Thursday, July 18, 2013
Mont St. Michel of Brittany
Rising out of the ocean, Mont St. Michel or the Mountain of St. Michael gives a truly mystical view of the world. It's one of those places that I could easily visualize as the inspiration for Avalon and could easily seeing the once and future kind ruling there. It's the type of place that such legends are made from, and it's one of the most fascinating architectural sites I've ever heard of.
If you like medieval times, or architecture, or historical significance, or religious sites, or quaint villages, or even if you like to study the work of God in the tides; this is your kind of place.
Mont St. Michel was built about 1500 years ago. The natural island that rises out of the sea made a perfect location for a natural fort. The causeway that is now interrupting the natural water flows around the island, didn't exist until modern times. In the past, people had to make their way through the mud flats at low tide to get to it. The walk itself helped to make it one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. The tides in this area are some of the most extreme in the world and come in with the ferocity of galloping horses according to quotes from the past. The tides kept the island isolated and secure. It also made a great location for monks who wished for solitude and tranquility.
So, the island went from one generation to the next, from one ethnic religious group to another, until the French Revolution. Following the overthrow of Louis XVI, the abbey was shut down, the order outlawed by atheists, and used as a prison for many years. Once France returned to it's roots somewhat and brought back religion, the abbey went back to being a monastery and was so until modern times when the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the early 2000's the last of the monks moved out and now their former home is a tourist attraction.
Brittany, the region of France that most of the island sits in, is named because it's like Britain. I don't know that this is true these days, but it was in the past. The island was ruled by the Normans at one point in history, and as any other place in the world will attest to, it picked up some of their personality. Today, you can see that in the buildings in the village more than anywhere else. The narrow streets are from days gone by as are the half timber buildings in the village. Remember, you will do a lot of walking here, because the parking is next to the causeway before you actually come onto the island.
Yes, there are steps, and lots of them. If you don't want to walk up and down steps, then this clearly is not for you. The adventure here for me is the architecture. If you love ancient architecture, you will love this place. The abbey that looms over the island and gives it it's picturesque, Avalon like image is a masterpiece. This abbey was built, partially collapsed, rebuilt, turned into a prison, reclaimed, fortified, and has lived to tell all of it's past tales.
The typical description of the architecture of the abbey is Gothic, which makes sense with its buttresses, vaulted ceilings, and arch support style. But, regardless of which term you use to describe the architecture, it is breathtaking. Most of the original architecture is still represented as well. It's survived well through thick and thin. There are some missing carvings that were true works of art. They were destroyed by the powers that turned this magnificent place into a prison during the Reformation.
No matter how you look at this abbey, the architecture is amazing. The place balances on a giant rock. That's the long and the short of the situation. Not long after it was built, part of the building was facing collapse, because of the support system that it was built on. Now, the building sits atop crypts with massive supports. It has never collapsed again.
If you truly want the modern, yet medieval experience, you can stay right on the island. There are some hotels in the village. Remember, this is a huge tourist area with over 3 million visitors each year, but it's still a town. 50 people or so live in the village. There are restaurants, hotels, shops, and even a post office. Even though it looks like something that they would build at Epcot Center, it's a real medieval village.
Take some time, enjoy the surroundings, get a different view of the world. Wander the streets and check out the shops full of medieval weaponry, souvenirs, and fine china. There are all kinds of things to buy and save as mementos of an amazing place.
Go up to the abbey and take a look around. The views are worth the climb. Mont St. Michel has been developing over the ages. One of the things that you will notice is that a large plain has developed between the island and the shore. The French aren't too thrilled about that, because it was pretty much caused by the causeway that was built so that people could get to and from the island easier. The land in this plain is salty, and the grass is maintained by the local sheep. The meat gotten from these sheep is a delicacy in the area now, because of it's salt content. It makes a flavor that you don't get with any other animal.
The French folks are trying to remedy this silt situation. They are replacing the causeway with a bridge and dam system that they hope will restore the islands ecosystem. It should be ready somewhere around 2014.
So, come take a walk on some ramparts, and picture yourself in a time gone by. Check out the museum displays and learn something about the magnificent history of a place that still looks like a dream today. Meet the people who still live in a tiny medieval village, and savor some amazing views. If you love architecture, medieval villages, and enormous abbeys; you will love this place. If you want to live in history, this is your place. So, come and investigate Mont St. Michel and lose yourself in a dream.