Mont Saint-Michel rises up dramatically from the plain around it. It’s a rocky tidal island, located half a mile off the coast of Normandy. A mere two score people live there, but about 3 million visit each year and I conservatively estimate that 2 million of them were there the same day as me. Tip: Don’t go in the summer, if you can possibly help it, or at least not on the weekend like I did. Since the 8th century, the craggy outcrop has been the home to the Saint-Michel monastery. According to the legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert and ordered him to build a church on the tiny island. When Aubert did not comply, apparently the angel burned a hole in the reluctant man’s forehead with his forefinger. Ouch. The abbey was impregnable, despite repeated assaults during the 100 Years War. By the time of the French Revolution, however, the monks had almost all died out. It was used as a prison, mostly for clerics who opposed the new order, but it was finally recognized as a national monument at the end of the 19th century. And then the tourists came.
When I was there, a causeway connected the mainland and island, but the accumulating silt was an environmental problem. A huge project is almost finished to take care of the silting of the bay. The causeway has been removed and replaced with a bridge that allows the water to circulate freely. The sands that surround the Mount shift and quake. There are guides who will take you for excursions across the sand at low tide, but don’t venture out alone as there are pockets of quicksand. Also, the tide turns very rapidly. An expression often wrongly attributed to Victor Hugo is that the tide comes in à la vitesse d’un cheval au galop (ah lah veetess duhn sheval oh galo), “at the speed of a galloping horse.” The expression may not be literally true, but it gets the point across. While I wasn’t impressed by the souvenir shops, or even the famous restaurant La Mère Poulard, I did find much to admire in the beautiful stone buildings that lined the tourist-choked streets and the ancient abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. I’d like to come back sometime mid-week and off-season to visit it again.