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Fortress of faith

For a millennium pilgrims and tourists have walked at low tide to this shrine

By Robert Garrett
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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MONT SAINT MICHEL — In the year 708, the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Bishop Aubert of Avranches. According to legend, the angel told him to build a shrine rising toward heaven from a rock in Brittany Bay.

Aubert obeyed. Soon word got out and travelers came from far and wide. They are still coming: Mont Saint Michel, just off the Normandy coast, attracts 3 million visitors a year.

Tourists drive across a 1.2-mile causeway that connects the mainland to the mount and they park at its base. But visitors can also trek across the bay at low tide, as religious pilgrims did in the Middle Ages. You can follow in their footsteps even if you are a secular pilgrim. It is superbly peaceful on the tidal flat, reason enough to venture out there.

Such is human nature, but most tourists are day trippers who arrive for the souvenirs and fast food on this famous site’s main street and depart without getting to know Mont Saint Michel.

To slow the pace, and have some fun, I decide to walk out into the bay. In the early years, wise medieval pilgrims hired guides, often local fishermen, to avoid drowning when the tide swept back in or falling prey to sinkholes in the shifting sand. Both dangers persist, which is why I join a guided group.

Many of the organized tours start from the village of Genets on the mainland, a 4-mile walk to the mount across the tidal flat. But walking tours also regularly depart from the base of Mont Saint Michel and go to the little island of Tombelaine, about 2 miles out on the tidal flat, before returning to the mount. I choose this option because I want a flavor of the pilgrimage trek, but I also want to stay overnight to fully take the place in.

It is Sunday, and several school and church groups are also crossing. There are a couple of hundred people on the bay, but it is hardly a mob scene. The broad tidal flat — and the immense sky — seem to swallow us up. The wet sand feels cool on my bare feet.

My group reaches Tombelaine and we clamber about the rocks of this lonely granite outcropping. Out here in the bay, Mont Saint Michel looks like a distant apparition on the horizon. We make the 45-minute return trek, splashing through an ankle-deep tidal pool, then we are back on the flat approaching the mount.

Standing below the imposing ramparts, you need to crane your neck to take in the vertical sweep of the village and the abbey at the top. The abbey was built in stages from the 11th to the 14th century and consists of a church and other monastery buildings. It is crowned by a gold statuette of the warrior Saint Michael raising his sword, signaling that the mount is a fortress of faith. Mont Saint Michel looks every bit the citadel that thwarted the English from capturing it in the Hundred Years War.

From spring through fall, the mount swarms with tourists. Yet there is a secret side to this stunning place, beyond the crowded main street that runs up to the abbey. The trick is to spend as little time as possible on this street. The tourist trade is focused here and always has been. In the Middle Ages, travelers bought Saint Michael medallions to celebrate their pilgrimage. Today you can get a souvenir T-shirt.

Although the main street is crammed, if you make the final ascent to the abbey, the hordes thin out. The great majority of visitors do not climb the last 350 steps to the top of the mount. Those who do are rewarded with a dramatic panorama of the bay from a viewing area. Many of the hearty who get this far then tour the abbey’s interior.

To avoid crowds altogether, you can wander the alleys behind the main street, where tourists rarely venture. Frederic Ridel, 49, whose family has prospered from tourism here for 10 generations, shows me the pathways winding up and down the backside of the ancient village, the enchanted place where he grew up.

Ridel, who owns a restaurant, says the mount is now almost entirely given over to commerce. “Business is good, but there are no more children living here, which is sad,’’ he says. Fewer than 30 people live here full time. Shopkeepers like Ridel commute each morning across the causeway from the mainland.

Ridel leads me up a narrow alley, opposite the Croix Blanche hotel. When he was young, the villagers called this tight passage “cuckold’s alley.’’ The name is a zesty joke that indicates anyone wearing cuckold’s horns would never be able to squeeze through. (If your wife is unfaithful, you wear horns on your head that everyone but you can see, according to medieval folklore.)

We pause at the cemetery where Ridel’s ancestors are buried, high above the bay. Then we walk to the tiny abandoned schoolroom of his childhood. The abbey towers above it all. Ridel points out a breach in the monastery’s wall where he used to sneak through at night to stroll the grounds. To get there, he climbed straight up a buttress. As a daredevil adolescent, he could not resist the challenge.

We head down a twisting path to our last stop, a landing at the water’s edge. We are at the back of the mount, the side not seen in the postcard views. Just visible beyond a granite crag is a tiny 15th-century chapel dedicated to Aubert, and now closed. The feeling of solitude is entrancing. “This is my little fishing spot,’’ Ridel says. “Anyone can come here, but only the locals know about it.’’

I climb back to the top of the mount to keep an appointment with Frere Charles-Marie, 33, one of five monks and eight nuns of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem who live in dormitories on the abbey grounds. Three times a day — morning, noon, and night — they chant in the abbey.

“People are surprised we’re here,’’ Charles-Marie says. The public is welcome to attend their singing of the noon liturgy, but most travelers discover the service only if they stumble across it while touring the abbey.

Charles-Marie speaks of Mont Saint Michel as a “place of contrasts.’’ Above is the abbey. Below are the throngs of visitors. Does it bother him that the world is largely impervious to his prayers?

“We don’t really have the right to know whether someone is touched or not by our prayers,’’ he says. “We give them freely.’’

While the abbey today fulfills its historic sacred mission, it hasn’t always been so, as I learn later when I tour the abbey. During the French Revolution, all the statues of saints were destroyed, the monastery was closed, and the abbey became a prison. The numbers of the prison cells are still visible, etched in stone.

For most of its history, however, the abbey has been far more welcoming. I stop by a grand hall with a fireplace where aristocratic guests stayed in the Middle Ages, and I also see the more modest room that sheltered a small number of common pilgrims. Then, as now, most travelers found lodging in the street below the abbey.

I am struck by the rhythm of the mount during my stay of several days. At dawn tiny forklifts trundle up the narrow street, unloading supplies at each shop and restaurant. The tourist crush peaks from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., but by late afternoon the flow of visitors is downhill. The tour buses depart and all is silence. I stroll along the ramparts overlooking the bay without seeing a soul.

On my last evening, I once more climb the 350 steps to the abbey and its church. It is vespers. A nun rings in the evening service. She pulls on an enormous rope that extends from the nave of the church to the bell tower above. The deep sound of the tolling bell gradually subsides, replaced by the singing of monks and nuns. Their voices rise up, reverberating off the stone walls, filling every vault of the ancient church.

In the morning as I leave, I get a surprise when I look for my bus in the lower parking lot. The bus stop sign is under several feet of water. The tide is especially high today, and buses must wait 100 yards away, on the upper part of the causeway beyond the reach of the floodwater.

At high tide the sea still laps at the ramparts of Mont Saint Michel. Yet it has become evident in recent decades that this place may not be an island much longer. The causeway is an embanked road that was built 130 years ago. Because of its construction, the sands have shifted and are now choking off the flow of water around the mount.

The goal of an ambitious engineering project, scheduled for completion in 2015, is to knock down the causeway and flush away the silt. A bridge from the mainland to the mount will replace the causeway, allowing the flow of tides.

Pedestrians will walk across the bridge, and special shuttles will transport people and supplies. Private cars and buses will no longer be able to drive to the mount or park at is base.

If the plan succeeds, Mont Saint Michel will win back some of its splendid isolation as an island rising from the sea. And, if tradition holds, the abbey will still ring with chanting to heaven above.

Robert Garrett can be reached at robgarrett1@live.com.

If You Go

What to do

The Abbey

www.abbayedumontsaintmi chel.cef.fr

Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (last tour at 6) May 2-Aug. 31; 9:30-6 (last tour 5), Sept. 1-April 30. Adult $12, ages 18-25 $7, children free. Guided tours in English (times vary).

Chanted liturgy in abbey church three times daily: Laudes 7 a.m. Tue-Fri, 8 a.m. weekends; Mass 12:15 p.m. Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m. Sun. Vespers 6:30 p.m. Tue-Sat.

Guided bay crossings

Walks take about 3 hours, depending on route: Mont St. Michel to Tomberlaine island and back, or Genets on the mainland to the mount. Tickets $8 and up.

Guides include: Decouverte de la baie, 011-33-2-33-70-83-49, decouvertebaie.com, and Chemins de la Baie, 011-33-2-33-89-80-88, cheminsdelabaie.com.

Where to stay

Mouton Blanc

011-33-2-33-60-14-08

hotel@lemountonblanc.fr

Modest but pleasant. Rooms $125-$170.

La Vieille Auberge

011-33-2-33-22-60-14-34

lavieilleauberge-
montsaintmichel.com

Some rooms overlook the bay. $120-$210. Menu $25 and up.

Where to eat

Chez Mado

Creperie with bay view, upstairs terrace (closed winter) at Mouton Blanc, $22-$45.

Le Saint Michel

Opposite Mouton Blanc, a friendly place for lunch with chef Frederic Ridel and wife Patricia, from $23.