The deeply evocative Sanskrit word maya described our feelings most succinctly. Was that soaring edifice on a rocky island in the sea an illusion? Or was it a sorcerer’s castle, swathed in an early morning veil of mist? Or could it be the palace of a wicked witch who haunted our darkest childhood fantasies? Le Mont-Saint- Michel, a Gothic medieval abbey located on a 264-feet rocky isle just off the coastline of Normandy, France, seemed to pull us forward irresistibly and yet filled us with a sense of foreboding.
As we walked towards the Bay of Mont-Saint- Michel in which the abbey is located, the over a thousand-year-old offshore Benedictine monastery seemed to move farther away. It is perhaps the indefinable aura of unattainability that clings to this remarkable monument that has held devotees and travellers in thrall for centuries. The abbey evolved into one of the great centres of learning in Europe, and soon became known as merveille de l’Occident– the marvel of the Western world. The epithet is well deserved, for the abbey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1979, and is among the first to figure on the list. (Indeed, UNESCO has declared it a technical and artistic tour de force!)
And a marvel it is–it seems to rise majestically from the heart of the islet, moulded to its sharp, edgy contours as if it belongs there. The minuscule population (comprising largely of monks) is overwhelmed by 2.5 million tourists a year and a sprinkling of pilgrims.
In the days of yore, the abbey’s relative inaccessibility was heightened by the fact that the bay turned into a quicksand mudflat at low tide, and at high tide, the sea rolled in at the speed of a ‘galloping horse’ which made it resemble some mythical hard-to-reach eyrie. Weary pilgrims would cross the mudflat quickly in what were called hip boots, related our guide. In the late 1800s, an ugly causeway was built for easier access, silting up much of the bay. Soon the once-isolated island seemed to merge into the mainland, destroying much of that hard-to-define appeal it drew from that unique sense of remoteness. Today, a low curving bridge on stilts has replaced the causeway and connects the abbey with the mainland, allowing water to ebb and flow around the monument and enhance its maritime aura.
We walked down the narrow main street of the village that the serene abbey has birthed and sheltered beneath its ramparts. There, unlike the abbey itself, restaurants serving the local staple, omelettes and crÃªpes, and shops hawking tourist memorabilia were wreathed in the smell of commerce, jolting us back to the 21st century. The abbey’s stone steps were worn smooth by pilgrims and wayfarers from centuries past who had trudged up, propelled by deep faith and a sense of awe as they gazed at the gilded statue of Archangel Saint Michael, glowing like an avenging angel atop the soaring edifice.
Most legends have their roots in a dream and so does the abbey. It goes back to the eighth century, when a local bishop had a vision of Archangel Saint Michael instructing him to build an abbey at the site. It all started with a small church and over the centuries, the vision was transformed into reality. Granite was ferried across the bay and hauled uphill; monastic buildings and a collection of vast chambers were built at a dizzying height. These seemed to enhance rather than detract from the cohesiveness of the structure.
This is the original labour of love, we thought, as we drifted through the largely empty Gothic rooms impregnated by piety and a strange sense of eeriness. Was that a meditating monk, sitting in a nook by the window? Were we imagining the chanting of hymns soaring to the highest point of the abbey–the bronze, sun-stunned, winged statue of the archangel with sword raised? Or was the resonant singing for real? It was only when we would gatecrash a room full of awestruck tourists that the abbey’s grip on our wayward imagination would loosen.
It was the slender spires and flying buttresses of the abbey church on top that drew us. From there we drifted into the tranquil cloisters where silence wrapped around us like a second skin and, seeing us, a few monks slipped away into the dark interiors, as elusive and ephemeral as shadows.
By the time we were down on terra firma, it was dusk. The abbey lights came on, making this historic pile glow like a stranded extraterrestrial ship that had been snagged one foggy night on the rocky island. The abbey glimmered thus till midnight, after which the lights faded almost as though, this, one of the most other-worldly sights that France has to offer, was taking a curtain call.
Paris (approx. 300km) is the most accessible airport, as it boasts of many direct and connecting flights from major Indian cities. Pontorson (9km) is the nearest railhead, connected by a regional train from Paris. Another option is to take the high-speed TGV train from Paris Montparnasse station to Rennes, and then a bus to Le Mont-Saint- Michel (approx. 60km).
Self-drive car rental from Paris is the best option (around ¤30 for 24 hours). A number of tour operators, including Viator (viator.com) and Paris City Vision (pariscityvision.com), offer round-trip day tours from Paris starting at â‚¬135. Alternatively, one can opt for Responsible Travel’s (responsibletravel.com) 6D/5N cycling tour of Brittany and Normandy which includes Mont- Saint-Michel (â‚¬695).
Where to eat
There are cafÃ©s and brasseries within the walls, as well as a few outside. Mont-Saint-Michel caters to all palates and budgets. For a quick snack visit La SirÃ¨ne and for fine dining go to Le Relais Saint-Michel.
A non-immigration French Schengen visa costs â‚¬60. The validity of a visa can be from a few days to two years, depending on the discretion of the visa-issuing authorities.
â‚¬1 = approx. â‚¹76.
The majority of hotels are located outside the walls of the citadel, while a few are inside. Options include HÃ´tel Du Guesclin (from â‚¬100; hotelduguesclin.com), HÃ´tel Mercure Mont Saint-Michel (from approx. â‚¬100; accorhotels.com) and Le Mouton Blanc (from â‚¬180; lemoutonblanc.fr).
Atout France, the country’s tourism department, at in.france.fr.