Magical Mont-Saint-Michel

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THE SUN ROSE AND WE HAD A CLEAR DAY FOR OUR MONT-SAINT-MICHEL ADVENTURE

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A sunny Monday morning dawned, and we rose early to catch our 8 AM train from Montparnasse Station.  We were heading 360 kilometres from Paris, first by high-speed TGV train to Rennes, and then taking a connecting bus to Mont-Saint-Michel, an island with a 1300 year old monastery perched on a piece of rock in the middle of tidal flats off of the Normandy Coast.

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THE TRAIN STATION IS A BUSY PLACE IN THE MORNING

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We got to the train station early, purchased some pastries and coffee, as well as water and sandwiches for later in our trip and watched the sign board above to locate which track our train would roll in on.

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OUR TRAIN WAS A HIGH SPEED TRAIN THAT REACHED SPEEDS OF 260 KILOMETRES PER HOUR

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The train platforms are very long.  Our train had over 20 cars.  The sleek shape of the front of the train allows it to make good time as it reaches speeds of over 260 kilometres per hour.  As you depart from Paris, the train dives into tunnels to avoid the traffic and streets. You can feel your ears pop when it comes out in the country beyond the boundaries of the city, for the trains are pressurized to ensure that there is no drag around the doors so they run efficiently.

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THE COUNTRYSIDE ZIPS BY, AND AS YOU GET CLOSER TO THE COAST, CORN FIELDS ARE A COMMON SIGHT … ALONG WITH THE OCCASIONAL WINDMILL.

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We reached the town of Rennes in a short 2 hours and bought our bus tickets that would take us from Rennes to the Mont-Saint-Michel site and back.  The bus ride would take just over an hour, mostly because the roads have a lot of traffic circles and twists and turns in order to reach the coast.

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AT FIRST, MONT-SAINT-MICHEL JUST SEEMS LIKE A CASTLE IN THE DISTANCE

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When you reach the information centre for this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can’t really see the abbey very clearly.  But as you make your way down a graveled path towards the shore, the building rises from the surrounding countryside and you realize it is truly something unique and special.

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THE NEW BRIDGE CONNECTS THE MAINLAND TO MONT-SAINT-MICHEL

The island that houses the grand abbey and small village is reached by a 600 metre bridge.  In the olden days Mont-Saint-Michel was only accessible during low tide across the mud flats.  The tidal water levels can vary as much as 14 metres.  Crossing the mud flats when the tide was out was a pilgrimage filled with risk and peril due to the sticky mud and the distance to cross.  If the tides caught you on the mud flats, you could drown.  A causeway was created which could be crossed at low tide and mid-tide,  but it diverted the flow of waters around the island and soon, the area was stagnant as silt could not drain out of the basin properly.  In 2009 the old causeway was removed and over 4 years, a new bridge was built.  A canal was also built into the tidal basin on the mainland side with a dam.  When the tides come in, the dam holds the water behind it.  When the tides go out, the dam releases a  slow steady flow of water that slowly cleans away the silt, restoring the water flow around the island to its previous natural splendour.  It must be something to see the island entirely surrounded by water at high tide.

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THERE ARE THREE WAYS TO CROSS THE BRIDGE.

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One can walk across the bridge, which takes about 45 minutes.  One can take a horse-drawn carriage ride for 5 euros, which takes about 35 minutes, or you can ride in the free shuttle bus, which takes about 25 minutes.  We chose to walk out to the island, and utilized the shuttle bus on our return to the info centre. When the tide is high, the buses can’t get into the parking lot at the bottom of the island, and they are too long to turn on the bridge.  To accommodate this, they have a steering wheel at each end of the bus.  Instead of turning around, the bus driver gets out of one end of the bus, hops in the other end and engages the steering mechanism, (formally the back of the bus) and drives the opposite direction.  The shuttle buses run until 1 AM allowing tourists who stay in the island hotels passage to the bistros and cafes in the small town on the mainland.

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THE BRIDGE INITIALLY TRAVELS OVER SAND AND MARSH

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IN TIME, YOU START TO CROSS THE TIDAL FLATS.  WE WERE THERE DURING LOW TIDE

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AS YOU APPROACH THE ISLAND, IT FEELS SURREAL … LIKE SOMETHING FROM A FANTASY NOVEL

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The site we were about to set foot on dates back to 708 when Aubert, Bishop of Avranches had a sanctuary built on Mont-Tombe in honour of the Archangel Michael.  In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey and a small village grew up below it.  By the 14th century, the village extended to the base of the rock.  During the Hundred Years War, the village was fortified with walls all around it.  The abbey itself is no longer in use by the monks, however there is a small order from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem who still reside on the island … they are the permanent population of 44 that reside year-round.  For those seeking a retreat, it is possible to apply to stay on the island in secluded quarters if you wish to meditate and pray. For others that come for the novelty of the environment it is easy enough to go online and book at one of the 8 hotels available on the island.  Many of them close down during the off-season, and during the summer, it is extremely crowded.

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THIS IS THE SMALL CHAPEL IN THE VILLAGE WHERE THE MONKS STILL HOLD SERVICES FOUR TIMES PER DAY

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AFTER WALKING THROUGH THE GATES, A SINGLE STREET WINDS UP TOWARDS THE ABBEY … FILLED WITH SHOPS AND RESTAURANTS

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STAIRWAYS OFF THE FORTIFIED WALLS LEAD TO SMALL INNS WHERE YOU CAN STAY

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THE ABBEY IS AT THE TOP OF THE MONT, AND AS YOU LOOK UP FROM THE SMALL VILLAGE, YOU KNOW YOU’VE GOT A CLIMB AHEAD OF YOU

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SMALL COURTYARDS CAN BE REACHED OFF THE FORTIFIED WALLS.  THIS IS A PATIO FOR ONE OF THE INNS

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We took a casual saunter up to the fortified walls, and then got half way up the Mont before turning onto the central street which would take us to the entrance for the abbey.

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MONT-SAINT-MICHEL INVOLVES WALKING A LOT OF STAIRS

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AND MORE STAIRS

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Walking around the Mont is free of charge, but to tour the abbey, one must pay.  We had gotten our tour tickets in advance online to avoid line-ups.  It was 9 euros each. In the summer months, the site is crowded with people, but on the day we were there, it was past prime season and was relatively quiet.

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THE ROOMS IN THE ABBEY ARE AWE INSPIRING

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THIS WAS A GUEST HALL

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THIS AREA WAS A DINING HALL FOR THE MONKS … NO TALKING WAS ALLOWED

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THIS STAINED GLASS DATES BACK HUNDREDS OF YEARS

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IN THE CENTRE OF THE MONASTERY IS A CLOISTER WITH TRADITIONAL GARDEN

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THE TIDAL FLATS ARE HUNDREDS OF FEET BELOW AND STRETCH FOR MILES

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We wandered the streets and took in the abbey over the course of a few hours, but now it was time to think of food.  We had planned on eating a little earlier and discovered that most of the restaurants on the island only served lunch until 2, and it was now closer to 3.  Fortunately, we found one restaurant near the summit that offered platters of fresh moules et frites and of course, a pichet of wine.

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SCOTT ENJOYS SOME MUSSELS WITH FRIES AND WINE

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WHAT GOES UP MUST GO DOWN AND IT WAS TIME TO RETURN TO THE INFO CENTRE.  STAFF CARS ARE PARKED IN THE LOT BELOW, BUT WHEN TIDES ARE HIGH, THE PARKING LOT FLOODS

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We had left our hotel at 6:45 AM to ensure we were in plenty of time for our 8 AM train to reach Rennes at 10:15.   We caught an 11 AM bus from Rennes to Mont-Saint Michel which arrived at the info centre by 12:15.  By the time we walked out to the island and toured the village and the abbey on foot, it was 3:00 PM.  We had our lunch and then headed back down to the foot of the Mont where we took a shuttle bus that got us back to the info centre by 5:00 PM.  We picked up our 5:30 bus back to Rennes which arrived just in time for the 7:03 train, putting us back in Paris at about 9:15.  It was a long day for such an excursion, but it was truly worth it.  If our trip was longer we would have considered spending a night on the island, but there were still so many more things to see in Paris.

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WE TOOK ONE LAST GLANCE BACK AT THIS REMARKABLE PLACE.  PERHAPS SOME DAY WE WILL RETURN

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If you go to France, Mont-Saint-Michel should be on the top of your list. It is truly a magical, magical place.

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Tomorrow … The Catacombs of Paris

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Fenton & White

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