Wednesday, May 2, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day – Mont St. Michel

You'll recognize the romantic image even if you don't know its name. Rising from the flatlands of white sand, from a distance Mont St. Michel shimmers in a magical light, seemingly conjured by a giant deity specializing in improbable castles birthed by the sea.

Actually the “castle” at the top of the island is an abbey for monks, founded in the 8th century by Aubert, the bishop of Avranches. The site of many miracles, it became the destination of pilgrims for over a thousand years. Because of its many defenses, it is also the only fortress in northern France that didn't fall to the English in the Hundred Years War. Mont St. Michel's history and beauty earned it, in 1979, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

The Abbey maintained its mystery and isolation for centuries due to geography. Until the causeway was built, if visitors weren't careful and failed to remember that fifty feet high tides rendered Mont St. Michel an island, they could be stranded until low tide. Today, with the causeway, acres of parking lots, and shuttle buses, a visitor's main fear is not being stranded, but being overwhelmed by the tourist kitsch. Shops touting tchotchkes line the only street on the island. Still, the place is stunning, and one of the most popular tourist sites in France, second only to the Eiffel Tower.

View of salt flats from the path

Of course David and I had to go.

The Abbey itself is an engineering miracle of sorts. The structure is wedded to the granite on which it rests and succeeding levels—six in all—rest on the two rooms used as a base. As the levels rise, getting closer to heaven, I suppose, the holiness factor supposedly increases.

It is an awe-inspiring structure and the views from the path are equally impressive. Get a bird's eye view of the surrounding countryside by taking the time to look over the stone walls. While the place is wonderful to see at any time of day, I imagine it must be particularly beautiful at night when the whole Abbey is bathed in golden lights and frequent concerts fill the air with melody.

We did not see the lame throw down their crutches while we were at St. Michel. The miracle for us was that we appreciated the majesty of this 1200 year old vision rising from the sea in spite of the crowds of tourists intent on sharing the experience with us.

Practicalities -

Go ahead and park in the voluminous parking area before the causeway that opened just five days ago (28 April 2012). The Information Office has free bathrooms; you can also fill your water bottle. Walk a quarter mile or so to the shuttle bus. (Parking and the shuttle will run you about 8-9€. You pay only once as you leave the parking lot. Have your credit card handy as the machine does not accept cash.)

The bus will drop you off a good way from Mont St. Michel and you'll see the salt flats up close. If you leave the road and walk on the sand, be careful as there is quicksand.

When you approach the main entrance of Mont St. Michel, proceed straight ahead only if you want to see dozens of tourist shops and climb 350 steps to the top. If you'd like to avoid the crowds and the steps, turn left b e f o r e you go through the main entrance and look for the smaller entrance that looks like the photo below. This quiet path leads you up a series of cobblestone ramps, with only a few steps, and is a much more pleasant and much easier way to get to the Abbey.  

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