Journal Excerpt: Thursday, June 9, 2011, Hotel Churchill:
Off to Saint Mont Michel this morning. Eating breakfast in the dining room of Churchill hotel. The maître d' was kind enough to ask if I wanted more coffee, so I said yes. And I decided to do a little writing while I wait. Talked with Dad last night. He was very pleased I called, but he sounded only OK. Still no appetite and still only sleeping OK.
Thursday morning I managed to get myself up, showered, and down to breakfast well before the appointed time to leave for Mont Saint-Michel. I had enough time for eggs and toast and fruit, and drank two cups of coffee. I was energized for the long trip in the shuttle.
There were several people taking the shuttle with me. They all spoke English, but talked among themselves. I sat up front with the driver, a French-Canadian expat named Morris. He was friendly and I felt very well-taken care of on the hour and a half journey. During the drive, Morris told us some of the history and trivia behind the monastery and the little town that surrounds it on its tiny mound of land, population 50. The island has been considered holy since the Celts believed the souls of the dead resided there. A Roman-Gaul culture established a church there by the 6th century. The abbey was established on the site of the older church around 966. The town surrounding the abbey was burned and the townspeople massacred by two Breton dukes who were allied with the French king during the hundred years war. The king was so appalled that he paid for the abbey's restoration and that of some of the surrounding buildings. The site then survived the French Revolution, the indignity of being made into a prison, and the ravages of WWII.
Journal Excerpt: Later that same day, Hotel Churchill:
Back from Mont St.Michel—Remote. Cold wind whipping narrow streets. Hard stone crumbling in places. The smell of stale wine in the abbey chancel (near altar) the smell of another tourist's spearmint gum. Both narrow stairs and broad stairs. Arches upon arches. Naked stone and mortar where there used to be more décor back in the day of the Romanesque period—the early Normans before the Benedictines took over. Stark light and shadows on the landscape. The flats are patched in odd shapes of shadow from overhead clouds. They pattern the meadows along one river as well as the tides and sand flats.
Everything is up. The walls go up and the rails and towers are up. You crane your neck up. Shadows fall there. The sun careens through the greenery and ironwork of an inner garden courtyard. Grids with interlocking patterns over windows. The glass is still in the windows after all these centuries. Lots of empty space underground and even on top, but the ascent is narrow and windy/winding with shops crammed in on either side and restaurants and hotels. Claustrophobia might descend if I had to linger. Then yet, at the top, open space -- a terrace. A great room with vaulted ceilings, underground crypts – what are they? Didn't understand all the lingo used by the audio guide.
Everything was indeed, “up.” Morris left us at the entrance to the “town” of Mon Saint Michel: a cluster of houses, which hug the causeway that is the only link between Mon Saint-Michel and the mainland, and an old wooden gate that opens onto a steep cobbled street with more houses and businesses nestled along it. This is the only street in the town. It's really more of an allley. We had 2 ½ hours to explore, but we needed to be back at the shuttle van at 12:45pm.
I started up, camera at the ready. Was I in a town or within the walls of an ancient fortress? The shops and the pointed slate roofs and red chimneys signified town, but the walls and the ancient stone edifices argued for fortress. I had thought the whole of the island was the abbey, but so many other things went on here. What did all of those 50 people get up to? I climbed passed the shops and the more touristy area at the base of the fortress. As the street curved around, I glimpsed green foam and sand. The sea was right there. Another switch back and I was engulfed in the deep shadow of a wall a hundred-feet high.
The narrow street opened into a plaza. One wall to my right shot straight up. A ridge ran down it's length at an acute angle. I found out later that this was part of the mechanism used to haul supplies up to the prisoners above when the abbey was used as a prison in the 19th century. I'll get back to this later.
I hiked to the abbey entrance. I was high up. What incredible views these monks and nuns have! Can you imagine living and working on such a small piece of land and being stranded there when the tide came in? Editor's note: A bridge linking Mont Saint-Michel to the mainland was built in 2014. Now, even at high tide, there is a way off the island by car or foot. However, in 2015 the bridge was completely submerged by sea levels higher than any experience over the least 18 years.
Finally I entered the abbey itself. I was in a beautiful chapel. Turns out this was the Gothic Choir or crypt beside the main abbey church nave. It is one of three crypts added when the 9th-century church was rebuilt in the 12th century. The resident monks and nuns often worship here. It is more colorful and more human-sized than the church nave.
I really didn't know where I was and where I was going. The audio guide used terms I was unfamiliar with. I never got lost, but it usually took me until I was done exploring a space, or after I could compare/contrast it with another space, that I realized what it was. I have since learned that a crypt is a chapel built underground beneath a church. The other definition, which I was more familiar with, is "burial place."
Next I managed to stumble upon the cloister outside the monks' quarters. This covered walkway, with a wall on one side and open pillars on the other, was where the monks would walk to get from building to building. In 1966, a beautiful medieval garden was rebuilt in the center of the cloister by brother Bruno de Senneville. Boxwood shrubs form a square in the center with rose bushes placed outside at intervals. Another hedge lines the edge of the green, separating the garden from the cloister walkway.
I continued on this level and stumbled upon the monks' dining hall. As I stood in the corner of the room I could imagine the scrape of the tables and benches against the floor as the monks sat down and pulled their bowls of gruel or stew towards them. It was a starkly beautiful room with the brick-colored tile and the worn but polished wooden tables. There was a large group of tourists in the center of the room, so I focused my camera at a close angle to capture the bench and tables against the tile floor.
I strolled, marveling at the beautiful tiled floors over which I imagined dozens of monkish robes had trailed and rugged sandals had passed.
Sometimes the exit from one room would be awkwardly juxtapositioned with the entrance to the next room, and at nowhere near the same level. A talented carpenter fashioned steps out of wood that solved the problem nicely.
I spied some old windows looking out over the flats. The glass clear as if new-made. A brace of metalwork holding it in place. There was another smaller island out there. This is Tombelaine, which lies a few kilometers north of Mont Saint-Michel. Breathtaking and otherworldly.
I wandered more, out through doors and into little gardens, then in through doors and over once-beautiful mosaic floors.
Following another group of tourists, I came upon the top of the elevator used to haul supplies when the abbey was used as a prison. A wheel was anchored at the top of the slope. It was big enough for a couple of men to walk inside it and provide the force to pull the goods up the ramp (pictured earlier).
As I continued to meander and try to find the sites identified in the audio guide, I spied steep stone stairs and people headed up. I realized there was a whole bunch of abbey below my feet. So I descended to what appeared to be the basement level. This level is where the first Christian church was built on the site of even older Roman-Gallic buildings.
Called the Notre-Dame Sous-Terre or "Our Mother Underground," this first church was “lost” centuries after the foundations for newer abbey structures were built over it. It was converted to a dormitory for monks beginning around 1060. The chamber was rediscovered in the late 19th century, but not unearthed until 1959. I climbed down into it. It was cold and clammy, but there were small windows high up in the walls that prevented it from feeling like a tomb. There were tiles on the floor here and there, and walls that turned in odd direction suddenly. You could see the layers of new laid on old.
In researching the background of the abbey for this blog post, I got confused. According to my sources on Wikipedia, the basic architecture of the original church is called Carolingian in honor of the early Franks who ruled the area before the 9th century. This style is influenced by Roman architecture, but pre-dates Romanesque. The columns I saw holding up the crypt look like the Romanesque architecture I had seen in Paris and other cities in France. And some of the photos of the original church on various web pages look different from my photos. I began to wonder if I had ever truly made it down to "Our Mother Underground." But what I just realized is that the outer walls of the crypt are part of the original "Mother" church foundations. The stone is irregular and the masonry rough. The columns are smoother and more elegant. They were probably added later to support the newer abbey-church foundation. Phew! Now it makes sense!
It was time to head down. I had only 15 minutes to make it back to the shuttle, which Morris said would be waiting on the causeway near to where he had parked earlier that morning. But down was faster than up. I felt a reluctance to descend quickly through the levels. I lingered over the stone walls and towers, and the surprise gardens and flowering shrubs that clung to life in the tiniest corners of the abbey fortress.
Before I hiked all the way back to the causeway where on the shuttle waited, I took one last look at the Mont at a distance from the "land side." One more chance to understand the outer structure of the abbey and everything that holds it up.
The drive back was uneventful. Morris chatted about a crêperie in Bayeux that he liked. I wrote down the name, and promised to check it out. After returning to the Hotel Churchill and taking a nap, I stopped by the restaurant for dinner. It was housed in an 18th-century building with a small dining room up front, a bar in the back, and a loft with seating that overlooked the cobbled street below. Dinner was delicious. I had a savory crepe, followed by a sweet crepe for dessert. I loved what the French could do with dough! I was the only customer in the restaurant, but the family that owned the place seemed happy I was there. I tended to eat earlier than most French people. The owners spoke little English, but I had no trouble communicating what I wanted, nor completing the transaction.
I returned to Hotel Churchill by way of the Bayeux Cathedral, La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux ("Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux"), built on the site of Roman buildings. It was a lovely setting and I enjoyed walking through the old streets.
Even though I was tired and had seen a lot of church already, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see this beautiful and historic Romanesque and Gothic church. It was here that Duke William of Normandy made Harold Godwinson of England take an oath, the breaking of which led to the Norman Conquest. (See previous blog about my experience viewing the Bayeux tapestry.)
The Bayeux cathedral was originally built by Odo, Duke William's brother, in the 11th century. The Bayeux Tapestry adorned the interior when the cathedral was consecrated in 1077. The cathedral had to be rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 12th century after a fire severely damaged it. The interior was certainly beautiful, but I moved swiftly through it to get to the tombs.
I was interested in the crypt underneath the cathedral which was one of the few parts of the structure that were still Romanesque. I guess I hadn't had enough of rooms buried in foundational rock yet. I was not disappointed. These catacombs were just as otherworldly as the Mont, and perhaps more so. The light playing off the features of the columns, the sharp relief of the designs casting shadows. Brown, bright blue, and white. It was gorgeous. Some of the pillars and walls still showed paintings from the 15th century. And this crypt does indeed contain tombs, including that of a bishop from the 15th century.
When I returned to Hotel Churchill that night, I knew I would be sad to leave Bayeux that next morning, Friday. But I was also excited to move on to Saumur where, on Saturday, I would participate in the largest open-air market in France. But I was also nervous because I had to navigate mass transit from Bayeux back to Caen, then from Caen to Le Mans (a place I would later come back to), and finally from Le Mans to Saumur. The last leg of the journey would have to be by bus, for which I had no reservation. I needed to get on the right bus to get to my hotel in a timely fashion Friday evening. I would be at the mercy of the employees at the train and bus station. Again. C'est la vie!