The next morning, Tuesday, we slept a little late, since we were both tired, and didn't get out until about 10:00. We walked up the stairs near our hotel to the walkway around the ramparts which took us around the island but avoided the main, winding street. The ramparts were relatively quiet, with few people, but the main street looked a little crowded. If we only knew! We continued walking up, and up, and up, until we reached the line waiting to buy tickets to get into the Abbey. The line appeared to have maybe 100 people, and it moved quickly, but the line itself wound up several flights of stone steps.
After buying our tickets, we found we could get a guided tour in English in about 6 minutes, so we waited outside on a terrace with about a hundred or so people. After a few minutes, a young Asian woman came out and called out for the English tour. At first only Donnie and I approached her. The other people gathered in groups for tours in other languages. Eventually another couple joined us, so our English tour was just the guide and the four of us. The guide then apologized and said that this was her first time giving the tour in English, she usually gave it in Spanish! She took us on a 1 hour tour of the Abbey, which was fantastic and beautiful.
The church at the very top of the mountain was first built in the 8th century and had been replaced and added to many times over the centuries. There were many rooms under the church which our guide took us to and described. There were various chapels for worship, rooms for the monks to eat in, cook in, meditate and pray in, store food in, receive the poor pilgrims in, entertain kings in, etc. etc. The place was huge, actually encompassing several buildings, each building having three or more levels, the whole thing balanced at the pointy top of a mountain. She told us that the small area that was the crossing of the nave and the transept of the church was the only part of the structure that was actually sitting on the rock of the mountain, and that the rest was supported by the lower levels of the various structures and rooms that were below the church level.
Each time she took us to another room she pointed out the parts that were original and the parts that had been re-built over the centuries as parts collapsed. One thought-provoking place she pointed out was the infirmary, which was deliberately placed next to the funeral chapel, which was deliberately placed next to the crypt.
After about an hour, she left us, apologizing again for her inexperience in English, and we thanked her and told her she did admirably. We then left the Abbey, only to discover that the crowds had really arrived. The line waiting to get tickets was now several hundred people, extending way down the main street. The shop-lined street was absolutely full of people, so full it was hard to move.
We slowly walked down a bit, and passed one of the restaurants, and decided to go in for lunch. The restaurant we chose was one of the establishments named after Mere Poulard (which means Mother Poulard). Our Hotel was the Mere Poulard Hotel. The restaurant where we had dinner the night before was the Mere Poulard restaurant. There was a Terrace Mere Poulard Hotel and restaurant, several Mere Poulard gift shops, etc. Evidently, Madame Poulard owned most of the town. When we entered the restaurant, we saw two tables that had a nice view over the ramparts, and the waiter offered us one if them, but when he went over to them, someone told him they were reserved. Then, a minute later, a French couple who had been standing around had a discussion with another waiter, and got the table. We were a bit annoyed, but sat at another table inside the restaurant. The menu, however, showed that the place was expensive, and didn't have anything that we really wanted, so we left.
We snaked our way through the crowd, and found another little restaurant, with outdoor tables and a more reasonable menu. We had a bottle of Breton cider, and some Breton Gallettes (savory crepes) and a desert crepe, and some real French coffee. Everything was great. We then braved the crowd down to the bottom, stopping a couple of times at some shops where Donnie bought some postcards and we found a good Michelin guide to Brittany and a good map (in the Mere Poulard gift shop, where else?).
At this point the crowd was so bad there was no place to walk or stand or even breathe, and Donnie wanted another cup of coffee, so we went to the Mere Poulard Bar Panoramique, which was on the 3rd floor of our hotel, which was empty, quiet, and had very comfortable stuffed chairs. We were served delicious French coffee by the nice young French bartender, who was very talkative and friendly and told us to relax there as long as we wanted and that yesterday and today were probably the most crowded days of the year! He reminded us that most French take their vacation the first week or two in August. Oops! The coffee was great, and the relaxing atmosphere of the bar was nice, even though it was probably the most expensive coffee we have ever had.
While relaxing, we looked out of the window and found a HUGE number of cars and people and tour buses jamming the causeway and parking lots. We also noticed, being mid-afternoon, that cars and buses were starting to leave, and that now there was a long, very slowly moving line of vehicles trying to get off the island. Later we would notice this line getting longer and slower, until it appeared to us that it would take a given car maybe an hour to get off the causeway!
We then decided to try and avoid the crowd by avoiding the street and the little alleys (which were all packed with people) and to walk around the outside of the island. Since the tide was out, you could walk around the island on the silt that is usually under water.
Le Mont St Michel is an island, part of the time. It sits about a half-mile or so off the mainland, and is connected (since some time in the late 1800's) to the mainland by a causeway. It's an island part of the time because of the incredible tides. The tide is very high; 39 feet according to the guidebook, and the sea floor is very flat, so that at low tide almost 9 miles of sea is uncovered. The tide also moves so fast that it can come in faster than a person can walk. There are signs indicating when it is safe to park your car in the parking lots on either side of the causeway. Before the causeway was built, pilgrims had to walk to the island at low tide, and sometimes they didn't make it.
We walked around the island, only accompanied by a hundred or so people, which at this point was like being alone. I mentally classified the people into several groups: Those who walked in the mud, I called the foot-washers (as we walked out of the entrance to the island, there was a fountain with a sign that said, in French, "no foot washing"). Those who walked a little further away from the island, I called the waders (when the tide came in, they would be up to their knees probably). Those even further away, I called the swimmers. There were even a few walking quite far out. I called them the drowners.
We walked all around the island, without getting our shoes too dirty, so we didn't need to wash our feet. When we got back to the causeway, it was still very crowded, so we went up (and up, and up) to our room to rest, recuperate, and to wait for the tour-buses and day-trippers to leave.
As I am writing this, it is about 6:30 and there's no sign of the crowd diminishing.
In any case, Le Mont St. Michel is an amazing, lovely, very old and very impressive place, and we are very happy we came, despite the crowds. Next time, we will take the advice of the young bartender who served us coffee and come in November, when he said the place is empty and the bartenders play cards with the cooks.
Copyright © 2009 by Jeff Kravitz