For the Price of a Gondola Ride

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

She Said:

Mt-St-Michel can best be described as a medieval paradise...and our biggest splurge of the entire trip. This isolated island with only one main attraction, the Abbey, is one of those nightmarish daytrip kind of places that becomes romantic and enchanting at night. Back in the day (not really sure what day), people who were visiting the island were forced to leave by schedule of the tides. When the tide came in, water would surround the island and cover the one main causeway leading to the mount. Now, however, it is no longer an island and, although people still have to pay close attention to the tides, you can stay longer and later. We had already decided that we would stay on the island. If this was going to be a splurge, we didn't want to leave and stay in the small, dull town fifteen minutes off the island. Plus, it was the beginning of my birthday week!

We arrived without reservations, as was the case everywhere else except Oktoberfest, and quickly realized why we couldn't get a reservation in Paris. It was a French national holiday the following Wednesday, All Saints Day, and Monday was the bank holiday (we were there on the Monday). After walking from place to place and being told that there was no vacancy, we headed to the TI for some help. Our choices turned out to be: a) stay off the island, b) pay $300 for a fancy hotel, c) take the last room on the island, which was a triple, and pay the rate as is. By means of comparison, it was Venice prices, but we were determined to stay on the island. After the crappy place we had just stayed at in Bayeux, and with my birthday right around the corner, we decided to take the triple so we could stay on the island.

In an effort to get away from the daytime crowds, we took a hike out to the swampy fields to get better views of the mount. It was muddy and the sky was ominous, but we got some great views while we waited out the crowds. We saw the famous sheep (all sheered) and headed back as some of the buses began to pull away. We explored the ramparts of the Abbey and enjoyed views from every angle. It really felt medieval walking the maze of the ramparts with an old cemetery stuck right in the middle. The grey sky began to feel very fitting.

We showered and changed for dinner, I was on a mission to find Coquille St. Jacques. I had eaten this delicious scallop dish in Provence and was anxious to try it again in this place that bragged of good seafood. We found a place with a reasonable menu and each ordered traditional fare. I had mussels, scallops, and crème brulée, while Chad enjoyed oysters, a famous omelette, and apple sorbet doused in Calvados. We had good wine, great conversation, and a wonderful meal. After our two-hour dining experience, we decided to walk it off and check out the ramparts at night. The contrast from daytime was amazing. The walkways were clear and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. We stayed out there for a while and were happy we decided to stay on the island. We went back to our splurge hotel and enjoyed every bit of it...

He Said:

After we discovered the most haunted-looking house this side of Amityville while waiting for the bus in Pontorson, we headed 15 minutes to the north toward the Normandy/Brittany shore. Mont-Saint-Michel rose above the coastal buildings, connected by a three-kilometer causeway that stretched into the bay. In the early morning fog, it looked every bit as magical as I had expected, and later that evening, we discovered it was even dreamier once the tides of day-tripping tourists receded.

When I learned about Mt-St-Michel in 11th grade French class, it was described as an island in the middle of a bay that is completely surrounded by water twice a day. Now, sand and sediment has filled in much of the area between the island and the coast, with water only surrounding during the highest of tides. Whether encompassed by water, moist sand, or grassy fields filled with the famous Mt-St-Michel moutons (sheep), it is still out in the middle of the bay, on its own, just as it has been for almost 1300 years when Archangel Michael "told" a bishop to build an abbey here. Since then, the majestic setting has been a site of pilgrimage for Catholics and tourists alike.

Apparently, the end of October is one of those times when pilgrims love to descend upon Le Mont. We somehow landed the last bed on the island for less than 170 euros. We took the room despite the fact that it was a triple because we wanted to stay on the island and not have to walk three kilometers to the mainland after dinner. We took the room despite its 100-euro price tag because it was the beginning of Alli's Birthday Week. And we justified it all by telling ourselves that it was going to be a splurge night acquired from the money we saved for not taking a gondola ride in Venice.

After dropping our bags, we headed back down the island's only street and waded through the mob of tourists climbing up. It seemed like a great time to be off of the island looking back at it, so we walked out into the fields and surrounding sands. We took many pictures. We walked around (Alli wouldn't let me walk in) the bay's quicksand, which was made famous by a scene of the Bayeux Tapestry where Harold rescued Norman soldiers. And we stood amongst a herd of famous moutons, where, despite my urgings, I couldn't get Alli to sing a verse of "Mary Had A Little Lamb", which I was obviously prepared to video.

Back on the island, we enjoyed a long walk around the ramparts of the abbey, which sat high atop the hill. We noticed people walking far out into the bay, and Alli wanted to know if I was going to go out there to write "Happy Birthday" in the sand. I reminded her of her self-created quicksand rules and told her that I would probably wind up dotting the "i" ala Ohio State with the crown of my sunken head. I can see the headline: Dumb Shit American Tourist Suffocates in Quicksand While Trying to Write Birthday Message. Details at 11.

After an afternoon pastis, the crowds did begin to recede as the guidebooks predicted. We went back to our splurge hotel to change for a splurge dinner, and we settled on Le Mouton Blanc, which listed scallops as one of its main plate choices. Alli had tried Coquille Saint-Jacques when we were previously in France, and I had told her to try them again in Normandy where they are famous for their seafood. She listened.

When you travel and eat out as long as we have, you inevitably begin to notice similarities and trends. For example, 95 times out of 100, I out-order Alli and wind up with the better dish. Appropriately enough, though, she ordered her scallops pan-seared in lemon butter and out-ordered me to begin her Birthday Week. In France, even the losers win, and I enjoyed a famous Mont-Saint-Michel omelette with a half-dozen oysters, a bottle of the local Muscadet white wine, and two scoops of green apple sorbet smothered in Calvados, an apple brandy unique to Normandy. We ended our night with a nice walk along the deserted street and ramparts, happy we had listened to the Rick Steves guidebook, which said that of all the visitors to Mt-St-Michel, poets prefer to stay the night.
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lambs on

A night on the mount
You have our blessing for trading the gondola ride for the night on Mont St. Michel. We stayed the night a couple of years ago with our daughter, and it was magical. Our daughter had done the pilgrim journey across the sands a year before but wasn't able to enjoy the place without hordes of tourist by day. So we treated her to a night sans tourists.

And, Alli, Coquille St. Jacques is one of my favorite dishes, too.

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