Let’s face it, for many Francophiles, the gorgeous silhouette of the abbey rising out from the mist on top of Mont-Saint-Michel inspired would-be Romantics to choose the language of le Hexagone over the more common, “practical” language of the Iberian peninsula. Perhaps it was a poster of the iconic tourist destination that beckoned from a classroom wall. Or more likely the “cultural tidbits” of your introductory French textbook lauded its spiritual and pseudo-supernatural aura: ready to disappear with the tide, to fade away into the dusk, a timeless relic of a bygone era.
Last spring, I visited the jewel of lower Normandy for the first time with my family, after years of touring other regions of France. My mother, Francophile par excellence, was determined to visit the island before it disappeared, literally, with the tide or before her days of touring France were at an end. We took a car to the off-the-beaten-path travel destination. From a distance, the abbey and island had a certain captivating majesty.
This medieval abbey and its little village are a testimony to the enduring power of good Romantic landscapes and the lure of medieval architecture – encapsulated today by the postcard. Indeed, this image is probably one of the best-selling carte postale in France, after perhaps the Eiffel Tower and La Jaconde. From a pilgrimage site since its foundation in 709, it became a 19th century symbol of Romanticism, representing a somewhat forsaken human landscape at the edge of a natural wilderness, literally cut off from the world at high tide. It’s birth as a picturesque tourist trap was thus immortalized.
The closer one approaches to the iconic mount, the more one senses the limits of rugged Romanticism displayed by artists and depicted by writers such as Guy de Maupassant. The neighboring parking lot stretches on for a mile, apparently buoying its tourist-bearing capacity of up to 20,000 a day in the height of summer.
You get a taste for the extent to which the local population profits from such tourism madness before even stepping inside the large wooden doors. The toilets flanking the side entrance, while never free in France, are grossly expensive. The full-fledged commercialism doesn’t hit like whiplash until you cross the threshold – the Romantics would surely not mistake the pristine harmony of man and nature in the souvenir shops and vaudeville-esque tours of the labyrinthine innards of the medieval fortress.
We wandered through the twisting, narrow streets as they wound their way up to the abbey. I confess that we did in fact purchase little postcards (I went for the artistic watercolor rendering of the abbey from a distance), but I will warn you, the prices are not comparable at all the shops. Make sure to compare prices and remember which shop of the dozen or so crammed one after another you preferred. If your French is good enough, you might try haggling for a reduced price – but be aware that an American accent is readily recognized and is quite unlikely to make the jaded shopkeepers too sympathetic. Foreigners clog the streets like a congested artery.
The view at the top is quite exquisite. The bay stretches out before you in all directions, shrouded in all the gloomy, boggy colors one associates with Gothic novels. The abbey itself offers a promising tour, but my family was short on time and had already spent quite a bundle in parking and entering the abbey (not to mention our ill-opportune potty break and gift shop trinkets). Especially for history buffs, with the rich legacy of the abbey and village and its reputation as an architectural goldmine, the tour looks quite interesting, although the lines are long.
A few final glances at the abbey as we were leaving, set against a perfect blue backdrop, caught my eye. I imagined myself as the seagull overhanging the abbey, taking in the magnificence from afar.