Friday, 28 March 2014

38. Wonder: Mont Saint-Michel

(For the Mont Saint-Michel preview, please click here.)

I searched and searched for a flail. When I first visited Mont Saint-Michel I was in my awkward teenage years, 15 I think, and my brother - Ian - a year younger. It made a big impression on us both. It seemed the very epitome of medieval fantasy, as though lifted from the pages of fiction: a rocky island in the bay, packed with quaint homes, shops, tight cobbled streets, and topped with a chuch, spire piercing the sky. Years later, I wondered if I'd imagined the whole thing. But the biggest impression was the flail. A flail is one or more spiked balls attached by chains to a handle; if I recall correctly, the version my brother saw was a three-ball version.

It was love, instantly. It was on sale in one of the island's many souvenir shops, not a fake plastic thing, but a real replica weapon that could take somebody's head off. Which is what my parents told Ian. Clearly, there was no way they were buying a flail for their 14-year-old son. My 11-year-old sister would be dead within a week.

Well, Ian begged. Begged. He'd be extra careful, he promised, he'd never wave it around, and certainly never with my sister present. But my parents, not being maniacs, wouldn't budge. Besides, they told him, it would never get through customs.

It was the worst thing they could have told him. We arrived back in Britain by car, via the ferry, and the customs official barely glanced at the contents of the back seat. Once through, Ian exploded. They could have got the flail through! His most coveted possession ever could have been his, if only my parents had trusted him. The outrage barely abated over time; even now if you mention the flail incident to my brother, he starts to boil. His childhood was ruined! And so, on my revisit to Mont Saint-Michel, I wanted to see if they still sold flails. For Ian's sake. Perhaps I'd buy one and send it to him by post, at great risk to himself, his wife, and both his young daughters. Mont Saint-Michel wasn't just a Wonder visit, it was a search for medieval weaponry.

Danielle and I got our first glimpse of the fantasy island as we drove through the French countryside. The motorways had turned into small country roads, we passed through small, grey-stoned villages. We knew we were near: and there it was. I almost drove into a ditch. Sensibly, I pulled over and got out of the car, just to look at it. Mont Saint-Michel was just as I remembered: a vision. Not of this world. It was like a mirage, as though a painting at the back of a film set.

What is Mont Saint-Michel? The name means, simply, Saint Michael's Mount (which, confusingly, is also the name of a similar, though less dramatic, island off the coast of Cornwall). It is many things. It is a monastery, a church, a small town, and a citadel. In its time, it has also been a prison and the crypts used as wine cellars. These days it is a museum, a tourist attraction with hotels and restaurants, and a historic monument. And all of this packed tight and high onto a natural rock in the appropriately-named Mont Saint-Michel Bay wedged between Normandy and Brittany on the north coast of France.

It is the manner of this tight and high packing that makes Mont Saint-Michel notable. There are many churches and settlements on rocks and islands, but none stir the senses as much as Mont Saint-Michel. From a distance, it looks like an irregular pyramid, a series of medieval constructions piled high on top of one another. Inside the defensive walls, it becomes a steep climb along narrow winding streets that become canyons between the stone buildings towering on either side. These all ultimately lead to the large abbey that crowns the island. Either way, it has that rarest of qualities that mark the best of my Wonders, a sense of the unworldly. From a distance, it is unreal; close up, it is evocative of a different time.

That time began in the 8th Century, as legend has it, when the Archangel St Michael commanded a bishop called Aubert to build him a sanctuary. Traditionally, St Michael's constructions are usually high up, probably because his followers felt it brought them closer to heaven, and Aubert's instructions were to build upon the island rock then known as Monte Tombe (which just means high mount and is nothing to do with tombs or graves). By 966 AD, the simple chapel was replaced by a bigger church, and in 1022 an even bigger one was built upon this, in granite. These models inside the abbey illustrate this well.

This was the beginning of the Mont Saint-Michel we celebrate today. Tthe 1022 church was a daring and technically demanding construction that meant Mont Saint-Michel wasn't just a rock with a church on it, it was a feat of construction with the church placed at the very apex of the mount. This is not an easy thing to do - just try balancing a brick on top of a pointed rock. The design seemed almost in defiance of the mount and the more obvious approach of simply building around its peak. To make it possible, four colossal crypts had to be built as support. Crypts are often mistaken for underground tombs but the word just means "hidden" or "private" - think encryption or cryptic crosswords - and they are simply the usually-unseen parts beneath a church. Most churches just have the one crypt - into which notable figures are sometimes buried, hence the word's meaning has become blurred - but the church on top of Mont Saint-Michel required four to make it possible.

These can be visited today, and they seem like underground caves. Massive pillars, five metres in circumference, support the church above. They are close together, and bring to mind the forest of pillars you can find in Karnak Temple in Egypt, although much squatter.

A chief reason for building this improbable but impressive church was for pilgrimages. Mont Saint-Michel became a popular hotspot for pilgrims from the early 11th Century. To capitalise on the money they brought, a new and more commanding church was needed. This was supported by regional lords who regarded the monastery - for at its core, the mount remained a home for monks - as strategically useful. Mont Saint-Michel became not just a pilgrimage destination, but a fortified site with defensive walls, and a growing community of laymen - fisherman and farmers - living at the base.

Over the centuries, Mont Saint-Michel was continuously tweaked and added to. This isn't a Wonder that was built in one go, it is one that has changed and emerged over many years, like the very similar Carcassonne in the south of France, or the Kremlin in Moscow. There were numerous fires, in no small way aided by the church spire proving very attractive for lightning. As a result, the church we see today is a hybrid of styles. The original abbey nave - that's the part where the ordinary punter sits in to listen to the service - is the Romanesque style, a heavier and simpler style. But the chancel - that's the part around the altar, where important guys like the bishop or priests hang around to do their services - has been rebuilt in Gothic, allowing larger windows and more light, and with a lighter touch to the architecture too. The first picture shows the heavier nave - note the small windows - and the second the nave in the foreground and the much brighter chancel at the back.

Mont Saint-Michel is free to enter, although you have to pay to park your car at the vast carparks on the mainland. You can just walk on through the main gate, and along and up the Grande Rue. There you freely explore the many shops, the many tiny lanes and alleys going off the main street, the ramparts, and small gardens and viewpoints. The majority of the village is around the base of the mount, so it doesn't take much climbing of steps to find yourself among the rooftops, peering over houses, into the bay and at the countryside beyond. It's charming beyond words, and very scenic, even on the unfortunately grey days we chose to visit on.

It's free to explore the bulk of Mont Saint-Michel, but visiting the abbey costs €9. Don't be mistaken though, this isn't just a church, it's a veritable top-to-bottom maze of buildings, of which the church is simply the top part, the peak of the pyramid. Over the centuries, Mont Saint-Michel's community grew and the abbey continued to expand. By the 17th and 18th Centuries, it looked like this:

A fire in 1776 caused huge devastation to the abbey, and the entire front was pulled down to be replaced with a classical, Roman-style, one, just to add to the mish-mash of architecture. This also resulted in a large open courtyard in front, for tourists to wander about.

The church itself is pretty, and has a very pretty 13th Century cloister - an open space surrounded by an arcade - joined on to it. The garden itself dates from just 1966, planted by a monk upon the return of the monastic community to Mont Saint-Michel after almost 200 years absence.

The cloister is part of the "Merveille", which is the extensive living area for the monks. Including the powerful crypts at the base, they form the bulk of the overall peak of Mont Saint-Michel as seen from the outside. A series of large halls and rooms, your €9 entry fee takes you through each. They are pretty bare now, and likely were never elaborately decorated.

From 1792 to 1863, Mont Saint-Michel fell victim to the French Revolution and its consequences. The monks were chucked out, and in their place brought prisoners. Prisoners had been a fixture of the rock for centuries but this ushered in a new and destructive era. A fire broke out in 1834. Buildings fell into disrepair. But it hadn't been forgotten. France in the 19th Century was a tumultuous changing beast, not sure if it wanted a monarchy or republic and with all kind of internal and external wars going on. Widespread devastation was done to religious buildings across the nation, deliberately by Revolutionaries, or inadvertently through troops using them as barracks and stables. People were horrified - beautiful buildings were disappearing. And the new art of restoration began, pioneered by that champion of French heritage, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. As early as 1836, high profile figures were campaigning for the mount's revival, and finally in 1863, the prison was closed. The abbey was made a Historic Monument in 1874 and restoration could begin in earnest, Viollet-le-Duc of course having a few words to say about it. Significantly, the bell tower and spire were redone to include the figure of St Michael, completed in 1898, giving Mont Saint-Michel its final height - 170 metres about sea level. After 12 centuries, the island rock was complete, as we see today.

According to one source, Mont Saint-Michel is France's number one tourist attraction, with 3.2 million visitors a year, 80% of them French. I'm not sure about this myself - surely the Eiffel Tower and anything in Paris attracts more, whether paying customers or not (and while I can imagine 3.2 million visitors clogging the streets of the island, I'm less sure as many pay €9 to visit the abbey). Nonetheless, there's no doubt that the mount attracts a lot of tourists. A lot. On a cold, wet, dreary midweek, the streets were packed. Tour groups from French schools, from America, and a phenomenal amount of Chinese and Japanese clogged the narrow streets of the village, blocked the doorways of shops, and filled the cafes. I can imagine that the summer crowds are unbearable. Some Wonders are able to gobble up tourists effortlessly, as an obese man devours bon-bons. But the tourists in the medieval streets of Mont Saint-Michel are like clogged arteries. I defy you not to grow furious with them as swarms of children cause gridlock, or a middle-aged Chinese woman barges into you.

But that's just at peak times, the hours around lunchtime generally. And it's why Danielle and I chose to stay on the island for a night, to take in the nocturnal atmosphere and enjoy the island in peace and quiet. My advice: don't do it.

Sure, definitely visit the island at night. It's easy to do - there are plenty of hotels on the mainland, and a free shuttle bus runs at all hours. The streets are almost empty, except for roaming bands of Japanese, and walking about is a silent and slightly spooky experience.

But the hotel we stayed in was over-priced and badly run. Mid-shower, the shower head collapsed, smacking me on the face, and refused to re-attach: I bet the medieval monks never had to endure that. I'm sure there are better hotels on the island, but I don't think you'll find any bargains. And while this is surely different in the summer, when we ventured out to get food at nine in the evening, all the restaurants we closed. All except for one. It was expensive. And terrible. Mont Saint-Michel may be a unique, fascinating vision, an absorbing place to wander, an unbelievably photogenic landmark and a snapshot of the Middle Ages, but it is not the best tourist experience.

"The Mont Saint-Michel is to France what the Great Pyramid is to Egypt. It must be protected from any damage. The Mont Saint-Michel must remain an island. This combined work of nature and art must be conserved at all costs." So said Victor Hugo in 1884. And this brings me to one of the most crucial aspects of Mont Saint-Michel - its status as an island. Mont Saint-Michel is an island, but more significantly than that, it is a tidal island. This means that in high tide it is indeed an island, surrounded by water, but at low tide the water recedes, up to an amazing 11 miles back, and the island is connected to the mainland by a land bridge and lot of mud. The difference between the tides can be as much as 15 metres, or a five-storey building, and in Mont Saint-Michel Bay the tides move fast, like a galloping horse it has been compared. The tide can move in, trapping and drowning anyone unfortunate enough to in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is this tidal effect that has contributed to Mont Saint-Michel's mythical aura. One moment, it's part of the countryside, the next waters have appeared from nowhere, and surrounded it to make it an island.

But this is all under threat. Mont Saint-Michel may cease to become an island forever. Since the 19th Century, more and more silt has been building up in the bay. To a degree, this is a natural effect common to all bays, but largely, this is a man-made issue. Reclaiming of land began in that century, to use for farming, and this only ended in 1933. But more disastrously, in 1879 a causeway was built, connecting the mainland to the island, preventing the flow of water and further increasing the build up of silt. It got worse. In 1969, a dam was built on the nearby Couesnon river to stop the high tide causing flooding further up the river. This had the unintended side effect of stopping the river being able to clear away the silt that continued to be left behind by the tides. Mont Saint-Michel was quickly becoming an island surrounded by a muddy sludge, not water.

If nothing is done, Mont Saint-Michel will become irreparably landlocked. Vegetation will set into the silt and the mount will be connected to the mainland permanently. Around 2030 was the predicted time for this. But fortunately a solution is at hand. A new, smart dam has been built, one which regulates the flow of water to and from the river, and cleverly opens up around six hours after high tide to flush out the silt. A footbridge connecting the mainland to the mount is virtually finished. And later this year, hopefully, the causeway will be removed. It will take another ten years for the river to flush out decades of accumulated silt, but Mont Saint-Michel's status as a tidal island should be secured.

For this visit, it meant that around the entrance of Mont Saint-Michel there was rather a lot of construction work going on, not to mention loads of mud. It made the photos a little less attractive, although it didn't seem to compromise the vision of the island itself. You can place diggers and men in hard hats and an ocean of mud around Mont Saint-Michel, it doesn't matter. Even in crap weather, it looks great.

Mont Saint-Michel is something very special. It is truly a transfixing spectacle. After three days of viewing, I still wanted to stop the car and gaze at it yet again before driving off. It still didn't look real. An impossible-looking medieval pyramid of centuries of construction, shimmering in the distance, I almost expected to blink and for it to disappear. But it's not an illusion, it really is of this world. Unreal.

And so, to the important question - did I find a flail? And I'm sorry to report - no. There were daggers, swords, muskets, revolvers, even samurai swords (I guess to appeal to the Japanese), but no flails. Perhaps they've all been snapped up already by 14-year-old French boys. Or outlawed after a spate of violent sibling deaths.

Some criteria then.

Size: Roughly, it's the size of the Great Pyramid, maybe a little bigger. Of course, this is a mixture of natural rock and man-made construction.
Engineering: The technical feat of building the 11th Century abbey directly on the peak of the mount was considerable.
Artistry: Sure, the abbey was designed to look nice, but the rest of Mont Saint-Michel - homes and defenses - were just built to be functional. But this was medieval times, and these things looks great. And Mont Saint-Michel's true majesty is when seen from a distance, a vision on the edge of the countryside.
Age: The origins go back to the 8th Century, and what we see today is 1200 years of growth.
Fame/Iconicity: Mont Saint-Michel is hugely popular in France, but I don't think it's as known in the wider world. People think of France and they think of the Eiffel Tower, or Paris, or the food or wine, or men in striped-tops and berets with garlic round their neck, but they don't think of Mont Saint-Michel.
Context: It's a tidal island on the edge of the French countryside and seen from miles around, likewise giving views for miles around.
Back Story: It has many centuries of history, features in the Bayeaux Tapestry, was a player in the 100 Years War, and suffered under the French Revolution.
Originality: There are other churches on rocks and churches on islands and quaint medieval towns perched on hills, but nothing quite like Mont Saint-Michel.
Wow Factor: It's not just wow, but it's a constant sense of disbelief. If it appeared in Lord of the Rings, we'd applaud the graphics team for their imagination.

As you'll have gathered, Mont Saint-Michel is not a common spectacle. Even after a few years of researching and visiting Wonders, it was immediately clear this was not just another grand construction. It is part church, part town, part fortification, part rock, part island, part pyramid, part vision. The archangel Saint Michael likes his monuments high and he'll be pleased to hear that in terms of my ratings, his mount is right up there. Maybe not quite as high as a Mughal emperor's mausoleum for his wife, or Chinese dynasties' defensive wall, or an Incan king's holiday home, or a tiny Pacific island's penchant for stone heads, but I'd place it just below these luminaries. But above the Eiffel Tower - pretty high. A current number five on my list of Seven Wonders, and at almost half-way through my list, it's in with a fighting chance of staying in that top bunch. It fully deserves to do so.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House


Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Fascinating. This was a review I was keenly looking forward to, because it looked like somewhere I'd love to visit as a result of its distinctive and mazy look. The night-time photos look great, and would, I imagine, be worth visiting just to do a night shoot. Nice to see it riding high in the charts as a result.

  2. I thank our parents to this day that they did not allow the flail to be brought into our home. I have no doubt that I would have less than 10% brain function if it had been purchased.

  3. "Mont Saint-Michel Bay wedged between Normandy and Brittany on the north coast of France."

    Indeed, and the historic boundary between these two regions (ex-independent Dukedoms) was the Couesnon. And the Mont Saint-Michel being at the estuary, the Couesnon occasionally ran on one side or the other depending on how the tide had shaped the bay. Today it is officially and permanently Norman, but me being Breton on my mother's side, I have often had friendly but heated debates with my neighbour (a Norman) as to which region it rightfully belongs!

    Another thing that adds to its mystique, at least in France, is that there are quicksands around it - a bit like in fairy tales where a castle is protected by various natural obstacles that make it harder, therefore more worthy, of getting there (the causeway and the guides make that a little less daunting nowadays).

    I have never seen it for myself but agree with your positioning it above the Eiffel Tower (which I have seen). I think it is the fact that the Eiffel Tower is a pure engineering project, brilliant as it is, and relatively recent, whereas as you point out, this has some kind of other-worldly aura to it.

    By the way the fields in the vicinity are great for grazing cattle as the grass is in contact with the sea air, so the butter from those cows is a delicacy ("beurre de pré salé" = salt field butter). It's used in a lot of regional cooking to great effect.

  4. I curse our parents to this day, that I was denied such a thing of beauty, we could have easily smuggled it through! As a wonder that no longer sells fails it has to be at t h e bottom of the list. I prefer Nev if you would never bring this up again. I was doing the world a favour disposing of morag.


  5. It should also be noted that morag is at her most appealing with 10% brain function


  6. I have had several large glasses of red wine tonight and appear to be on about 25% brain function and must say from my point of view, I am delightful so maybe 10% is the way to go?

  7. I love this post and the sibling banter! It will add measurably to my own pilgrimage quest to Mont St Michel...this


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