Secrets of the Sea: A Pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel

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I showed up near Mont Saint Michel with nothing but a hastily written address on a crumpled napkin.  It was quite the itinerary.  Once my bus dropped me off in northern France, I slowly wandered over to the nearest information center.  I hadn’t a clue how to find my hotel, but I knew the name, and was armed with an address and a phone number.  I figured I was set.

At this point, I realized that my travel style had drastically changed over the years.

Once the over-planner and group organizer, I barely knew myself.  But I honestly didn’t care about owning nothing more than a napkin and a phone number.

A recent Facebook status caught my attention.  It read something along the lines of, “My train is an hour late and now I’m stuck in a f**ing station and my phone is about to die. I. Hate. My. Life.”  This girl was on vacation in the UK.

At first, it irked me.  Because honestly, you’re on vacation.  Shut up.  Or, as my grandmother taught me at the impressionable age of five, “Fermez la bouche, s’il vous plaît.” (For the record, this is not what the French would actually say in this situation. But that’s okay, Grannie).

But then, somehow, the post made me smile.  Because although I was (hopefully) never that obnoxious or pessimistic, I remember planning my trips with the utmost detail, only to be disappointed if something happened.  And something always happened.  We can’t plan it, and the sooner we expect and accept the unexpected, the happier we will be–the more serendipitous our trips will become.

Because when something goes awry, you’ll find yourself invited to random lunches in other countries, or to the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple whose last name you can’t pronounce.  And who doesn’t love a little story?  A little adventure?

With nothing but an address and a phone number near Mont Saint Michel, I could have gotten terribly lost.  But I had my smarts and the reassurance of years of travel experience.  A little money goes a long way, and with a map and some directions, I eventually found myself at the door of my charming bed and breakfast.

Travel tip: One thing I’ve learned while traveling without a car is that you’re much better off seeking directions once you arrive at your location.  Granted, this doesn’t necessarily pertain to places like Marrakech, but if you’re traveling to tiny villages around France without a car, you’ll need to rely on maps and the friendliness of locals to help you find your hotel.

Where to stay: Bastide du Moulin

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My bed and breakfast was delightful.  The woman who owned it made every guest feel welcome, and, in display of understated French hospitality, she:

  • Offered me her bike to ride to Mont Saint Michel
  • Forced me to take her scarf when I mentioned I was chilly while leaving for a hike
  • Drove me to the train station after dropping her daughter off at school the day of my departure

She also made the best homemade jam in the world. It was one of my most pleasant experiences in all of France.

Nerding out on history

When I set off for France, I devoured more history books than the average person should ever read in a lifetime.  Honestly, I might have a problem.

So, of course, all of my trips seem to center around the historical significance many people tend to discard–Mont Saint Michel was no exception.

The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and has been the seat of the monastery since the 8th century.

Once a destination for pilgrimages, Mont Saint Michel rests on an island 600 meters from land.  The strip of bay connecting the island to mainland France provided a strong defense system against assailants.  As such, the Mont remained unconquered for hundreds of years.

However, the monastery grew scarce with monks by the time of the French Revolution.  The abbey closed down and was converted into a prison meant to contain clerical opponents of the republican regime.  Fortunately, influential members of society, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore Mont Saint Michel to its original glory, and honor its historical and architectural significance.  The prison closed in 1863, and Mont Saint Michel became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

The Allure of Mont Saint Michel

But that’s not why we go to this pilgrimage site.  The magnitude of the abbey beckons people back, encore et encore.  People continue trekking across land, sailing across channels and flying over oceans to witness the magnitude of this ancient religious site.  It awes us, charms us, and I wanted to know why.  Alors, despite my phobia of tourist locations, I bought my train ticket.

My Secret of the Abbey of the Sea

When I rode my bike along the water, county pastures and grazing horses passed me by.

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Miraculously, I didn’t spot a single tourist.  Given that I rode on the only path leading towards the abbey, I found this a true miracle, until I discovered that most people stay within Mont Saint Michel itself.

Once I arrived, I found the elbowing tourists and screaming babies of my nightmares.  I had come this far though, so I trudged on, determined to enjoy my trip despite the kitschy shops and overpriced knickknacks.  I felt determined to experience the true, authentic Mont Saint Michel.  The question was how.

With a whole day ahead of me, I decided against making my way up towards the abbey, and instead, wandered along the shores.  There, I came across a great wall.  Some people had plopped down here as well, eager to escape the crowds I surmised.  It wasn’t enough, though.  I wanted peace and quiet, and if it existed, I would find it.

Then I discovered: very few people ever venture beyond The Wall.

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But I waded through mud, clambered over rocks, and felt more than my fair share of wayward branches slap me in the face.  And then I found it: a hidden stone chapel set against the rock of Mont Saint Michel, with a set of weathered stone steps obscured by untrimmed trees.

And for a moment, I shed my modern clothes, my leggings, my Patagonia raincoat, my sturdy backpack, and my notions of current society.  It all slipped through the rocks and drifted towards the elapsing waves, leaving me alone in the chapel of Mont Saint Michel, with nothing but the winds of the sea for company.

Reflections
Reflections

Three hours passed before another person found my hiding spot.  And in that time, I saw pirate ships on the horizon, felt the peace of living on a rock in the sea, and the forlorn, desperate life for women in medieval times.

These places carry their past with them.  Millions of forgotten footsteps corroded stone steps, everyone unknowingly leaving an imprint, reminding us that this place existed long before our time–reminding us that Mont Saint Michel mattered to people before we began idolizing the dangerous, gritty life of medieval dwellers.

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Historical sites are empowering because they existed beyond us or our knowledge and understanding of the world. This was the Mont Saint Michel I had searched for–a spot that serves as a true, authentic reminder of what was, harkening back to the past.

It’s a place where you can hear the sea.  A place where, just for a moment, you become entrenched in the past.

And as the hours passed, I read my book, wrote in my journal, and listened to the distant cacophony of people.

Alone in my chapel with nothing but the sea.

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