During my and S’s trip to Normandy, we took a break from WW2 history to take in some medieval history and drove from Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer to Le Mont Saint-Michel. We once again found ourselves driving through fields of kelly green and golden flowers. We passed cows with black spots, cows with brown spots, cows with horns, cows with long course shaggy hair, and even some donkeys . Suddenly, the shadowy outline of the rock on which they built a Benedictine abbey appeared on the horizon like a ghost or a mirage. I lost my breath for a minute. The mere outline of this feudal city, abbey, monastery, impenetrable fortress of the Hundred Years’ War, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and current home to less than 50 people, is unmistakable and unforgettable.
Once we parked our car and reached the front gates of the rock that seems to float just off of mainland France, we climbed the steep and touristy main road. Walking up the main street felt like walking through Disney World (not in a good way), or better yet, Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. I was hoping for a real life fairytale, but reality should feel less manufactured (even when sometimes that’s exactly what it is). I was beginning to feel like I had just seen an old caged lion at the zoo – not nearly as inspiring as the sight is made out to be in story books, the realization of which is more than disappointing – or like seeing a carnival in the daylight. Chipped paint, faded colors, discarded hotdogs and soda cups, sweaty and wrinkled carnies. Total disillusionment.
Wow. That was depressing. Ok, the main street of Mont Saint Michel was not really that bad. It is, however, filled with a lot of people and a lot of shops selling touristy trinkets. Nevertheless, I was starting to feel my expectations being severely undershot.
To clear this melancholy (or as S likes to call it “hangriness”), we stopped for some food. After the much needed and delicious meal of moules à la crème with frites and some cider, of course, we ventured into the abbey and were immediately in awe of its enormity and stone cold beauty. I laughed to myself in seeing it’s exterior walls, which appeared to be covered in barnacles, as if the whole thing had magically risen out of the sea. Maybe it did.
From the abby’s balconies, we had an expansive view of the surrounding coastal lands and could see groups parading around on the sand. Hope was restored! Careful not to rush through the rest of the abbey and miss the chance to experience it close up, we moved as fast as possible (ok I rushed) down to the Mont’s base. On the way, we (I) had a very embarrassing moment where I thought a women was taking sign-ups for tours of the marsh. It turns out she was actually signing books that she had written about who-knows-what, and yet I insisted that we’d love for her to show us around at low tide. Weird American tourists. In my defense, her poster was very misleading. I awkwardly talked myself out of that one in some horribly broken French that mostly involved smiles and non-sensicle hand gestures and we escaped the tourist area to find ourselves ankle deep in a silty sandy goop. Sorry shoes. Despite the chilly temperature, I was determined to get that perfect view of the abbey reflecting in the rising tide, so we discarded our shoes and socks, waded through a frigid stream, and set out across the sandy plain. With a few groups of people far out on the horizon, it was exhilarating to be the only two for a quarter mile or so, surrounded by brownish grey sand, rising streams and lowering sand bars, with one of the most beautiful islands to be built upon looming always in the distance. Sloshing through the muddy sand, freezing our little toes off, and laughing so hard our faces hurt, we had a fairytale afternoon after all. In that walk across the muddy, silty, sloshy sand that seemed to suck our feet into it, magic was restored to the Mont.