Mont Sant-Michel: An Earthly Image Of Paradise
Visiting Mont St Michel
The train sped through the rainy afternoon. Old stone farmhouses and green fields rich with fat cows rattled past our window. As dusk gathered the train finally stopped in the deserted village of Pontorson. In the gloom it took us a while to find the exit from the station: a walk over the tracks then through a knee-high gate, to the patiently waiting bus.
After some twenty minutes the lights of the island suddenly appeared. Against the darkness Mont St Michel rose from the sea, unchanged from medieval times when the island became a mystical emblem of the heavenly Jerusalem, an earthly image of paradise.
Like many a pilgrim before us, we crossed the causeway and entered through the Porte de l'Avancée, passed under the King’s Gate then made our way along the Grande Rue. The only way around Mont St Michel is by foot. Along with Rome and Santiago de Compostela, Mont St Michel became one of the most important places along the pilgrim route. Countless men, women and children have trod these Paths to Paradise, praying for the Archangel to grant them the assurance of Eternity.
Walking The Pilgrim Route
With over three million visitors a year to the island, by day the Grande Rue can prove both crowded and noisy. In bygone times it probably stank. Now the aromas are more delicious, carrying the flavours of the sea or of the agneau de pré-salé (salt-meadow lamb) for which this part of Normandy is famous. Yet as darkness falls, the streets of Mont St Michel lie deserted, for most tourists stay on the mainland, and only some forty souls (or montois) live on the island.
Alleys dart off the main road, one so tiny I had to walk sideways to pass along to the other end. Our hotel room lay at the bottom of one of these lanes, hidden behind an unmarked door requiring an oversized key. This gave the first hint to the secret of the island; hidden areas, quiet places, unmarked walkways full of peace, away from the tourists. Plus from our room we looked over a small courtyard and onto the Baie du Mont St Michel.
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The Abbey of Mont St Michel
The view from the ramparts sweeps from Brittany to the cliffs of Normandy. The waster swirls around the island in deadly currents, creating tidal flats of shifting quicksand which has claimed many an unwary pilgrim. In 1318, the Abbey recorded 18 deaths due to drowning. The Bayeaux tapestry shows Harold, Earl of Wessex, rescuing two Norman knights caught in the quicksand during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany; the Abbey floats in the background.
Indeed, Mont St Michel is a place which floats. The three-tiered monastery, complete with its heaven-seeking spire, floats over the rocky hill, which itself seems to drift above the treacherous sands. That such an abbey could be built in such a place at such a time seems a miracle. Not surprisingly, the monastery, added to the Abbey in the 13C, is called La Merveille (The Miracle).
The Beginnings of Mont St Michel's Abbey
Occupation of the island dates back to prehistoric times. The Celts once worshiped Belenus here, and the Romans built a shrine to Jove. Until the 8th C, locals called the island Mont Tombe. According to legend, in 708 AD the Archangel Michel appeared to St Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, instructing him to build a church on the rocky islet. Realising the difficulties of the request, St Aubert ignored the Archangel’s instructions, until St Michel burnt a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger. A small church was quickly built on the rock and consecrated on the 16th October, 709, with the pre-Romanesque church completed before 1000 AD.
In 966C Benedictine monks settled in Mont St Michel at the request of the Duke of Normandy. A village grew up below the church walls, reaching the foot of the rock by the 14thC. In the 11th C, the Romanesque Abbey was founded over a set of supportive crypts, and the first monastery buildings begun.
The three levels of the Abbey were built to reflect the monastic hierarchy, designed around Rule of St Benedict. Established in the 6th C, the Rule of St Benedict stipulated a life of prayer and work, regulated by the hour of the day, and adhered to by all Benedictine monasteries across Christendom. The enclosed world of the monks (which included the cloister, the church and refectory) resided on the top level; the Abbot entertained royalty and noble guests on middle level, whilst soldiers and pilgrims (known as miquelots) of a lower social scale were received and housed in the Almonry on the lowest level.
Today, entrance to the cathedral is through the fortified guard room and up the Grand Degré to St Gaultier terrace. The church lies to one side, the Abbey (still used by the Benedictines) to the other, the two linked by suspended passageways. Atop La Merveille floats the cloister, a place of prayer and meditation.
Like the other hidden gardens and courtyards which dot the island, it proves a cocoon of peace. The entire gallery arcade with its enclosed garden seems to hover between sea and sky. Amongst the slender columns are decorations of plants and animals, with the occasional human. The classic quincunx (or five point) arrangement of the cloister brings further grace to this peaceful spot, offering an ever changing view over the bay as you walk around the arcade.
Despite the inherent heaviness of the building, with its endless crypts and pillars and vaults necessary for support, both the Abbey and the monastery prove places of lightness. Open terraces stretch towards the sea, and through a plethora of windows sunshine falls onto polished floors. The Knights Hall, which both runs under the cloister and supports it, was used by the monks for the transcribing of manuscripts (for which the island became famous). Elegant pillars march the length of the hall, and a large fireplace at one end kept hands warm and nimble.
Exploring Mont St Michel
After a morning in the Abbey, we passed our remaining days wandering the ramparts and exploring the rest of the island. The spirit of the Mont can be felt in the most unexpected places of solitude – a small cemetery hidden halfway down the hill from the Abbey, a sheltered garden offering a place to sit in the sun.
Even the ramparts, which enclose the front of the island with impressive solidity, drift above the sea. (Proving impregnable to all English assaults during The Hundred Years War, they remain a national symbol.) The ramparts can be reached from the road via steep stairs, or through the various towers – such as the Liberty and Arcade Towers which once housed soldiers, or the King’s Tower beside the main gate. Some of the shops also open directly onto them.
The Grand Rue is lined with shops, restaurants, and museums. To one side lies the 15 thC parish church – Eglise St-Pierre, dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen. Along the length of the Grande Rue are alleyways offering access to stairwells and alternative routes away from the crowds. Roaming these at random, ending upon the ramparts or high on the Mont in a sheltered courtyard overlooking the sea, or simply sitting and watching the birds circle overhead, is one of the delights of the island.
As Swiftly As A Galloping Horse
At low tide, it is possible to walk around Mont St Michel. The sand proves more a grey silt which wobbles gently underfoot, before you slowly start to sink, should you move too slowly. Victor Hugo wrote how the tide sweeps in à la vitesse d’un cheval au galop (as swiftly as a galloping horse). A bell tolls when the surge begins for, like many a medieval pilgrim, people still drown making their way across the tidal flats. Out the back of the island lay some old forgotten ruins, and St Aubert’s chapel resides on an outcrop of rock. Just below it frolicked a young seal, on holidays from the open sea.
The causeway has been recently rebuilt to allow the water to completely encircle the island at high tide. This will slowly wash away the silt which has built up over the centuries. Mont St Michel will then become once more a true island, a magical place of delight for any who visit.
© 2012 Anne Harrison
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