According to legend, Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert in 708 A.D. and asked him to build a monastery atop the rocky islet of what is now called Mont Saint-Michel. When Aubert repeatedly ignored his instructions, a frustrated Michael finally burned a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger. And thus the phrase, “You don’t have to ask me twice,” was born.
As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I took a fantastic shore excursion, Mystical Mont Saint-Michel, to this beautiful monastery built in the 8th century on an island just off the shore of France. Many guests onboard Marina enjoyed this excursion last week, and many more onboard Nautica will have the opportunity when she calls on Saint-Malo next week.
Saint-Malo is a lovely walled town with a fascinating history. I hope to be able to return and spend more time in Saint-Malo itself, especially because I heard rumors of restaurants famous for fresh seafood, crepes and other French specialties!
But as a first time visitor to this area, I knew I would be making the short trip to Mont Saint-Michel, “a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid,” as it was aptly described by Victor Hugo. I had dreamed of visiting this mystical place since I first learned of it in French class in high school. Like so many others, I was moved by the spectacular silhouette of this monastery perched in solitude on a rocky mount.
Because the entire area is surrounded by vast, low-lying marshland, the iconic view of Mont Saint-Michel rising dramatically from the mist is visible from miles away. My first glimpse of the monastery was as impressive as I had imagined it would be. As we approached, the haze enveloping the abbey lifted, and the edifice grew even more imposing and inspiring as it sparkled in the bright summer sun.
Mont Saint-Michel is almost as famous for its tides as its monastery. The tides here are the highest in Europe. They vary greatly – roughly 46 feet between high and low tide – and can change very quickly.
As this has always been an important pilgrimage site, a causeway was built to allow pilgrims easier access to the island. This dramatically altered the flow of water in the area and led to the silting of the bay. As a result, Mont Saint-Michel is no longer surrounded by water.
A dam project, scheduled to be completed in 2015, will clear out the accumulated silt and allow tidal waters to once again flow freely around this tiny island. Visitors will no longer park at the foot of the island, so the hoards of cars and buses will not sully the view of the revered mount. Instead a separate parking lot will be built, and visitors will be shuttled to the island over a bridge.
The salt meadows surrounding the area create the ideal environment for grazing sheep – 30,000 to be exact! Salt meadow lamb is a prized delicacy served in the local restaurants, as the lambs’ high salt intake creates an especially tender and flavorful meat.
After navigating the sheep, we arrived at the base of Mont Saint-Michel, following in the footsteps of the millions that have flocked to this place of pilgrimage over the centuries. The site is so revered that many of the faithful settled at the foot of the mountain. Half-timbered houses were constructed, and eventually a village grew up below the abbey. Today the village is home to adorable little cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops.
A narrow cobblestone street winds through the village and up the incline to the abbey. Our guide for the day was Gil, an expert host with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region, and as we climbed, he did a wonderful job of bringing the abbey to life with stories of its fascinating history.
Its location along the English Channel meant that Mont Saint-Michel held not only religious significance but also strategic significance to the various powers that ruled the region over the centuries. After the Norman conquest in the 11th century, the larger Romanesque church of the abbey was constructed. Following a devastating fire in the 13th century, the abbey underwent repairs, and a Gothic-style refectory and cloisters were added.
The diverse architectural styles along with the natural rock are what make the abbey so extraordinary, both visually and historically. Here Gil points out one of the original walls of the monastery.
During the French Revolution, monasticism was abolished. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison to hold clerical opponents and other high-profile political prisoners. At this time a giant wheel was constructed, and prisoners were forced to turn the wheel to operate an enormous pulley that lifted loads of stone and supplies up the mountain.
Gargoyles adorn most of the walls and were added to divert water from the building, which seems like a far more visually interesting solution than the current gutters that frame the eaves of my house.
Even with the throngs of tourists that visit Mont Saint-Michel each day, the abbey inspires a sense of peace. Every aspect of the architecture – the vaults, the arches, the famous spire – was deliberately designed to turn your gaze upward toward the heavens. And when you reach the abbey’s highest point and direct your gaze downward to the sprawling countryside below, the views are equally breathtaking.
After visiting this remarkable place, I found myself incredibly grateful that St. Aubert finally got the hint! As reluctant as I was to leave, the tide was coming in, as if to say that my home on the sea was beckoning. I returned to the ship with memories of Mont Saint-Michel that I will cherish forever.