Ghent—Mont Saint-Michel, 383 miles
Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places I’ve always wanted to see, for no other reason than I thought it looked cool in photos, and I really did go out of my way to see it. Given the context of this trip, I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I was wary that it would be really crowded and the kind of thing that doesn’t impress as much in person as it does in photos. Having seen as much as I have in the last 10 months, I have a different perspective on what I see. As disgustingly jaded as this sounds, it just takes more to astound me at this point, which is completely a commentary on my own mentality and not an objective evaluation of anything. But it says something that Mont Saint-Michel blew me away.
This is hardly in the middle of nowhere, but it feels like it. Normandy is a solid B-level tourist site, in that everyone has heard of it, but it’s the kind of thing only a second or third or fourth-time visitor to France will probably visit. It’s mainly popular among English retirees who move here for the cheaper cost of living. There’s nothing in Mont Saint-Michel save the UNESCO site and the few accompanying hotels and restaurants. about half a mile away on the mainland. There’s no village here anymore, but it’s right in the middle of the Normandy vacation area. Cancale and Saint-Malo are both less than an hour away, two of the most popular spots along the French northern coast. For June, I was amazed how quiet it was. Of course there were plenty of tourists—mainly retired Americans, I quickly realized, visiting Normandy for its WWII appeal—but it doesn’t feel crowded. This is the kind of place that when you remember it, you hear it as much as you see it. The dunes here are dammed and the tide goes out so far that the sound of the ocean is not the usual cadence of waves but somehow you can still hear it, combined with seagull cries and the sound of the wind rustling the endless grass fields that line the shore.
Whether or not Mont Saint-Michel is actually an island is not entirely clear. Tide swings are huge here—as much as 50 feet—so the area around the island is sort of a perpetual gooey mud flat. Very, very gooey and very muddy. I’ve long since given up on any semblance of cleanness with my shoes (this is a second pair; the fall’s Nikes had to be retired) but I didn’t make it more than five feet onto the beach before I was stuck and my shoes were trashed, and I had to turn back. There is, of course, a bridge that connects the mainland to the island, but you’re hardly crossing open ocean. Pictures often make it look like an island, but in reality the effect is more like an elevated area in a pile of mud.
Like a great painting, this is best enjoyed from a distance. When you actually get into the streets on the island, it’s just a collection of gross crepe restaurants and t-shirt shops, which would bother me more if the streets were particularly compelling. But the spectacle here is in seeing the whole island complex at a distance, and the houses and odd angles you see of the village as you climb higher.
You can of course visit the abbey, the building that dominates the island and it’s actually a more interesting than usual church. Some of the original construction is over 1,000 years old and it’s something of an architectural miracle built at the apex of the narrow island. To stabilize the building, it’s constructed like a house, with multiple stories supporting the upper rooms and terraces at different levels. The views of the bay are beautiful. Still, whatever you do, don’t stay out here in one of the few novelty hotels actually on the islands, as the best views are looking back at Mont Saint-Michel itself. You could never actually make it out to the island and still say you’d experienced Mont Saint-Michel completely in my opinion.
National parks are never known for their food and that’s just what you sign up for, but the food here was so bad it was actually hilarious. I ordered some sad, nondescript chicken thing one night that came so fast it went beyond suspicious to just weird. I’ve waited longer at Chipotle than I did for this allegedly “prepared to order” thing. Even if you’re just going to shovel some chicken and sauce out of a pan in the back, at least have the decency to wait even five minutes to make it seem like you’re doing something. The food in Normandy is generally excellent—think lots of seafood and crepes (not together)—but Mont Saint-Michel is immune to the area’s culinary prowess.
When I reread this, I think that this doesn’t sound very convincing or particularly amazing. It’s an old church on a quasi-island; that is the extent of the magic. But there’s just something about it. I could sit and watch it all day, and I basically did. Occasionally you’ll hear one of the nearby sheep (there are hundreds grazing) or the neighboring farmer who enjoys clay pigeon shooting, but beyond that, it’s silent. I think this part of the world gets about three cloudless days a year, so the light is always changing and forever casting different shadows on the island.
Obviously the island doesn’t move and the tide moves in and out at an imperceptibly slow pace. The surrounding coastline is impossible to capture in a photo. It’s so unbelievably flat and the tide goes out so far that in a picture, it just looks like a bar of blue and a bar of beige. It would take someone much more skilled with a camera than me to capture all the subtleties and slight color variations along the shore, and the tiny pools of water shimmering in the gray sand.
The lack of excitement is I think what makes it so intriguing. It’s hypnotically tranquil and surprisingly engaging despite the fact that nothing is really going on. I somewhat regret not exploring Normandy more, but this is one of those things, like the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon or the Cliffs of Moher, that is really worth spending time with, even if you can “see” the whole thing pretty quickly. With any tourist site like this, it’s very much a matter of to each his own, but I really do think Mont Saint-Michel is special.
From here, I made the long drive down to Spain, stopping overnight in Bordeaux. As I was only there for about 15 hours, I can’t really comment on it, but it seemed nice enough. Unfortunately it is a host city for Euro 2016, so it’s a complete and utter mess right now.
Next stop: Barcelona