Is it a monastery, an island, a castle, a medieval village, a world heritage site, a pilgrimage destination? Mont-Saint-Michel is all of the above. And more.
Picture this: about one thousand years ago, Aubert, the bishop of the town of Avranches (France) had a vision (or ate funny mushrooms), in which the archangel Michael commanded him to build a church atop the island out in the bay where Normandy and Brittany merge. These were warring times in Europe. There were dukes in Normandy, French Kings, enemy English forces; there was political upheaval and religious turmoil. The idea of a military fortress/Benedictine abbey far out into the sea, appealed to the French. And so it was built. Medieval monastic structures, learning centers, religious shrines, and of course, ramparts (to keep the English out) were added. By the year 1000 bishop Aubert’s vision had been fully crystalized, and then some.
Fast-forward 1014 years. And here I’m, wearing my traveler’s sandals, awestruck, and giddy with sated wanderlust. I’m not a pilgrim here, nor am I an academic. I’m just a woman traveler, an obnoxious tourist with an obnoxious camera, taking obnoxious pictures of everything around. The architectural details of the monasteries are every bit as interesting as those of the museums, restaurants, boutiques, bars, street lamps, and garbage cans. I can’t help myself. I know taking pictures of the cobblestones paving the steep road up the mountain is ridiculous, but the thing is, the roads haven’t been restored. This cobblestone street I’m photographing was walked on by zealous crusaders, pilgrims with bloody knees, self-flagellating monks, warrior Vikings, barren women, unwed mothers carrying unwanted babies, all of them with reasons, desires, quests, so many kinds of lust. On this ancient street, I feel old and wise. I feel like I’m part of history, like my being here among other travelers integrates me into a deep-rooted collective of wanderers. But it’s freezing cold, my camera battery is dead, I'm hungry, a Japanese tourist sets a gigantic tripod in front of me blocking my view of the street, and the beautiful moment is gone.
The view from our room is picture perfect. Three nights after Valentine's Day, it's full moon. Naturally, I take pictures of the moon too. Of roofs, the fantastic low tide--the waters withdrawn 25 km from the shore—of people walking down below, of birds flying, as if on command, straight across the white moon, and right at this moment I want to cry. I think of our children and siblings, all settled and living their own journeys. I think of our friends, the ones we left in Florida, Colombia, Kuwait, the ones we have made in Qatar. I think of the women who dance with me in Doha; their pony tails heavy with sweat, their laughter, that awesome joie de vivre we experience together inside the dance studio…and of course, I want to cry. Which would have confused my husband immensely. This trip was, after all, his idea and his gift, a realization that makes me want to cry even harder.
I’m caught up in a moment of French bliss.
Literature of the place says that after low tide, the sea waters rush back in to the bay at “the pace of a galloping horse.” I like the sound of it. During the 100 years’ war, the dramatic tides kept the English from conquering the island. Instead, they kept the monastery under siege for a long time. Fifteen years to be exact. And the French being French never surrendered, never opened the ramparts, never raised the white flag. They held on to their Frenchness and came out at the end of it all, hungry but triumphant. This place was also a prison during the French revolution. There was human suffering, decay, death. I'm reaping the rewards of someone else's blood and tears. Yet, the world I see out this hotel window is peaceful and perfect.
Mercifully, war and destruction are things of the past. Modern Mont-Saint-Michel is flush with cash, crawling with wealthy tourists, expensive restaurants, and quaint but overpriced inns. Truth be told, the prices of food and wine at the local restaurants, is what truly makes me want to cry.