Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mont St. Michel

Today we were supposed to leave early so we could get to Mont St. Michel. Supposedly it was only 2 hours away from our gite.  Resized_HPIM3064 Well, already this trip is turning out to be a bit more difficult than planned!  We managed to leave the gite by a bit after 9am but bad weather and poor navigating skills combined so we didn’t get there until around 12:30.   Travelling like this is both wonderful and painful.  It is wonderful to look out the window and see so many beautiful little towns – but painful to realize we will, most likely, never return to visit them more completely.  Have to focus on the goal people and this time that’s Mont St. Michel.  The land near the sea is very, very flat and it was amazing and exciting to finally start catching glimpses of the monument. Here’s what we saw…



Can you believe there are cows and people who get to live here all the time!  We had heard that, sinceResized_HPIM3076 the land is so near the sea, the grass that grows here is naturally a bit salty – this changes the flavor of the meat, especially the lamb.  In general, we don’t eat out much while traveling because it is hard with the kids and expensive, but sometimes, if we hear about something really yummy, we make an exception.  Lamb is one of my favorite dishes, and so I just had to try it ‘pre-salé’ (pre-salted). I did  some online research ahead of time so we would know which restaurant to try.   Since it was already lunch, we decided to do that first.  We went to La Ferme St. Michel and everything was delicious and presented beautifully.  Zander and Callie had chicken, Daddie and Griffin had salmon and I had the lamb.   The kids’ meals came with dessert as well and Callie’s strawberry ice cream was, bar none, the best I’ve ever had in my life.  I find it funny that my 3 kids are so different with their ice cream tastes – they could have 2 scoops of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.  None of them mix and match – Z is 2 vanilla, C is 2 strawberry and G is 2 chocolate….   It was all beautifully presented and prepared and even affordable.

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Then it was on to the cathedral. Le Mont St. Michel is perched upon a giant chunk of granite or granulite that rests about a kilometer or so off the shore of the mainland.  It features the fastest moving tidal waters in all of Europe and the tide reportedly rolls in faster than a galloping horse.  We were hoping to see some of this super powered tidal action, of course!  Being there and seeing the people walk out onto the sand reminded me of the summer I was about 11 or 12 years old.  I went along with my mother and father on a trip to Newfoundland, Canada – where my aunt lived at the time.  My sisters, being older and more responsible, had summer jobs and were left home alone during this time.  I found out later that they had basically invited all their friends to have a big drunken party at my parents’ house during this entire time, so I’m not so sure they were as responsible as Mom and Dad thought – but, on the other hand, they were mature enough to keep the house from being destroyed – and to hide the evidence from my parents – so that shows something – right?   And, you are wondering, how does this relate to Mont St. Michel?  Oh yeah! Well, when I was on vacation with my parents, as we were driving north, we stopped at the Bay of Fundy, in Maine.  It also has super fast tides.  My parents were gazing at the ocean while I walked far out onto the wet sand.  I was appreciating the beauty all around me for some time and, when I turned around, I realized 2 things.  One, my parents had been screaming out my name and two, that the reason for that was because the tide was rapidly returning and I was nResized_HPIM3089ow standing on a rapidly shrinking little island.  I guess these tides were not as fast as a galloping horse, since I made it to shore only a bit wet.   Later that night, we had real Maine lobster – a culinary highlight of my life.  So, fast tides and good food must just go hand in hand, I guess.

So we headed over to the island.  Since it is off the mainland they had to build a little land bridge to go over to it – they have placed parking lots along one side of the bridge so people can park fairly close anResized_HPIM3092d then walk the rest of the way.  In ancient times, however, the pilgrims, led by locals who knew the way, had to cross over the quicksand.  This bay is the receiving area for three rivers, the See, the Selune and the Coueson and their arms are numerous and shifting, changing a stable passage from one day to the next.  When the tides do come in, they are more than 12 meters in height  and the area of 40000 hectacres can be completely covered in only 6 hours.  Many entire parties were lost in the fog, fell into quicksand or misjudged the waves.  Every year from 1333 until the French Revolution there was even a special pilgrimage group from all parts of France consisting only of children (boys ages 8-12) who were sent to be blessed and protect their villages from plague (the ones who made it back, anyway).  Luckily, we did not have to deal with all that and had fun using the bridge to walk over to the island.   The rain cooperated and stopped while we were hiking up there.  I guess a lot of people end up playing on the beach since the fountains had signs on them warning against washing feet! We were sad to see that the tide wasn’t going to come in until about 9:30pm that night – when we would be on our boat.  No rushing waters for us.

We went through what I can only call the most hellacious tourist trap alley I have yet to see.  According to my guide book, it has been such since the beginnings of the cathedral because, even 1000 years ago, people wanted to come back home with a souvenir, even if it was only a sea shell.  Finally we escaped and ended up at the cathedral.  From about 50 BC to the early 8th century this place was not the site of a great church, but was still known as holy.  Missionaries and monks lived there and stories flew about how they got sustenance.  One legend claimed a donkey, magically laden with supplies, crossed the sand each night and when he was eaten by a wolf, the wolf took over his duties.   The local bishop of Avranches, hearing these rumors, had a dream that called him to build a sanctuary on the rock. They built the place and, in later years, it was expanded to serve as a monastery.  The monks took vows of poverty and chastity and spent their lives in study and prayer.  Pilgrims from all over France and even further would journey here to see the Mont and be blessed by the monks, the richer ones gave generously to them in the belief this would ensure their salvation.  The abbey was hugely expanded using new and untested techniques in the 11th century – with beautiful but also deadly results.  Once, in 1103 a whole side of the chapel collapsed during a prayer service.  Of course, they didn’t take that as a sign from God not to continue, and just rebuilt it. Those who died doing this work were guaranteed a place in heaven – lucky them.  Later in its history – in the 1200’s , the place was almost destroyed and the Marvel was added – a series of rooms built on top of each other using the rock of the mount as the base.  The cloister, open to the air and weather, is actually on top of the study room – amazing.  Then there was the 100 Year’s War (thanks Wikipedia).  This was actually a series of wars, which, by the way, forced England back to being an island nation, but not before reducing the population of France by two-thirds. Two-thirds!!!  The rallying cry of Joan of Arc helped end this great conflict – go Joan.  Guess they needed protection since the entire Mont was fortified in order to protect the sanctuary and the people who lived there. 

But, the end of the Middle Ages was the end of the monastery – do you know if you miss-spell monastery spell-check suggests monetary???  I find this ironic because (I am now quoting from my little guide book) at this time “the monks lost their virtues…. they paid more attention to their income than their principles of poverty, chastity and prayer.”   Those money-grubbing little holy men ruined everything and, following the Reformation, the entire Abbey was given to the Maurists (order of monks) who were poor and messed with the architecture to make things more comfortable for actual living (can you imagine?).  Then the French Revolution came along and a decree was passed to forbid the existence of religious orders.  The Revolutionaries needed a secure location for all their enemies, and what could be more secure than the rocky fortress of the Mount?  Even from the 1200’s parts of the mount had been used for prisoners – in fact the ruling abbot had the authority to place anyone who threatened his power straight into the dungeon (see why those Revolutionaries had to outlaw that stuff?)   Later, during the reign of Louis the 11th, Cardinal Belue of the Mount invented filletes- these were solid cages suspended in the air that would wiggle if the prisoner moved – there was only two openings – one for food and one for waste – some prisoners were kept in for years and eventually went mad.    They ordered the cages destroyed in the 17th century but the entire place was still a penitentiary, holding up to 700 prisoners up until the 19th century.  It was finally closed down as a prison in 1863, when they realized they could make more money from tourists than torture.   Of course, “the unnecessary elements added by the Maurists and the penitentiary… had to be destroyed.”  They cleaned it up, consulting old plans and now, lucky tourists such as us Dhondts get to come take a peek.  The views off the ramparts were breathtaking – I hope you can get an idea of how very flat everything else around here is!

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We headed inside and saw the chapel and cloister as well as the room where, in total silence, the monks ate their Resized_HPIM3105meals.  We Resized_HPIM3103 saw the giant and fancy room where they blessed nobles and the small plain one where they blessed everybody else.  We even saw the old ossuary – but the bones have since been moved elsewhere.  It was fun to wander in the giant hall where they worked and studied for so many years.  The kids were fascinated by the idea of monks who lived and worked in one place for so many years.  Many of them even gave up speaking!  My chatter boxes can’t imagine giving up speaking for even 10 minutes, never mind for the rest of their lives! The entire building was different from many of the other places we’d visited as well because it was all granite, floated over from the other small islands nearby.   We were quite lucky to go the day we did since it was not too crowded.   

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We reaResized_HPIM3113lized our time was up and we needed to head for the ferry.  On the way down we stopped briResized_HPIM3115efly in Saint-Aubert chapel.  Back when good old Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, had his dream to build the sanctuary on the mont then known as Mont Tombe in honor of Saint Michael, he knew it had to be be right at the very top.  Well, some say that Mont Tombe was named such because it held a giant megalithic cairn or tomb already. And where do you think the cairn was?  Of course, in the highest spot available – just where good old Aubert wanted to build, of course.  No respect, I’d say, no respect at all.  Legend has it that there was a big slab of stone – many say it was the capstone of the dolmen (or ancient tomb) that was blocking the construction of the abbey.  For weeks, men had worked to move the rock – to no avail. Of course, it was more than likely that stone had been placed there over 3000 years before by a group of Stone Age farmers who didn’t even have the wheel, but, hey, I’m sure it was very heavy. Then, one day, a small boy – the 12th son of a worker named Bain, kicked at the rock, and, with the tip of his foot,  he knocked it down the hill, where it rested. Too bad his name is unknown.  Of course, they saw this as a miracle and decided to build their chapel for the monastery on top of the coverstone. (Speaking as a great respecter of the old traditions and ways, I wonder why they didn’t think the weeks of failure were a sign?  Huh? People see the signs they want to see – true now and true then.)  This chapel, mostly untouched since its inception, was a small place and featured yet another St. Michael and the Dragon sculpture.  We moved on, stopping just long enough to touch the ocean and then headed back to the car.  The sun cooperated for a minute to give us another shot at the perfect photo, but, of course, no photo can compare to actually being there!   What a place.

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