My Travel Book - The Mont-Saint-Michel and Spring Tide (August 2015) - Part 1

Once upon a time, the Mont-Saint-Michel used to be an island solely accessible at low tide. Then a causeway was built at the end of the 19th century to allow people to travel back and forth no matter what. I mean, without taking tides into account.

(Do I have to remind you that the Mont-Saint-Michel boasts one of the most impressive tidal range in the world if not the most? Up to fourteen meters from low tide to high tide, especially during spring tides when the sea supposedly rushes into the bay as fast as a galloping horse. It is a very hazardous area to cross between tides and mud flats.)

Then the Mont became very famous and tourists flocked in and out using the dry causeway and the car park that had been conveniently built very close. The bay started stilting-up. The situation worsened until the French government decided to launch a huge program to remove the siltation and make the Mont an island again.

The project was voted in 2006. An hydraulic dam was to be built. The causeway and its car park were to be destroyed and replaced by a very light bridge with a shuttle service from a remote car to provide access to the Mont at low tide.

In March 2015, the Mont-Saint-Michel became an island again.

We went to the Mont on the 1rst of January 2015. Walking on the bridge was impressive but the labours of Hercules weren't over yet. A few big earth-movers were at rest that day which was as gloomy as a winter day can be.

We deliberately avoided to go to the Mont in March 2015 because we knew there would be too many people there due to the 119 spring tide. But Popeye who is a true seaman noticed that there would be an interesting spring tide at the end of August.

We made reservations at a hotel in the Mont (as early as March) to make sure to spend the night there and watch three tides coming in from the Abbey - two on the 31rst of August at 9:01 a.m. (113) and then at 21:21 p.m. (114) and the last one on the 1rst at 9:44 a.m. (114 again).

Since we live 90 minutes away from the Mont, we decided to get up at 5:00 on the 31rst and hit the road as early as possible. We wanted to watch the tidal bore from the coast. There was a perfect spot at a place called “La ferme Saint-Joseph”. (Thank you very much, Google maps!)

“Ok,” said Popeye at 5:45 a.m. “Let’s check the weather.” Oh well, we barely could see the garden. And please don’t think that it probably was too dark because at the end of August, the sun still rises quite early in Brittany, at least when it is not foggy.

And yes, we were in the depths of an ocean of very thick fog…  “Let’s go,” we said. “The Mont is one hundred kilometers away. There is still hope!”

And off we went. It was not raining at Les Tertres. It was not raining around Saint-Malo. And then it started pouring cats and dogs. “Oh well,” we said and kept on going. 

We were getting closer and closer to the Mont except that it was getting very hard to find our way. Just a figure of speech since we knew the directions! It was still raining and a very thick fog was settling down all over the countryside. So thick it became quite  hard to see the houses in the villages we were going through.

We stopped because we knew the Mont was there, 500 meters away but lo and behold it was totally invisible. Just like a nightmare. You know when you dream about some place you are trying to get to and you can’t because there is this impenetrable fog. It is scary and you wake up, feeling quite happy to find yourself in friendly surroundings.

Well, there were no friendly surroundings and no way we’d get to watch the tide that morning. Our hotel room was to be ready around 3:00 p.m. It was 8:00 a.m. Still pouring, by the way! There was only one sound solution. We made a U-turn and headed back to Les Tertres.

It was still foggy there. We went back to bed and slept the disillusion off until noon!
We decided to give it another try even though at noon, it was cloudy and misty at Les Tertres.

But it would be fun to spend one night at the Mont Saint-Michel, on the island itself, wouldn’t it?

Normandy is a wonderful place after all. The fog had totally cleared up when we got there around 2:00 p.m. We could see the Mont from quite far away, exactly where we knew it was hiding, this morning, wrapped in fog. 

Of course the tide was at its lowest then. We drove to “La ferme Saint-Joseph.” There it was, so close. Le Mont Saint-Michel and Tombelaine. So beautiful. Worth coming back indeed. Truly bewitching.

The tidal bore was expected around 7:00 p.m. so we leisurely walked along pastures and we came across a few salt meadow lambs and ewes. Sheep of renown. So few of them though.

Time to drive to the Mont. Our room was ready! We were starving too. We wanted to eat an omelette at La Mère Poulard which happened to be our hotel as well. People come from all over the world to eat La Mère Poulard’s omelette. We had travelled 120 kms three times on the same day to get to the Mont. Worth a reward!

The omelette was great, tasty and delicious, more like a soufflé than a regular omelette. Yummy, really. The first and last time I had eaten there was like 55 years ago… and I just couldn’t remember its taste… Well, I have other “madeleine de Proust” in my life!The hotel was quite disappointing though except for the fact that our (ridiculously small but so-called “Prestige” bedroom) window was facing the bay towards the bridge and the Couesnon. Which is probably the reason why we paid a walloping price for it!

As soon as our famished selves were satisfied, and believe me, one single omelette de la Mère Poulard does fill you up, we started the long and painful trek up to the abbey. 

Painful it really was but so gripping. Somehow most of those worn-out and very uneven steps were the same steps thousands and thousands of pilgrims had trudged upon while ascending to the Saint Michael's shrine. They also were the ones taken by hundreds of prisoners going to jail throughout several centuries too.

The interesting thing is that once you get to the abbey which is the only reason why you are going to the Mont-Saint-Michel after all is that there will be more steps up and down inside. Then you climb more steps and there you are. Open space. Breathtaking. The bay as seen from the terrace of the abbey. 

We were lucky. We were expecting to rub shoulders with thousands of people, the way it was in January. (Except that the abbey was closed.) Because of the 114 tide and the 14 meters tidal range…

Actually it was perfect. There were people, mostly Germans and Italians and Spaniards. But not too many. The abbey is a huge place and it was definitely not crowded.

We went through the visit on our own because this is the way Popeye likes it. (Besides the fact that we had missed the last conducted tour! They stop at 4:00 p.m. by the way.) We made the most of the booklet offered by the Center of National Monuments. To be fair, it was enjoyable.

The abbey is austere, unadorned and monacal. Which makes sense since four monks and seven nuns came back to live there permanently in 2001 thus asserting the religious component. The Catholic Church did create the first sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel Michael in 708, the abbey being built around the Xth century to accomodate pilgrims and monks.

The abbey may be monacal but it is also very obvious that it used to be a military stronghold never to be conquered by the British armies during the Hundred Years War. It is surroundered by ramparts and fortifications that still hold on beautifully.

I wrote about trudging up the stairs following the footsteps of many prisoners. When a state owns such a stronghold protected by the sea and almost impassable mud flats, what do you think it will be used for? Yes, the Mont was turned into a jail as early as the XVth century. During the French Revolution and the First Empire (1789 to 1815), the monks were driven away from the abbey which became a huge and very safe prison until 1863.

Nowadays the Mont-Saint-Michel belongs to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and draws millions of tourists every year.

But it has been part of our national legend for ages, Christians and non-Christians alike. Simply mention the name “Le Mont Saint-Michel” and there it is, the wondrous pyramidal shape built on top of a huge and invicible rock.

And now it is its old self again - an island even at low tide.


*Good Luck, and Good Night*

1 comment:

Myrna said...

Wow. Great photos.