Sitting at the mouth of the Couesnon river, off the coast at Avranches, Mont St-Michel looks like a rather bad architectural pile up, not unlike a reject from the ‘Great British Bake Off’. Today, of course, it is an icon of France, one of the country’s most instantly recognisable landmarks, attracting millions of visitors each year who come to expend disproportionate amounts of cash on parking, food and drink, and dubious souvenirs.
In the good old days, you could drive almost to the gates of the island town, and pay a lot less for the privilege of leaving your car stuck in the mud, or to be washed away by the incoming tide if you got your timing wrong. Now you park a kilometre or so away, and pay €12.50 (2015) to leave your car in relative safety. But, to be fair, that €12.50 does get everyone (except dogs) free rides on the shuttle out and (hopefully) back along a new elevated causeway that is indirectly doing much to regenerate the original state of the bay and its island.
In prehistoric times, the Mont was just a minor bump on an expanse of dry land over which prehistoric man may have hunted buffalo, woolly mammoth, deer and moose, and been hunted in turn by sabre-toothed tiger and an assortment of beasties for whom mankind was simply a tasty snack taken in the al fresco dining tradition that was to characterise latter-day France. Then, as sea levels rose and erosion kicked in, outcrops of leucogranite started to appear, having resisted the attentions of the sea rather better than elsewhere nearby. One such came to be known as Mont Tombe.
And so it remained until in 708 Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, on what liquid medication we know not, dreamt an encounter with the archangel Michael, who instructed him to build a church on the island. Three times the archangel instructed the bishop, finally, it is said, burning a hole in the bishop’s skull to drive home the merits of obedience.
Since then the island has long held strategic importance over the bay, and in time came to be the seat of the monastery from which it is now named, although pilgrims attempting the bay walk across the sands and mudflats, came to think of it as ‘St Michael in Peril of the Sea’.
At a secular level, the island and its tortuous lanes and stepped alleyways is a place that deserves all the attention; it is constantly bustling and frenetic, given to wonder. On a recent visit my journalistic nose followed a French family of five around for a while: mum, dad, two children and the head of a Chihuahua in a shoulder bag, which I was fairly certain was not permitted, well, unless it was just the head and not a complete dog. Fou-Fou seemed resigned to it all, but the human faces all around spanned delight (isn’t this so magical?); frustration (queue at restaurant); panic (longer queue for the toilet); wonder (sun piercing dark rain clouds like an email from heaven); annoyance (two children disappearing in opposite directions, both beckoning impatiently), and piety (sombre countenances turned heavenward, some looking as though they’ve just stopped off on the way to the grave). My many visits to the island serve to confirm that this is par for the course.
In a way you can’t help being excited by it all, but I’m guessing the majority can’t quite put their finger on what it is about Mont St-Michel that’s so special. Sure, there is its non-secular history, and even among the most heathen of us I suppose that earns a modicum of respect.
For me it’s the architecture, and the way the whole thing has been heaped up in a way that no doubt made sense at the time, but has resulted in a maze of ascending lanes and stepways that leave you breathless. For others it may well be the islandness.
Like Carcassonne, it is a great place to be at night, once the masses have departed; to wander lanes lit dimly, slipping through the shadows to watch the moon rise over waters moved by its influence. You find an inner peace then that may just be the contrast with the brouhaha of the day, or something more spiritual and calming, or the simple by-product of holiday escapism. Then, when the tide comes in and engulfs the land, the island state returns and, for a time, there is a keen sense of impregnability… a sense of isolation…a sense of place.
Maybe that is what Mont St-Michel is about.
Architecturally, it’s still a mess.