Photo provided
Mont St. Michel rises like a scene from A Game of Thrones, as it sits on the southwestern edge of Normandy on the English Channel.
Photo provided Mont St. Michel rises like a scene from A Game of Thrones, as it sits on the southwestern edge of Normandy on the English Channel.
It rises on the horizon like a scene from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – take your pick.
It’s the second most visited site in France behind Paris – Up to 30,000 a day or 3 million a year.
It’s Mont St. Michel. It’s the 13 centuries old abbey built on a red granite outcropping in a tidal bay that makes it an island when the tide is up.
The trip to the southwestern edge of Normandy on the English Channel was a break from the historical norm for travelers on the “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents” tour organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The only 1940s connection was a dinner taken by a group of correspondents, including Ernest Hemingway in the island restaurant called La Mere Poulard located just beside the old drawbridge. There’s film from the occasion taken by John Ford, the Hollywood director who was also covering the war. The film in surprisingly vivid color can be found on YouTube.
Poulard’s atmosphere is unique and the entrée was the lightest omelette I’ve ever ate. It had the consistency of a pancake. My only problem was I had anticipated ordering their lamb casserole - particularly after our tour guide Pierre-Samuel Natanson had shown me where the sheep were grazing on grass on a tidal flat. He said the occasional flooding from higher tides left behind salt, which the sheep ate with the grass. Pierre smacked his lips describing how tasty this self-seasoned lamb tasted.
Hemingway wasn’t the first or last celebrity to visit Mont St. Michel. I’d say the first was William, the Conqueror, who started out as William, the Bastard, until he won the Battle of Hastings and became the King of England in 1066. (Note: the name change – winners get to write history.) The abbey was already more than 300 years old when William and his fellow Normans bested the Saxons in southern England.
The first abbey was established in 708 A.D. I don’t want to spoil the story of why the abbey was built on this granite protrusion, then known as Mont Tombe, but it involved a skull with a hole in its cranium.
The circumference of the island is approximately 6.5 miles and set within an ecological wonder. When the tide is at low ebb, the water’s edge has retreated eight miles from shore. Hiking across the exposed sand was the way to reach the abbey before a bridge was finished in 2016 and you had to be careful about your timing because the sea returns at a five to six mile per hour clip.
Dedicated to Michael, the Archangel, the site became a destination for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Even then, it took on the trappings of a tourist mecca. Selling representations of Michael molded in lead and providing food, drink and a place to stay for pilgrims grew a village within the parapets.
The tradition continues today with multiple shops lining the narrow cobblestone road leading up to the abbey. There are also multiple restaurants and a hotel within the fortress walls.
Being 1,300 years old, the church is a hodge-podge of architectural styles. Our special guide for the day, Romanian-born Florin Petre, showed us sections that are Romanesque, Neo-Roman and all topped by intricate Gothic spires with a gold-leaf covered copper statute of The Archangel with a sword and scales held in his hands.
A contingent of monks and nuns still reside on the grounds and church services are held daily.
But as awe-inspiring as it is from the outside, the church's interior is bare stone throughout its various crypts, hallways, and great rooms. The blame lies with the French Revolution. No fan of the Catholic Church, the successful revolutionaries seized the property and turned into a prison where a total of 14,000 prisoners were kept over the years.
That period was also when a giant wooden wheel powered by six prisoners who walked within its circumference like hamsters to pull up supplies on a wooden sled attached to a rope that would wind around the wheel’s axle up a stone track on the outside walls of the church.
One other caveat: the tour is an absolute hike. Tour member Lorna Rutherford of Riverside, California, had mildly complained earlier how she wasn't getting enough exercise on the tour. When the tour was over, the Fitbits had registered 28 floors climbed and more than three miles walked. She said she’d be careful about what she wished for the rest of the trip.