Sunday, 16 March 2008


This weekend I spent a day at Mont-Saint-Michel and Rennes, the capital of the region of Brittany. I was a bit worried about visiting Mont-Saint-Michel as I had heard that it was the second most visited place in all of France, and I have seen how busy some of the tourist sites in Paris can be during summer. I thought I might be okay, visiting whilst it is still officially winter, but the thing with Europe, I have discovered, is that it doesn't matter what you do, there will always be hundreds of other people with the same idea as you. In the end it turned out well, there were a few tourists there, but never enough to get in your way or give you a claustrophobic feeling, but enough so that you don't feel like a freak wandering around and taking photos of everything.

This place really is spectacular, it's this one island, now linked by a 2km causeway to the mainland, and all around it the countryside is completely flat. It was first built in the 8th century on the island of Mont-Tombe in honour of the archangel Michael (or Michel as the French call him). The Mont then became a major focus of pilgrimage and the Benedictine monks settled there during the 10th century. During the Hundred Years War with the English a serious amount of ramparts were built and it remained impenetrable, thus becoming a symbol of national identity. It was actually besieged 3 times and was the only place in western and northern France not to fall into English hands. After the French Revolution when religious organisations were dissolved the Mont became a prison, and remained that way until 1863. It is now a World Heritage Site.

Now whilst it was spectacular and all I was slightly disappointed, it reminded me of Chambord in the Loire Valley. Both Mont-Saint-Michel and Chambord are owned by the French government and it seems that the government is only interested in maintaining these monuments rather than displaying them to their full potential. Both the Mont and Chambord were just a building with empty rooms, like the refectory to the left, this was the most furnished room with a few wooden tables, and whilst if you are interested in architecture that is probably great, you don't want furniture and tapestry cluttering up your views of the walls, but I am more interested in the history of a place. I can understand them not adding old furniture and tapestries in as that would add a whole other level to the maintenance, having to add security and humidity/light control to the upkeep. A few signs and pictures up explaining the life and history of the monks and the mont would have added a lot to the visit though.

The Mont has been around since 708, it has been through wars, revolution, monkhood, it's been a prison, an abbey, a sanctuary and a fortress, I reckon there are probably some good stories amongst all that time. I mean the Benedictine monks are pretty freaky, I find monks slightly strange in general, so you want to know what makes someone become a monk, what was their position in society, what did they do during the day. Also how did this place become a prison, who did it house, and what was with the Hundred Years War, who fought at Mont-Saint-Michel, do the monks ride out swinging their maces or was it the French army? There are so many questions that you would like answered but there was no information given, the audio guide I hired was okay, but a bit too full of things like "and the pillars are mounted on hexagonal bases". I can see that the pillars have hexagonal bases, I want to know what this room was used for! Perhaps if you go with a tour they answer all these questions for you, but one draw-back to it still being winter, was that there were only tours in French.

That said about being interested in the history, the architecture of the place is pretty amazing too. The photo to the left is the cloisters and the building at the back is known as the Merveille (or marvel), and it really is a marvel. This was added to the church in the 13th century and it really says something about the builders back then. They managed to build two blocks of 3-storey buildings on the top of a very steeply sloped hill. The cloisters, to the left, and the refectory to to the back are at the top of the Merveille, directly below is the guests' hall and then below that is the almory, where the peasants entered. All this building was achieved in only 16 years, I don't know if modern day builders could have done as well. Well they probably could, it would just end up being massively over budget.

You can really see in the photo to the left of the Knights' Hall the starkness of the rooms. This was built to hold up the cloisters, maybe that gives you some idea of the scale of this building. This was the main room for the monks, where all their work and study was done, but now nothing remains, just a whole bunch of columns. It's very hard to get a sense of someone's life when you don't have anything to go on.

Here is Mont-Saint-Michel from the beach side, the Merveille is the big rectangular building to the right of the church spire. You can also see here the little town of Mont-Saint-Michel which currently houses a permanent population of 42 people. You can really see how small this island is and how dominating the abbey is, all up it is about 1km to walk around on the beach. You have to be careful where you walk though, there are signs up warning of quicksand. In the Bayeux tapestry there is a scene of Norman soldiers having to be rescued from the sands.

The tides of Mont-Saint-Michel are probably as famous as the abbey, at the biggest tides there is a difference of 15m. There are signs up in car park informing people when the high tide of the day is, but every year they lose about 10 cars, because people don't move them in time. This only occurs at the highest of tides, which certainly wasn't the day I visited. The local legend also goes that the tides can reach the speed of galloping horses (or about 10km/hr), not sure about that one though.

Looking through the ramparts which managed to hold off three attacks by the English in the 15th century. You can see the endless expanse of beach which surrounds the Mont to the north.

All the tour buses lined up in the car park, I hate to imagine what this place must look like in summer. The only way to the Abbey is up a narrow, steep road. You can only really fit, at most, 4 people across so it must just be an absolute crush in summer.

One last shot of the spectacular Mont-Saint-Michel, overall I would definitely recommend a visit, but go with a tour, I think that would add so much to the experience.

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