A French Argument with Mother Nature

Mont Saint-Michel Travel Blog

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Our first view of Le Mont Saint-Michel.

A tug of war has been going on for centuries between the French duchies of Normandy and Brittany.  This argument centers on a sheer sided granite rock which rises eighty meters out of the sea and is called, Le Mont Saint-Michel.

The historically irregular course of the Couesnon River, which forms the border between Normandy and Brittany, has alternated between two beds on the north and south of Mont Saint-Michel. It eventually settled on the south bed and inspired the saying, "The Couesnon's folly placed Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy", since the "Mont" was just to the Norman side of the river's mouth.

As we were mapping out today's journey over breakfast, our friend, André filled us in on Brittany's more recent (relatively speaking) triumph:  the acquisition of "Le Mont"  Apparently the fickle Couesnon had finally been seduced to the north bed and now presented its ancient gift to the Bretons, much to the chagrin of the Normans!  It was now crucial for Normandy to regain one of its prime tourist attractions!

Over the years, the tides surrounding "Le Mont" have carried enormous quantities of silt and sediment into the bay which has caused large sandbars to form.

Tourist trap alley
Normally, this sediment has been no problem since the Couesnon, along with two other rivers, carried it back out to sea. With the progress of the 20th Century, the Couesnon was turned into a canal (to reduce the erosion of its banks), a causeway was constructed to link "Le Mont" to the mainland and in 1969, a dam was built.  When you clog up the works with this amount of "progress", it's a wonder that anyone's water could flow!

So, is it just coincidence or do the Normans have an ulterior motive in initiating a series of projects to once again drive the sediment out to sea and perhaps reroute that reluctant river back into its "rightful" place!

Now, on our own pilgrimage to "Le Mont", we were starting to become familiar with the sights along the autoroute.

A climb up the hill begins with a single step.
  Low, narrow, stone houses, called longères, as well as stone ruins of old barns and an occasional windmill dotted the rambling, green landscape.  Our hour and a half drive, skirting the "Côte d'Armour", seemed much shorter, as the picture post card scenes claimed our attention. 

In order to avoid the lunch crowds inside the walls of "Le Mont", we thought we'd stop at a restaurant on the outskirts of town.  Once again, we had underestimated the French by thinking that we could actually frequent a public establishment between the sacred hours of noon and 2:00pm, even if it was for lunch! 

The approach, by car,  to "Le Mont" was spectacular if not awe inspiring.

A perspective of size
  I could compare it to someone laying eyes, for the first time, on the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Words can't do it justice and pictures just trivialize its grandeur.  In a funny sort of way, it vaguely reminded me of the scene in the movie, "The Wizard of Oz", when Dorothy and her friends first spot the Emerald City in the distance.........very imposing, almost ethereal.  I was amazed that human hands could have sculpted this mountain into such an intricate maze of buildings, ending with the beautiful abbey at the top.

We were fortunate in our decision to visit "Le Mont" during the "off" season. We had heard that during the summer, tourists could stand in line for several hours before finally inching their way up to the front gates of the city.

A view of the estuary filled with sediment.
  There is no admission charged to go into "Le Mont" but they make up for it by charging a parking fee of 4 Euros.  If you are inclined to visit the four museums (which were closed) or the Abbey, you have to lay down 18 Euros and 8.50 Euros, respectively.

If you manage to get through the tourist traps of expensive restaurants, snack bars, knick-knack shops and small hotels strategically placed along the narrow, winding street, you eventually find yourself at the base of the Abbey.  I could only imagine how miserable it would be to negotiate that strip of commercialism during the height of the summer season with lines at the public toilets (which cost 40 centimes for the privilege), competing for space with lines snaking out of the three or four restaurants within the city walls.

The chancel in the abbey
  We took one look at the prices printed on the menus outside the doors and decided we would starve for awhile longer.   I'm sure that the famous restaurant, "La Mère Poulard", had no trouble finding willing patrons to pay 29-39 Euros for a simple crêpe lunch with dessert.  It just wasn't going to be us!

As one ascends, the views from "Le Mont" are indeed breathtaking.  From the base of the Abbey to the estuary below is a drop of nearly 80 meters, an uneasy feeling for the faint of heart.  We were fortunate to have a wonderfully, rain free day which gave us a clear view across the bay and out toward the English Channel.

We decided to pay our dues (literally) and fork over the 8.50 (each) in Euros to take a tour of the Abbey.

Playing tour guide
  A conveniently located giftshop, located just inside, gave us the option to purchase a guide book or rent a headset, in our language of choice, in order to more fully appreciate the more than 1000 year history of this magnificient edifice.

With book in hand, I led our private tour through the increasingly frigid stone chambers.  This room is where the monks ate. This room is where the knights were received. This room is where the provisions were kept. And this room is where my frozen fingers were going to break off into little pieces and fall on the stone floor if we don't get out of here soon! If the wind hadn't been whistling through the slits in the walls, we might have been able to stay a little longer to appreciate the history before us.

The delicate design of stone
  As it was, we were cold and hungry and Mark's aching back was at odds with the hundreds of steps we had climbed to get to the summit.

At the end of our descent into the late afternoon, we rewarded ourselves with lunch at the only snackbar that was open on "Le Mont".  It was no bargain, to be sure, at nearly 6 Euros for a bit of ham and hard boiled egg tucked into a pita bread pocket.  As we sat on a bench, eating our meal across from, "La Mère Poulard", a family exited the restaurant.  I guess I was staring just a little too long at the gentleman wearing the pointed hat with feather, trying to decide if he was an Austrian tourist, when he locked eyes with me.  We looked at each other for a moment longer, then he shook his head with disbelief and said in French, "Well, THAT was expensive!" 

 I was ready for him though, and the French flowed easily off my tongue as I responded, "That is why we are sitting out here eating these sandwiches!"  One small moment of triumph indeed!

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Our first view of Le Mont Saint-Mi…
Our first view of Le Mont Saint-M…
Tourist trap alley
Tourist trap alley
A climb up the hill begins with a …
A climb up the hill begins with a…
A perspective of size
A perspective of size
A view of the estuary filled with …
A view of the estuary filled with…
The chancel in the abbey
The chancel in the abbey
Playing tour guide
Playing tour guide
The delicate design of stone
The delicate design of stone
Gargoyles
Gargoyles
Looking down at the garden
Looking down at the garden
One side of the chapel
One side of the chapel
Taking a rest after the climb
Taking a rest after the climb
See how tiny the people are at the…
See how tiny the people are at th…
The abbey coat of arms with the fl…
The abbey coat of arms with the f…
Wait, let me take one more!
Wait, let me take one more!
The Abbey at the top
The Abbey at the top
The cloisters where the monks stro…
The cloisters where the monks str…
The 13th Century Refectory, where …
The 13th Century Refectory, where…
Mark, taking a break in the cloist…
Mark, taking a break in the clois…
A room off to the side of the 11th…
A room off to the side of the 11t…
Replica of a treadmill used by pri…
Replica of a treadmill used by pr…
No, Im not going up one more stai…
No, I'm not going up one more sta…
Mont Saint-Michel
photo by: GeorgeLeach