For more than 1,000 years, the distant silhouette of Mont-St-Michel has sent pilgrims’ spirits soaring. Today, it does the same for tourists.
This island abbey in the Normandy region of France, one of the top pilgrimage sites of Christendom through the ages, floats like a mirage on the horizon.
For centuries, devout Christians endeavored to make a great pilgrimage once in their lifetimes. If they couldn’t afford Rome, Jerusalem, or Santiago de Compostela, they came here, earning the same religious merits.
Today, several million visitors — and a steady trickle of pilgrims — flood the single street of the tiny island each year (early risers win with the best light — and the fewest other tourists). If this place seems built for tourism, in a sense it was. It’s accommodated, fed, watered and sold trinkets to generations of travelers who visit its towering abbey.
The vast Bay of Mont-St-Michel, which turns into a mudflat at low tide, has long played a key role here. Since the sixth century, hermit monks came here in search of solitude.
The word “hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “person of the desert.” The closest thing to a desert in this part of Europe was the sea. Imagine the “desert” this bay provided as the first monk climbed that rock to get nearer to God.
The rock, a small mountain forming an island, was even more isolated by its mythic tides. Pilgrims crossed the mudflat to the island quickly and carefully, knowing that the sea swept in “at the speed of a galloping horse.”
In the late 1800s, a causeway was built, connecting the island to the mainland and letting pilgrims come and go without hip boots. The result: Much of the bay silted up, and Mont St-Michel was gradually becoming part of the mainland.
But an ambitious project to keep it an island was completed in 2015, and today a super-sleek, artistically swooping bridge allows water to flow freely around Mont-St-Michel, preserving its island character.
The town of Mont- St-Michel, with fewer than 50 residents, entertains more than 2.5 million tourists a year. Its main street, lined with shops and hotels leading up to the abbey, is grotesquely commercial.
It’s some consolation to remember that, even back in the Middle Ages, this was a retail gauntlet, with stalls selling souvenir medallions, candles and fast food. Omelets were popular for eat-and-run pilgrims who needed to beat the tide — and they’re still an island specialty and popular with tourists.
You can skirt the main street crowds and enjoy Mont-St-Michel’s fine 15th-century fortifications by following the ramparts up to the abbey. They were built to defend against a new weapon — the cannon. Rather than tall, they were low — to make a smaller target.
While the English took all the rest of Normandy, they never took this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn success against the English through all those years, Mont-St-Michel became a symbol of French national identity.
Pilgrims and monks for centuries have climbed the abbey’s stone steps. Mont-St-Michel has been a holy site since the year 708, when a local bishop had a vision in which the Archangel Michael convinced him to build here.
This was an immense building project evolving over many centuries. It was a marvel — a medieval skyscraper, built upon a rock crowned by a gilded statue of Saint Michael.
The bay stretches from Normandy to Brittany. The river marks the historic border between the two lands. Brittany and Normandy have long vied for Mont-St-Michel. In fact, the river used to pass on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today Mont St-Michel is just barely — but thoroughly — part of Normandy.
The centerpiece of this extraordinary construction is its church. While it’s mostly 11th-century Romanesque (with round arches and small windows), the apse behind the altar was built later. It’s Gothic with pointed arches and bigger windows.
The monks built as close to heaven as possible, on the tip of the island rock. The downside: There just wasn’t enough level ground to support such a big abbey and church. The solution: Immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform supporting each of its wings.
©2016 Rick Steves
— Tribune Content Agency