“Church and State, Soul and Body, God and Man, are all one at Mont Saint Michel, and the business of all is to fight, each in his own way, or to stand guard for each other.”
– Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams
After writing about the Alhambra last night for Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge themed ‘Masterpiece’, another unforgettable site I visited in France in the Spring of 2011 started bugging me, asking, ‘What about me?‘ This unique location is Le Mont Saint Michel, a tiny island located just off the coast of Northern France in Upper Normandy. My two friends and I decided to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris for the weekend and embark on a brief tour of some of the northern cities in France, which included Rouen, Caen, Mont Saint Michel, and Rennes, but Mont Saint Michel was fully intended to be the highlight of our trip.
When I arrived in France I knew I wanted to visit a place in the country which has a strong resemblance to Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (it was said that his representation of Gondor’s Minas Tirith was partially based on Mont Saint Michel); I just didn’t know its name. When one of my friends mentioned ‘Mont Saint Michel’, I looked it up online and from the first time I saw a photo of it (with its proper name to match), I knew I’d found my calling. I decided I wasn’t going to leave France until I’d ticked it off the list of places to visit. And sure enough, Mont Saint Michel did not disappoint at all; in fact, it far exceeded my expectations.
The best way to get to Mont Saint Michel if one isn’t driving is by train, which was what we did. We took the train from Caen to Gare de Pontorson — the nearest train station — where we next took the shuttle bus to get to our hotel which was on route du Mont Saint Michel, the main road leading to the island. The shuttle bus normally goes straight to the island without stopping anywhere en route, so I had to gather my French skills to negotiate with the bus driver to drop us off in front of our hotel, the Hôtel du Gué De Beauvoir. The bus driver, who must’ve been 65 at least, was one vulgar man who said he’d agree to our request “si tu couches avec moi” — “if you sleep with me”. I turned him down as politely as I could and with sympathy, wondering to myself if life in the country was so boring that acting sleazy with foreign tourists became his favorite pastime.
All vulgarity aside, he was kind enough to give in to our request. The reason I chose the Gué De Beauvoir was because the hotel offered free access to bicycles which we could borrow for hours on end. This saved us a lot of time, energy and money as we did end up biking around the countryside and to the island rather than walking. That night we visited the island, which was probably around 2.5 kilometers from the mainland, but it was so quiet and empty, it felt like we were about to enter a haunted castle. We decided to retire for the night and come back tomorrow in the morning.
Mont Saint Michel was initially one massive piece of sheer-sided granite rock rising 80 meters out of the sea that has survived wind and erosion for thousands of years. According to legend one night in the year 708, Aubert, Bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, was visited by Saint Michael in a dream and was ordered to turn the Mont into a shrine dedicated to him. Aubert initially ignored this, thinking it was just his imagination, and it took three apparitions of Saint Michael in his dream and many miracles to finally convince Aubert to build the shrine in his honor. The construction of the Abbey and the surrounding town was facilitated by ‘divine intervention’, and when it was completed, Aubert ordered some men to live there and pray to God and his archangel.
In the 14th century when the Hundred Years’ War broke out between France and England, ramparts were built and gunpowder artillery installed as the abbey was transformed into a fortress. In 1424, the English decided to launch a siege on the abbey/fortress and starve its people into surrender. The siege miraculously failed and the citadel remained in the hands of the French, which greatly restored their confidence in the war.
The island is actually a maze, in every sense of the word. It is a town — with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and even a post office — that gradually winds up leading to the abbey, which was built at the highest point of the island. One could easily get lost in its hidden nooks and crannies and those endless number of stairs are a real killer! I thought the Montois — the local inhabitants of the island who number around only 80 or so — must be super-fit people, with all those stairs they have to climb on a daily basis.
Entry into the abbey is actually free for students under the age of 26, but we were initially denied free entry as we didn’t bring our passports with the student visa sticker issued by the OFII, and our Sciences Po student card was apparently insufficient proof of our status as students. But one of the best things about the French that I truly appreciate is that they are negotiable people, which in my opinion is an indication that they do reserve some sympathy for strangers. We managed to sweet-talk the lady at the counter into giving us free entry into the abbey, and we definitely didn’t waste a single minute after that.
The abbey of Mont Saint Michel was a stark contrast to the Alhambra palace. Originally built as a place of worship, it is understandable that the Gothic architecture felt minimal, with its bare stone walls and cold, furniture-less, empty rooms, and endless stairs. The interior of the abbey seemed monotonous, ascetic; when I was walking through those halls I felt the need to tiptoe my way around and speak in hushed voices, as if we might be bothering a praying monk in the next room. (There was no monk praying in the next room; I hear the abbey is now only occasionally open for religious services on special religious occasions.)
When I was in the Alhambra however I experienced a different feeling, that of excitement and a rejuvenation of the senses; the decorated walls and the water fountains in the gardens were meant to tickle all your senses: sight, sound, touch, smell… If we’d been offered a warm glass of extremely sweet mint tea to accompany our tour of the palace complex we could certainly add ‘taste’ to that list too.
But unexciting interiors aside, one cannot deny that the island of Mont Saint Michel is truly a masterpiece in its own right. Seriously, look at the way the abbey towers so majestically on that island on its own, an admirable exhibition of the physical strength and religious devotion of the French indeed. The construction of the abbey is a monumental feat in itself considering those steep slopes and having to transport building materials across the bay while rushing against the tide. And again, that age factor: no matter how amazing or uninteresting the architecture is of a certain place, if it’s survived for more than a millennium it’s immediately earned my respect.
I suppose coming from a very young country such as Malaysia, visiting ancient monuments such as the Mont Saint Michel or the temples from Ancient Egypt is an extremely rare opportunity; in fact, I have never yet come across a building in Malaysia that has survived for more than 500 years (with the exception of the A Famosa, remnants of the 16th century Portuguese fort in Malacca) . One of the reasons for this could simply be that the building materials we use for construction, which prior to the 20th century mostly consisted of wood, simply aren’t able to withstand the trials of time. Another reason could be because we Malaysians for the most part don’t appreciate our heritage; for example, there are so many traditional wooden Malay houses in the kampung (village) that were still in top-notch condition that were torn down to make space for the construction of a so-called ‘modern’ house.
After I visited Mont Saint Michel I simply couldn’t shut up about the place; this island, town, abbey, fortress, citadel — whatever you want to call it — has been in existence for centuries and is overloaded with history, and to top it all off it looks like Saint Michael himself had cut it right out of a fairy tale book and dropped it into the bay, where it stands majestically in all its medieval glory today.
In a way I feel sorry for my friends who visited France just to go to Disneyland Paris. While I have nothing against people who like to enjoy themselves in theme parks (in fact I must admit that I am part of this group of people), I thought Disneyland was just dripping with artificiality, and there is no other word that best describes it than ‘sugarcoated’. This citadel, on the other hand, felt raw, authentic; I felt adventurous suddenly when I stepped foot on the island. Besides, Disneyland exists elsewhere on the planet too — Tokyo, Hong Kong, Orlando, take your pick — but places like Mont Saint Michel only exist in that spot on the map, and you can’t find it anywhere else. If you don’t grab the opportunity to see these places for yourselves — your loss.
As I always tell myself: Disneyland is fake; this is the real deal.