Mont St Michel

Published Categorised as France, Photography, Popular Posts, Travel 2 Comments on Mont St Michel

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I went to Mont St Michel last week for the first time in years. It’s a medi­ev­al abbey on an island on the border between Normandy and Brit­tany, about an hour’s drive from my mum’s house in France. We went there a few times when I was a kid, and the last time I was there was in the late 90s on a school trip. It has dramat­ic­ally changed since then.

There was some­thing a bit seedy and cynic­al about the place in the 90s despite the spec­tac­u­lar town itself. Buses and cars drove over the cause­way to the island, and parked in a decrep­it carpark on the shore, which had a tend­ency to flood. As you made your way up through the snak­ing medi­ev­al street to the abbey at the top of the peak, there were endless shops selling cheap replica hunt­ing knives, saucy post­cards and boxes of fire­crack­ers. It must have been a night­mare for teach­ers super­vising school groups.

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(The cause­way approach­ing the island, after the bus dropped us off)

All that is gone now, and the place is so cleaned up it’s almost like Norman Disney­land. The bay was in danger of silt­ing up, so a hydraul­ic dam has been built to keep the water flow­ing, and the carpark and visit­or centre moved to dry land, with a shuttle bus to take visit­ors to the island. Everything was clean, fresh and recently scrubbed up, which felt a little odd, even though it was still enjoy­able to visit. The shops mostly sold taste­ful souven­irs, and the restaur­ants were also well scrubbed up, with high prices. We went on a Monday in August, and it was pretty busy, but not unbear­ably so. I hate to think what’s it’s like on a week­end in the Summer or a public holi­day.

We found a reas­on­ably priced place to eat- Le Chapeau Rouge, and had the Norman/​Breton dream- the €13 double pancake meal. A savoury buck­wheat galette with cheese and choice of toppings for the main, followed by a sweet crêpe, and a earth­en­ware cup of cider. Sadly I had to have Orangina rather than cidre, as I’m badly aller­gic to sulph­ites. (You can also read about bad pancake times else­where in Normandy here).

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Before we actu­ally reached the abbey, we stopped off along the coastal road, where there was a park­ing area, and a view­ing point. You were allowed to walk through the farm­land as long as you didn’t annoy the anim­als. It looks like I’ve added the island in here on photoshop, but that’s how it actu­ally looks. I star­ted think­ing about how incred­ible it must have been to medi­ev­al visit­ors, espe­cially since I’d recently re-read The Name of the Rose. It also made me think of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Cham­ber, which retells the Blue­beard fairy story in a decad­ent 1890s France setting remin­is­cent of Colette’s writ­ing, with the terri­fy­ing husband whisk­ing the naïve young bride off to a castle on a simil­ar island.

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The sheep that graze on these polders are a delic­acy. The grasses and herbs that grow on the salt­marsh give the meat a partic­u­lar flavour and tender­ness. They do the same thing on Romney Marsh on the other side of the chan­nel, which also has a simil­ar histor­ic­al island town in the marsh- Rye. Not that I’ll be eating any of the lamb though, as a long-term veget­ari­an. (Later that even­ing, I remembered Enid Blyton had done a Famous Five book, Five Go to Smuggler’s Top with a Mont St Michel/​Rye hybrid setting. I dug it out online and had a look- it pleas­antly terri­fied me as a kid, but now struck me as a weird Enid-Blyton-does-Daphne-du-Maur­i­er type of thing)

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The car park used to be on this beach. I’m glad they got rid of it. Now when the tide comes in, it goes right to the base of the island.

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The abbey at the top of the rocks. As well as a church and monas­tery, it was also used as a Bastille-style pris­on in the past. We didn’t go in this time, we’ve visited before, and there were some big tour groups at the same time as us.

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Instead we climbed up to the battle­ments. Mont St Michel is basic­ally Narnia. It also reminded me that I had actu­ally read most of the Narnia books in Normandy as a kid, and spurred me to start work that even­ing on a C.S. Lewis zine I’d put on the back­burn­er, as part of the Being Edit­ors series of children’s liter­at­ure zines. (The first issue is about Diana Wynne Jones, and will be re-issued soon, there is also an E.Nesbit issue in the works)

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You can see how busy it was.

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Look­ing down at the people on the beach from the turrets made me feel like I was watch­ing some kind of wild­life docu­ment­ary.

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Here you can see the long migra­tion to the water­ing-hole. Hope there’s no lions around.

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I don’t fancy these people’s chances. Seeing people so far out gave me a bit of anxi­ety. People who aren’t used to the sea, or are used to mildly-behaved waters like the Medi­ter­ranean or Black Sea under­es­tim­ate the speed and sudden­ness of the tide in the open sea, which leads to disasters like at More­combe Bay. I wonder how often the coast guards have to rescue people here.

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View of the abbey on the way down.

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Although the island is densely built on, there are little pock­ets of green­ery.

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Includ­ing this little garden.

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