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Essential France: Mont-Saint-Michel Normandy

Mont Saint Michel Normandy on a stormy day

Mont Saint-Michel is majestic. It’s one of those places that, although its wiggly cobbled streets might be covered by many visitors (around 2.5 million a year – it is after all one of the most popular sites in France) the magic shines through. A tiny town on a granite island cradled between the coast of Brittany and Normandy, which from a distance looks like a helter-skelter. Lopsided half-timbered houses wind their way round the narrow alleyways, topped by a gravity-defying golden statue of Saint Michael. Victor Hugo, the great French writer called it “the pyramid of the seas” and you can really see what he means when you view it from a distance. It is one of the wonders of the world and has attracted hordes of tourists since the Middle Ages.

Bucket list France

I took my dad there once. He didn’t want to go, ‘another bloody monument‘ he’d said. But I insisted.

We strolled through the stone arch which forms the entry to the town and dad stood there open-mouthed at the sight of this incredible island of monuments. We made our way up a cobbled hill, past chapels and many souvenir shops, and cafés in medieval buildings. We peered into the restaurant Mère Poulard famous for its fluffy omelettes. They are made to the same secret recipe and cooked on an open fire in front of customers as they have been since 1888, a taste that’s been loved by many – including Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe. And we wandered down tiny streets and lost ourselves in the wonder of the ancient architecture.

Normandy cheeses

Normandy has its own feel and its own food. And if you go to Normandy, you’d better like butter. And cheese. And garlic… and a whole host of other things. Let’s just say, you don’t go there to go on a diet and don’t forget to pack your stretchy trousers.

We stopped at a restaurant overlooking the bay. Steaming bowls of mussels, fresh as can be, were put on the table before us, together with a basket filled with chunks of baguette for mopping up the creamy, garlicky sauce. Crispy fries and a green salad accompanied the fishy feast. Afterwards a selection of cheeses was brought to the table for us to choose from. I explained to dad that it was polite to ask for up to three cheeses on show and the server will cut a sliver of each for you. Confronted with the sight of several cheeses, a ripe Brie and smelly Camembert, Livarot and pungent Pont l’Evêque, heart-shaped Neufchatel and Pavé d’Auge, dad had no idea which to choose.

This one” said the waiter “comes from a dairy farm in a sleepy village among the rolling hills…” and “this is one of the most creamy and delectable cheeses in the world.” And “flavoured with a little Calvados, this one tastes of heaven, it’s funky and delicious…” He rolled his tongue around the words, filtering them through his droopy moustache, proudly paying tribute to the local cheeses, much as a sommelier does when describing wine.

“I’ll have a bit of everything” said dad firmly, ignoring my three-cheese-sliver advice. The waiter sliced expertly and popped the portions on a plate. Dad spread them over chunks of baguette. He sighed happily, he nibbled and rolled his eyes as if in ecstasy. He didn’t share and he didn’t stop until he had finished.

Mark, my husband, and I decided to climb to the top of the Mont to visit the abbey. It was at the summit of a steep stone staircase. Dad declared it would probably finish him off even without him now having a body composition of at least 15% cheese.

I have” said dad “eaten myself into a sitting position.” So we left him to enjoy the views and entertain some American tourists on the table next to ours. Dad was a great raconteur and loved to tell tall tales.

The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel

The abbey of Mont Saint-Michel was far less crowded than the streets which is not a surprise since there’s no lift to the top, so you really don’t have a choice if you want to get there other than to tackle a whopping 350 steps. There were a couple of paramedics sitting on a bench halfway up. We joked that they were there to help us fools making the chest-thumping ascent. Then we ran out of breath to joke.

But, getting to the peak was worth every challenging moment of the climb. The thick stone walls of the abbey are punctuated with arched windows which allow panoramic views over one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Inside the Gothic abbey there is a feeling of spirituality and of peacefulness that makes you stop in wonder and awe at the sight of cloisters which seem to be suspended halfway to heaven.

The history of this place goes back millennia but it was in 708 that Aubert, the bishop of Avranches dreamed he had an encounter with the archangel Michael, who instructed him to build a church on the island. Three times the archangel instructed the bishop, until finally, according to legend, burning a hole in the bishop’s skull to drive home the message. Aubert built his chapel and the current abbey now stands on that site, built in the 11th century.

Going down the stairs was easier. We collected dad from the terrace.

This” said dad, “is one of those places that everyone ought to see before they die”.

Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream, and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life

Photo: Stormy, misty, marvellous and medieval Mont-Saint-Michel, Mont St Michel during the “blue hour” by Martin McKenzie

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