Thursday, May 31, 2012

Road Trip: Mont Saint Michel

After leaving St. James, we continued to head toward Mont Saint-Michel, an island and monastery located in the western corner of Normandy, close to the country's northwestern coast. This was the view from the car window.

Yes, as you might expect, our arrival was a rainy one, although the rain stopped and started, leaving a gloomy gray during its brief reprieves.

We parked and walked up to the massive island, which is reached (currently) by a causeway. It is largely surrounded by bleak waters -- and one wouldn't want to be caught on the wrong side of the island when the tide is in.

 Some of the visitors were better prepared for the rain than I was!

Mont Saint-Michel served as a point for holding fortifications, but since the eighth century it has been the seat of the monastery and a pilgrimage destination.

Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches in the 700s and told him to build a church on the small island. It became a strategic point in wartime as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells of the 1066 Norman conquest of England. It is also considered a fine example of military architecture.

Over centuries Mont Saint-Michel has served as village, monastery and prison. Notably, Victor Hugo was one launched a campaign to restore the structure to national architectural treasure, resulting in the close of the prison in 1863 and eventually declaring it as a national historic monument.

The architecture is like that of no other monastery. Because the island mount is a pyramid, the medieval builders wound the buildings around the granite rock, with the abbey church at the top.

The original abbey church is clearly Romanesque in design and was built in the 11th century. Because of the weight of the structure, many underground chapels and crypts were built to support the structure.

In 1204 a fire damaged many of the buildings and when the abbey was rebuilit, it was in the "new" Gothic style. The refectory and cloister reflect this style.

The 15th century ramparts and fortifications were built to defend the site from the cannon -- a new weapon.

Now, 41 residents live on the island in apartments above shops, hotels and restaurants that one passes leading up to the abbey. 

We walked (and walked) and walked, through pathways...

...and up the cobbled steps to what I call a terrace -- I'm sure it has another name.

And, by the time we got there, the sky was a mix of gray to the sea and blue above the spire.

You see? Sun! You can't get shadow without it!

The view was pretty amazing and quite formidable -- imagine being a soldier approaching it from the sea -- or anywhere, for that matter.

One can't help but admire the builders who hauled the stone and built this massive structure, but as churches go, it isn't exactly warm and inviting.The lighting and floor of this chapel was the sole exception.

I found it cold, damp (helped, no doubt, by the pouring rain) and not particularly pleasing -- more like well-designed rock masses with some pretty incredible architecture. I suspect a little sunshine coming through the windows (and about ten degrees of heat) would have helped warm things tremendously.

Obviously, others have a different point of view. It is, after all, a place of holiness, a place of faith. And I can imagine the pilgrims found it quite amazing -- I count in that number the modern-day pilgrims who come to visit simply because they are aware of its great structure and architecture.

The ossuary was interesting. The wheel was installed in 1820 to hoist provisions to the prisoners held in the abbey during its period as a prison. It is a replica of the pulleys used for hoisting building materials in the middle ages.

There was little art in entire abbey. Here is a lovely piece -- Adam and Eve.

 My favorite area was the cloisters, a bright spot of green and color amidst much stone.

These were simply lovely, in the Gothic style, and offered many lovely and graceful lines...

...handsome sculpture...

...and some good spots for clowning around!

Because of the dampness, there was lots of moss...

...and a small potager or kitchen garden.

And occasionally, bright flowers seemed to grow from out of the rocks.

No matter where one looked, the view was quite spectacular.

Mont Saint-Michel was certainly not my favorite spot in our travels, and frankly, I was relieved to leave this cold, bleak place, with few spots that generated emotional warmth. As I mentioned, I suspect that had to do most with the weather and still being more than a bit jet-lagged. By the time we left it was close to 11 p.m., "Jeanie Time" and we still hadn't had dinner.

But I did leave with admiration for the architectural skill and history, though. It is a massive and fascinating structure and certainly one I'll never forget.

NOTE: Next we'll be going through Brittany. Remember, comments on this post and all of this series of recent vacation posts and the post about Gypsy will be entered in my 800th post drawing!


Annie said...

Dearest Jeanie, I just loved the tour of MSM. I was back there again and wasn't disappointed. I was there during the summer and the place was teaming with visitors. It was warm. The sun was brilliant. The flowers were bursting.

Did you see the little cemetery they have there? I have a picture of it. I'll have to find it, though I think Quanah has the photo album of the trip now. I'll have to get it from him just so I can scan all my photos from there.

Mae Travels said...

DId you get to try the famous omelet, specialty of one of the restaurants that's been there for centuries?

The Artful Diva said...

My husband and I went to Mont St. Michel a few years ago. It was raining that day and the tide was out. We still had a great time.

Joanne Huffman said...

I went there in the summer of 1966 and it was grey and rainey then, too.

Marilyn said...

Now I thought I would like to visit there one day, but now not so sure. I would have loved the green too. The dampness can feel so much colder than it sometimes is.

Arti said...


This architecture is simply awesom, so are your photos! I don't feel the cold since I'm not there. Rather, your pics look very inviting and beautiful. You and Rick look particularly cheery. I just can't imagine how they built humungous structures like these during centuries ago, with attention to fine details. I remember my son was in a recital with a music abroad program a few years back, he got to play the piano in a 12th C. chapel in Provence. It was nothing like this, minimal actually compared to Mont. St. Michel. But I was amazed that it still stands and people still use it for concerts and gatherings etc.

And since you mentioned Hugo. This just came out a couple of days ago. Have you seen the trailer for the new Les Miserables film by Tom Hooper (director of The King's Speech)? Simply mesmerizing. Take a look here.

Bella Rum said...

Thank you for the tour. It does look lonely and bleak. I'd think it could challenge one's sanity if too much time was spent there. Of course, some of us don't have as much sanity to spare as others. :)

~*~Patty S said...

Dear Jeanie ~ this may be one of my favorite posts of yours (of course all of your travels in France strike a cord with me).
I already shared with you that I have a "romance" with Mont St Michel and hope to return there again one day with my Mr and my digital camera.

I Love your photos and narrative and will share your link with Mr Magpie too ... he'll have a better idea of what I am talking about it.

I guess I was lucky when I visited so many years ago...I remember walking barefoot in the sand and enjoying each moment, spending the night there was extra special too I found

Thank you for sharing, you really did a very fine job for it not being a fav spot

wishing you and yours a happy June

Tracy said...

That last image is breathtaking, Jeanie! I loved this trip with you to Mont Saint Michel, and catching up with your French adventures. WONDERFUL photos and stories! We're just back from our trip the US. :o) ((HUGS))

Naturegirl said...

Jeanie: What a wonderful series of images from your trip to Europe! Oh my brings back memories of when hubby and I visited Paris!This report on your visit to the Monastery so interesting! What a sweet photo of you in that one shot!I always am in awe of the architecture of these historic places!
Thank you for sharing your photos!

Ruth said...

You may have felt damp and cold, but this post is thoroughly charming, with the flowers, stone, village, rain and smiles. I regret never going to Mont-Saint Michel and hope to remedy that some day.

There is a wonderful film called "Mindwalk" that is simply that, a conversation among friends who meet up at Mont-Saint Michel and talk about ideas. It is brilliant. It was made in 1990, we watched it once, and I've never been able to find it on Netflix. Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston and John Heard.

Retired English Teacher said...

Jeanie, you shine as a travel commentator. I found this post quite fascinating and very descriptive. I loved the way you captured the unique features of this historic site. The photos are quite lovely, but really it is your commentary that adds the extra luster.

You smile through it all, but I would probably be like you quite cold and miserable in the damp, austereness of it all. Still the entire place is really quite fascinating. I am amazed at its structure.

Popular Posts