to the mountain, with a view at best, but streams of tourists in front of our noses, we didn’t want that. We like comfortable beds and clean bathrooms, but these big hotel chains, where that would almost certainly be guaranteed, don’t appeal to us at all. On the one hand, we would like to have a parking space right in front of the hotel, because the car is packed with bikes, cameras, astronomical telescope and other stuff, so we would like to have it in view so we don’t have to completely clear it out for just two nights; on the other hand, we would like to be close to the mysterious mountain, and these days that is only possible without a car, because the parking spaces for tourist needs have moved inland. On the one hand, we would be happy to spend a few euros more, but on the other hand, we always feel extremely uncomfortable among the clientele in the respective hotels.
For my husband, the most important thing is to be there at high tide, preferably at spring tide. So we didn’t compare his possible holidays with the school holidays that I have to observe because of my pupils, as we usually do. No, we studied the relevant tide portals, then chose three particularly favourable days, asked the weather god for blue skies during these 72 hours and then planned the rest of our holiday around this period. It worked out great!
Mont Saint Michel is on the border between Normandy and Brittany. There have often been arguments about who is lucky enough to call it their own. Now the river Cuesnon has decided by shifting its bed. So the shrine of the Archangel Michael is in the far western tip of Normandy, 10 steps further on the other side of the river Cuesnon and we are already in the easternmost part of Brittany.
Our journey was beautiful. We spent two days in Trier, two in Senlis and two in Bayeux. Now, for the first time, we didn’t continue west to get to the Atlantic, but left the highway at Avranches. From there it is only a few more kilometres.
We didn’t really like our hotel decision until the end, too big, expensive, rather unfriendly or at least disinterested phone calls in advance. But on the other hand, a balcony with a direct view of Mont Saint Michel and a car park that is monitored. Now it turned out that our choice was really a good one. Although the staff did not show their very warmest side, the room was overwhelming. From the balcony, from the little table inside the very neat room, even from the bed, Mount Engels in all its beauty was right in front of us. The walkway over the brand new stilt bridge, which recently replaced the car embankment, starts right behind the hotel.
And this time it was not at all like it usually is. Normally, when I’m near a cathedral or a church, I immediately feel this inner restlessness and I have to go there, right now! This time, the total work of art, seen from a close distance, was the real gift.
We arrived in the afternoon, brought a bag and the picnic basket to the room and looked out over the mudflats and the mountain.
We unpacked a few things – necessarily some guidebooks on my part and the telescope/binoculars/camera equipment on the spouse’s part – and looked at the mountain. We unpacked the goodies we had brought, poured a glass of rosé – and looked at the mountain.
We took a shower and still wet – we looked at the mountain. Slowly dusk came, the wine glass was refilled and we looked at the now pink-golden-light blue mountain. It was so wonderful.
When it was finally completely dark, we made our way to the island. You walk over the quietly lying mudflats for quite some time, but the view is so magical that you don’t want to complain.
We arrived, crossed the gate and climbed up the Grande-Rue. We wanted to visit the abbey itself only tomorrow in daylight. However, you can take a very atmospheric walk over some watchtowers, the abbey garden and one or two inviting cafés. The ones we found had tables set up on the city wall and you could look out over the sea. The bells rang, the water rushed, the cider was the first of the year, lovely!
The next morning, we decided against the hotel breakfast and for a cup of café-au-lait including croissant on our own balcony. You can probably guess why. Exactly, the view. This time the composition was more silver – soft purple – greyish and with wisps of mist. If someone painted it like that and then showed it to me, I would assume they were exaggerating.
Soon we set off again, with far more people on the road than last night. The walk across the sea bridge towards the south side of the mountain is really beautiful, the closer you get, the more details become clear. This time we walked purposefully to the ticket booth to get a ticket for the guided tour. This early in the day it was quite easy and we immediately joined a group.
You can visit many of the rooms in this intricate architectural wonder. The stacked halls of the “Merveille” and the Romanesque substructures are each an experience in themselves. And so we marvelled at the church on top of the hill with its Romanesque nave and High Gothic choir, the crypt of the Thick Pillars supporting this choir; the old Carolingian church of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre, which today serves as the substructure of the west terrace; the refectory with its astonishing light through 59 window slits and the Knight’s Hall, equipped with two huge fireplaces and particularly beautiful capitals, which served as a scriptorium and where the many valuable manuscripts were fabricated.
You can enter the cloister not only from the church but also from the refectory, and so we did. Now we had in our backs this dim, almost unreal light of the many, narrow windows and in front of us a green square, spanned by the bright blue sky. Considering that the cloister had to be built robust enough to withstand the powerful storms on the one hand and not too massive on the other, so that it would not be too heavy for the substructure, one can only say: the compromise was successful. The delicate granite columns stand elegantly, in double rows and staggered. This is how this strange impression comes about, which makes us think of Islamic architecture or also of Norman influences, such as can often be found, not far away on the other side of the English Channel, in England.
Right there, once across the water in Cornwall, is Saint Michaels Mount. It was inspired by Mont Saint Michel. And Mont Saint Michel itself began to flourish when, according to legend, the bishop of nearby Avranches was asked by the Archangel Michael himself to build a church here. The absolutely necessary relics were obtained from the largest Michael shrine in the West, Monte Sant’Angelo on the southern slopes of the Gargano in Apulia.
So an invisible web covers Europe, spun by an angel in armour.
Orain, Philippe: Église et abbayes, Paris 2014
Percheron, René: Besuch auf dem Mont Saint Michel, Paris 1975
Schäfke, Werner: Die Normandie, Köln 1981