Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mont Saint Michel

Yes, another grey and drizzly day in the north of France. People always complain about the weather in London - but I don't think the weather in the north of France is much better! I was only ever once in London, and that was only for a day, and it happened to be a beautiful and sunny summer's day - that same year I was in Paris for four days and we only had one sunny day out of four. And then I spent two and a half months in Paris during January, February and March. A good three quarters of the days I spent there were overcast for at least part of the day, often accompanied with light drizzle, and on the rare occasion heavy rain or snow. No wonder Parisians constantly talk about summer holiday plans to l'Espagne or La Cote d'Azur - or even La Croatie. Whilst I was in Paris, there was even a huge marketing campaign run by the Croatian National Tourist Bord - metro stations were covered in images of Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar, Brac...urging people to visit the beautiful Dalmatian coast.

I had gone to Paris this year to study French at the Alliance Francaise on Le Boulevard Raspail, right near Le Jardin du Luxemburg (a beautiful garden to spend lunch with classmates). My French language skills amazingly improved during this stay, however much has been forgotten as chances to speak in Australia are unfortunately, extremely rare. Adjacent to the school was the Alliance Francaise travel agency. They offered great weekend and day trips to Alliance students at greatly discounted rates. So on a dark and freezing Saturday morning, I made my way to the Alliance for a 7am set off to Mont Saint Michel (unfortunately not Spain, the French Riviera or Croatia this time). With a coach load of people - I was surprised at the number of people the showed up for the trip - we started our 4 hour journey to the coast of Normandy.

The scenery through Normandy (a section of two departments (administrative districts in the north of France) known as Basse-Normandie and Haute-Normandie - Lower and Upper Normandy) was a sight in itself (once you got off the Motorway, that is) - all the green pastures, quaint little houses, farmers tending to their sheep and crops - it was like a scene out of a coffee table book. Perfect! A great time-out from Paris - as much as I love Paris, living in the heart of it does become tiring and claustrophobic after time.

Mont Saint Michel (the Mount of St. Michael the Archangel) is situated on an 'island', one kilometre from the coast of France, accessible only by a single narrow road in and out. The road connecting the island to the mainland has now been modernised, thus access is no longer affected by the tides. In the past however, Mont Saint Michel was inaccessible by land during high tide, which served to increase its isolation from the outside world.

The land mass on which Mont Saint Michel is build was originally a military stronghold in the 6th and 7th centuries. In the 8th century construction of the abbey began after St. Aubert's vision of St. Michael the Archangel. The site was fortified in latter centuries and when the site lost popularity as a pilgrimage site in after the Reformation and the French Revolution, the abbey was abandoned and it became a prison. Moves were made to preserve the site, so in 1874 it was declared a historic monument and in 1979 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Above are models of the evolution of the site from the 10th century, 11th-12th century, 17th-18th century and then finally in its present 20th century state. I find it fascinating to see how Mont Saint Michel was transformed over the centuries to accommodate different purposes - from a reclusive monastery, to a military fortification, finally to a world heritage site, welcoming visitors from around the globe. [Images and historical information thanks to Wikipedia]

According to the 2006 census, Mont Saint Michel has 41 permanent residence. It's amazing to think that these people actually live on this tiny island, which cannot be more than one square kilometre in size (half a day walking around is more than long enough to see every nook and cranny of it), where time, it seems, has stood still. There are no supermarkets, no fashion stores, no cinemas, no cars, no hint of modern day civilization (even on the mainland, the nearest town is still a fair distance away) - just cobbled stone paths, a small graveyard, a church, quaint little stone houses and of course a handful of tourist-focused shops and eateries. How do the inhabitants of this little oasis live in their day-to-day lives? Mont-Saint-Michel is so isolated, highlighted by the great expanse of coastal flats which around it, no wonder it was once a monastery and a prison, as it seems to be the perfect site for either. But there is something magical, unusual and interesting about Mont Saint Michel.

Photos from my personal collection

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