Mont-Saint Michel is a megalithic wonder. It is an archaic monastery perched on an island off the coast of Normandy, France. It dates back several hundred years and is woven with a rich history. We decided to pay it a visit while on a family road trip from Bretagne to Normandy.
It holds a presence over the land. You sense it before you see it, then suddenly it looms ahead of you in its full glory, floating above the French coastline.
The Mont Saint-Michel monastery is a stronghold in northern France. It sits on the border of Normandy and Bretagne. The stoic structure erupts out of a massive rock lying one kilometre from the coast. It is precariously built on an area where the tide swings.
Mont Saint-Michel is situated on the Cotentin Peninsula. This region experiences some of the biggest tides in Europe. The tide is about 10m high but has even reached 16m during the highest tides. The water rises quickly to swallow the level horizon. The desert-like landscape is transformed into a sea, at the speed of a horse’s gallop.
When we arrived, the seawater was pulled all the way back. You could barely glimpse it on the horizon. But during high tide, the sea rushes in, circling the island and cutting it off from the mainland. Special attention needed to be paid to the tides in the past. The monastery was only accessible for a portion of the day. In fact, it is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of how rare the tidal swings are.
But this is only one of its wonders.
We decided to talk a walk to Mont Saint-Michel, instead of taking the shuttle service. Now, a newly erected bridge gives tourists all-day access to this historic structure. The seven of us slotted into the pilgrimage of a few thousand tourists marching towards the monastery.
It was awesome.
I admired the lines and the angles of the 1 300-year-old castle. Mont Saint-Michel was built under the orders of a priest after conversing with Saint Michael. It was completed in 708 AD and has stood proudly and undefeated ever since.
We ambled alongside people from all over the world. The pathway was a clash of languages, cultures and clothing. We joined in the tradition of snapping selfies in front of this majestic monastery.
Although it was low tide, we still crossed over the bridge. Slicks of sand and clay cobbled with stones lay on the sea floor below us. I could imagine how magical it looked with the sea swathing around its midriff.
We reached the main entrance but decided to snake around the outskirts of the island, capitalising on the low tide. My beautiful Bordeaux boots weren’t made for this – but I slushed on anyways.
Halfway around the island, we turned back and hauled up a steep slope knitting alongside the village’s edges. No wonder this settlement inspired Minas Tirith – the fantastical city of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings.
Narrow paths twisted between houses packed like matchboxes. Every door led to a different store or restaurant. And they had everything: a creperie, a gelato place, an art gallery, a souvenir store and plenty of bars. The odd angles of the streets coupled with aged wooden signs looked like it inspired another movie moment: Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter series.
We wound down the alleyways, elbow to elbow with tourists. I couldn’t help wishing that we were fewer people; that way I could really enjoy the history. All these people with their chatter and cameras were distracting me from soaking up the history and experiencing what this monastery may have been like in its former glory.
Then it struck me.
It is unlikely that these streets were ever as quiet as I wished them to be. I wanted to remove the people so I could connect more with the history of the place – experience what people might have experienced living here several hundred years ago. But life has always been busy, especially in places like this. What I wished for would actually be unnatural on a site like this, where people have been living together for 1 300 years.
The people may have been pulling my attention away from observing the architecture and the finer details. However, it may also have made the experience of busy streets more true to what people had previously experienced living there.
I joined in the conversations, laughing with my family and pointing my camera to pretty features. I was now a part of history.