Normandy: Shifting sands of Mt St Michel
The bus from Pontorson meandered through the laidback country side of Manche. It was still early in the day and the village folks were bringing back freshly baked baguettes and a single horse buggy had already started its daily regimen by racing along the perimeter of equestrian centre near Beauvoir. The sun had risen behind the corn fields that surrounded us on both sides and before long we could see the turrets of Mont St Michel. Verily it looked like a mysterious Disney castle, rising suddenly from the mudflats exposed by the receding tide. The logo of Walt Disney pictures is indeed inspired from the abbey. But it was not until when our bus had reached the new bridge, that connects the mainland to the tidal island on which abbey is placed, that we truly realized the majesty of this medieval monastery. It rests on a huge mass of granite that rises from the mudflats that surround it on all sides. The tides are treacherous and water can rise to 15 metres in no time and encircle an unwary traveler “as swiftly as a galloping horse” as Victor Hugo famously described. The strange setting of the town lends an immeasurable enigma and easily makes it one of the most awe-inspiring sites anywhere in the world. Predictably the history of Abbey and monastery located at the top of the island is as fascinating at its setting. It has been a place of worship, of education, an impregnable bastion in a war that lasted for more than 100 years, a prison for the most notorious detainees of the state and a symbol of national pride of France.
As per legend in AD 708 a local bishop named Aubert received a vision from St Michael, the militant arch angel who is the head of heavenly army, to build a place of worship on top of the rock. When the bishop did not pay much heed, the arch angel appeared again and drilled a hole in his skull with his finger. Terrified the bishop completed the oratory in 709 AD. His purported skull with a neat hole near the crown, is kept on display nearby in Saint-Gervais Basilica. Another legend speaks about how the mythical King Arthur slayed a ferocious giant that lived on the mount. Also a passage from Book of Revelations of the Bible says
"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not… the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him"
It is believed it was here, on this island that St Michael fought with the dragon (Satan).
In 10th century Benedictine monks settled in this isolated abbey and a small village grew up below its walls. St Benedict (480-547 AD) was an Italian Christian monk who had developed a set of rules on how monks should stay in monasteries By 10th century most of the monasteries followed Benedictine rules.
In 1337, the hundred-year war began after King of England Edvard VIII declared himself to be the heir to French throne and French king Philip VI claimed English territory Guyenne by the Bay of Biscay. The war saw many phases and multitudes of warring kings and dragged on for 116 years. During the war, France suffered serious reverses but Mt St Michel remained free throughout because of its natural defences and dogged resistance of the residents. Its ramparts and fortifications combined with tenacity of residents negated all English attacks. This stubborn resistance against incredible odds bestowed upon Mt St Michel an element of divinity. It was said that the arch angel kept the abbey under his protection against the invaders. It became a symbol of national pride and inspired the Maid of Orleans – Joan of Arc who led the French in a succession of stunning victories over England. The English had won may famous battles but it was France which eventually won the war.
After the French revolution in 1789, considering its insularity, it was converted into a prison to detain political prisoners and remained so till 1863. It was Classified as a historic monument in 1874 and notified as a world heritage site in 1974 by UNESCO. “
Abbey of Mt St Michel which has inspired the Disney Logo
Causeway built over Couesnon River
Mt St Michel From Mudflats
Monks carrying the cross
It is so physically awesome that we decided to take a walk around the abbey before going inside. Though there was no water in front of the monastery and land was dry, on north side the mudflats were being gradually filled up and at a distance we saw the granite island of Tombelaine. It was occupied by the British during the 100-year war to plan a siege of the mount. The current had increased by then and pre-empted our plan to visit the island. We were without a guide and sea water which was barely covered our ankles, now lapped against our waists. The crescent moon shaped depressions on the mudflats which appeared like an aerial view of sand dunes of Sahara, got inundated in no time. We turned back and saw the golden statue of Saint Michael perched on the steeple, twinkling in the overhead sun. It made me wonder about the biblical figure. Disciple John while incarcerated on Greek island of Patmos received a vision wherein Jesus Christ showed him a titanic battle between good and evil where arch angel Michael leads the god’s angels against the evil angels of Satan. Eventually Satan is defeated and flung in a lake of fire. This is as per Book of Revelations of Bible. He is the patron saint of soldiers and doctors. Commonly he is shown with a raised sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other to weigh the goodness of souls in the Last day of Judgement. Naturally the good one get to go to heaven and the wicked follow Satan into the lake of fire. He is usually depicted killing a dragon or a serpent. Also on the steeple of the monastery, St Michael is shown crushing a small dragon beneath his golden boots.
Granite Island of Tombelaine
Vast sweep of mudflats around the monastery
After wading around the monastery for some time, we entered the village at the foot of the abbey. The streets buzzed with activity and the aroma of giant omelettes of La Mere Poulard teased our nostrils. The restaurant was founded by Anne Poulard in late 19th century, for serving monks and visitors alike. She and her husband were innkeepers on the island and due to unpredictability of tides visitors were either too few or too many. Hence she used make only a single large omelette. Omelette de la mère Poulard are world famous and an attraction in itself . It is believed if a French presidential candidate visits the island and does not eat the omelette, the candidate loses. However they don't come cheap.
Frightening gargoyles howled at us as we climbed up the cobbled pathway to the abbey. A giant golden three fingered claw creeped down a steep wall. What was it? Satan trying to sneak its way back into the abbey? Vaults of the abbey were turned golden by sunlight pouring through the windows. There were some symbols which were lost upon us such as thousands of feathers hanging from the roof of refectory. A refectory is sort of dining hall where resident monks take their meal. Some symbols we could understand such as that of an Alpha and Omega embossed on the wall which refers to the passage of Book of revelations "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End."
Vaulted staircases and halls abound in the monastery
Thousands of feathers hanging from the roof of refectory
I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end
Gargoyles of Mont St Michel
There are few experiences as rewarding as roaming through ancient buildings which are still in use, their continuity unbroken through centuries, and wisdom passed on through war and peace, feast and famine . This was the first time I had been to a Christian abbey dating from medieval times. Roaming through its corridors, cloisters and vaulted halls, deconstructing hidden meanings in its symbols , I felt like a character from one of my favorite books The Name of the rose by Umberto Eco.
For France, Mt St Michel and the region around it is a symbol of strength and perseverance , a place where good triumphed over evil. It was here Arch Angel Michael prevailed over Satan. It was only fair that on 6th June'1944, the combined might of Allied forces chose Normandy to make their final assault at evil forces of Nazism. But that tale and place deserves a separate blog post.