Mont Saint Michel

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 16, 2005

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Wednesday, April 5, 2006

DAY 34 FRI This was to be a day of almost endless travel. Catching the TGV to Paris was child's play. This time the train was made up of double-decker carriages and we were on the top floor. When we reached Paris Gare du Nord I had to drag our two very heavy bags down the narrow spiral staircase, one at a time. As I off-loaded the first bag I noticed a group of cleaning ladies gathered outside the door itching to board the train and, I assume, clean it. French trains run to tight schedules and lateness is regarded as a blot on the national honour. I raced back up the stairs and began hauling my second bag down. In my haste I managed to snag its wheels on the doorframe and snap them off. Our next TGV was due to depart from a completely different station in seventy five minutes so I made no attempt to reattach the wheels and dragged the damn thing along the platform, through tunnels, up steps and onto the Metro train which would take us to Gare Montparnasse. Margaret feared that I was going to have a heart attack. A very helpful lady at the information booth had told us which train to catch, which was most fortunate for my cardiac well being as I had planned to take a train in the opposite direction.

I had allowed an hour to travel from one station to another. The gates through which we had to pass to reach the Metro were broken and the two repairmen showed no sympathy for our plight. After what seemed like hours of waiting as they fiddled they finally allowed us through a different gate. Getting onto the local train was only the first hurdle. As we crawled along in a carriage jammed with peak hour commuters, my watch informed me that we had fifteen minutes before our next train left. I thought it highly unlikely that we would reach the Gare Montparnasse local station, haul our bags eight hundred metres through tunnels and up and down stairs and still manage to board the TGV before it departed. French trains are extremely punctual and we seemed doomed to wait hours for the next train to Rennes. To my amazement we managed to board the TGV with five minutes to spare.

The three-hour trip to Rennes was quite enjoyable. The train was comfortable and the countryside through which we sped was a lush green and reminded us of Devon. I dragged and carried our wheel-less bag to the bus terminal and we climbed aboard the coach for Mont St Michel. There were very few passengers and Margaret chose seats right up the front so she could talk to the driver. This young man (I'll call him Pierre, though that probably wasn't his name) told her his life story which involved driving busses all over the world. Although he lived in the area, he claimed to dislike Mont St Michel. We were astounded, but he spoke of the infestation of tourists that made the place most unpleasant. By the time we left for Paris we knew what he meant. Pierre was a friendly young man and, charmed by Margaret's interest in his life and opinions, actually stopped the bus when the Mont first became visible..

Once off the bus Margaret feared for my life as I laboured to drag our broken bag the last four hundred metres from the bus stop to our hotel. Once we reached it a rather reluctant servant carried it up to our room on the first floor and left before I could give him a tip (thank goodness!). Three months ago I had booked the last room in town at fabulous cost. It was quite comfortable and, if one lent over and twisted one's body to the right, he could see the monastery-capped island from our balcony.

Mont Saint Michel, Mont Saint Michel, France

We dined at the hotel restaurant, choosing (as is our custom) the specialty of the region. I could not resist ordering sea snails and I think they were rather nice. We finished our coffee at 10pm and Margaret returned to our room while I walked down to the causeway with the intention of taking some night photos of the illuminated island.

Selecting our dinner, Mont Saint Michel, France

DAY 35 SAT Our driver, the aforementioned Pierre, had advised us to visit the island as early as possible to avoid the hordes that descended upon the holy tourist attraction at approximately eleven o'clock. With his words in mind we rose uncharacteristically early and ventured out into the early morning cold.

The weather was harsh and a fierce, piercing wind propelled us along the path that ran along the edge of the causeway. There is only one entrance to the main street which is through a once-fortified gate (Porte de l'Avancée). The steep road took us past a gallery of tourist shops, all selling the same stuff at prices which made us blanche. Half way up the hill we found the parish church of St Peter. Though built progressively from the eleventh to the fifteenth century its most impressive feature is a statue of Saint Michael in silver which was crowned in 1877.

View of Mont Saint Michel, Mont Saint Michel, France

Construction of the abbey church itself began in 1022. The problem facing the builders was that the top of the mont was pointy; there was nowhere flat enough for a church that was going to be seventy metres long. These chaps were extremely clever and overcame what seemed to be a major difficulty by first building a number of crypts which would provide the foundation for the choir and the transept .

We reached the abbey and bought entry tickets. It was early and there were few people around. We were able to wander through the abbey's myriad rooms in peace. All of the rooms were interesting and we were awed by their great age. Some had been constructed in the year 1,000 AD which is an awfully long time ago. The monk's dormitory contained an exhibition showing the historical development of the island. The promenoir under the dormitory is the only large room of the convent dating from the eleventh century and, like the Crypte de l'Aquilon nearby, is full of impressive columns. The ossuary also dates from the eleventh century and was once the monks' cemetery. After the Revolution Mont Saint Michel was turned into a prison. In the nineteenth century a large wheel was installed in the ossuary so that supplies could be hauled up the walls (such lifts were not new to Mont Saint Michel, several had been employed on other parts of the island way back in the twelfth century). By the time we emerged from the last room it was almost time for Mass.

We had attended Mass in Montserrat and Lyon along with hundreds of worshippers as well as cardinals and bishops, but neither could compare with Mass in the abbey. No pomp, no ceremony, no bishops or cardinals, just a priest, six nuns and four monks. As we sat waiting expectantly a young monk tolled the bells. Bell ringing was obviously an art. The monk pulled mightily on a thick rope which dangled from high above and each time he reached up I could see the jeans and sandals between his white robe. The Mass was simple and without the colour and fanfare to which we had become accustomed. One nun played an instrument that seemed to be part harp, part harpsichord while another sang with a voice designed in heaven, All six nuns, four monks and the priest sang acapella which, though we couldn't understand the words, was pure and perfect. For a few brief moments I almost felt a Catholic again.

Another view of Saint Michel, Mont Saint Michel, France

By the time Mass finished the street outside was packed with tourists. Little did they know that they had missed the high point of the Mont Saint Michel experience. The wind blew furiously and its biting chill fought with the warmth of the sun for dominance. Quite a few of the visitors had removed their shoes and ventured out onto the sands surrounding the island. Ten years ago I would have joined them but I knew with a wisdom born of experience that, had I done so, I would have sunk into quicksand and drowned.

Our bus driver had warned us that the beauty of Mont St Michel would be diluted by the influx of tourists. Thursday had been a public holiday and French people, like we Australians, often like to take the day between a holiday and the weekend off to extend their holiday. Worse still, it was the last week of the school holidays in that part of France. Our early excursion had spared us the worst of the crowds and we were able to enjoy a few hours of peaceful exploration before the hordes descended.

DAY 36 SUN What a day lay before us! We slept in for the first time in ages then repacked our bags so that we would be ready to catch the bus at 3.45pm. Rather than just sit around waiting we walked back across the causeway. Margaret had been very moved by the previous day's Mass and was anxious for a rerun.

We took the less frequented back way up to the abbey and joined the queue of faithful waiting for the service. Margaret is nothing if not assertive and she skillfully maneuvered us through the throng to the front of the line. The score of people who had arrived before us must have been very Christian as none of them raised any objection. Her pushiness backfired, however, as entrance to the abbey was not through the same gate as yesterday and instead of being at the front of the line we found ourselves at the very end. So determined was my wife to get a pew at the front of the church that by the time we had climbed the stairs we were once again in the vanguard and had no difficulty in staking our claim to a spot in the second row,

Once again it was a heavenly Mass, though my enjoyment was diluted by a fear that I would be chosen to take the offerings to the altar. I wasn't picked and my relief was such that I enjoyed the rest of the Mass even more than I had yesterday.

At last it was time to leave and we reluctantly walked down to hotel reception to sign out. Shortly before leaving our room I had reread the confirmation form the hotel had e-mailed me several months ago. Back in Sydney I had failed to read the last two lines on the confirmation which informed me that our exhorbitant rate included buffet breakfasts and as a consequence we had gone without early morning sustenance. I explained my oversight to the manager and he kindly reimbursed thirteen euros for one breakfast, though the computer wouldn't allow him to give a refund for the first day.

The bus stop was half a kilometre down the road and while Margaret strode ahead pulling the good bag I staggered after her with the broken one, stopping every few metres to rest and clutch my heart dramatically. I was in peak physical form, my muscles rippling and my sinews....also rippling, though in a slightly different way. Even so, thirty kilos is a heavy load and it took me quite some time to catch up to Margaret.

The bus arrived at precisely 3.45 and we drove through the beautiful French countryside for the last time. Disembarking at Rennes I dragged our broken bag to the TGV station. Despite the cool weather I was sweating profusely as I carried it up and down stairs. We had transferred most of the heavy stuff to the backpack (which I also carried) and together the pack and suitcase seemed to weigh a ton. Our TGV carriage had less storage space than its predecessors so I had to leave our two enormous bags beside the door. Eventually the door space became clogged with bags, ours at the bottom.

At some point during the early stages of the journey the conductors came around checking tickets. The first man took ours and pondered it for long minutes before placing it in his pocket and continuing down the carriage. I saw him discussing it with his fellow conductor and knew that all was not well. Sure enough he returned and asked me to accompany him into the vestibule outside the compartment. "Zis ticket, no good" he told me, insisting that the four journeys to which it entitled me had all been used and that this was an illegitimate fifth trip. He spoke almost no English and my attempts to explain in broken French the error made at Gare Montparnasse (q.v.) on the day of our first journey went over his head. The second conductor agreed that the ticket was no good. It was very frustrating and I became increasingly stressed. There was no way I was going to pay another fare, let alone a fine, and I was about to suggest that they take me to a gendarme when the first conductor suddenly saw the light. The second conductor was not convinced but nonetheless wished me a pleasant journey. I spent the remainder of my time on the TGV formulating cutting though belated responses to the conductor's insincere good wishes.

Our studio was not far from Gare Saint Michel, thank goodness, and we were soon safe and secure in our small flat at 24 Xavier Privas. Tired as we were we managed to summon the energy to slip into the happy throng which paraded beneath our window and sip well-earned, though frighteningly expensive, beers at a nearby restaurant.

Margaret writes: HURRAH! PARIS!! LET'S PARTY!!!
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