We have been to Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, how different could Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France be? Just a bit bigger? In Cornwall you know you walk across the causeway at low tide and go by boat at high tide. The bay of Mont-Saint-Michel experiences some of the largest tides in Europe, but the island is not surrounded by the sea every day; it’s far more complicated than that, depending on the movement of heavenly bodies and other factors. All the tourist needs to know is that you can go on guided walks across the vast low tide bay, but you certainly should not go alone. For the photographer the scene is ever changing according to the weather and the tide; the island itself is fascinating with so many buildings, narrow alleys and winding flights of steps clustered below the abbey.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a World Heritage Site and experiences huge tides of tourists. Recently, changes have been completed to preserve the ecology of the area and cater for tourists. Le Barage across the river controls the flow of water into the bay while a big car park and tourist centre, a safe two and a half kilometres from the island, controls the flow of people. Free shuttle buses go endlessly back and forth till midnight or you can take Les Maginotes, carriages pulled by pairs of draught horses. It is also easy to walk along the causeway and the boardwalk bridge, a pleasant stroll past grazing sheep, salt marsh lamb acclaimed for their meat.
Back at tourist base the roads all have barriers, ‘rue impasse’. The effect is to feel you are on a campus; hotels, restaurants and campsite all quiet and traffic free except for coaches bringing tourists. In contrast to the melee of mixed visitors were the neatly controlled groups of Japanese tourists and lively groups of school children. The few days we were there we saw an endless procession of school children being marshalled for the walk across the bay, followed by picnic lunches on the island; evenings in restaurants we sat with Americans, Canadians and Australians while the Japanese were still in their regimented groups. Perhaps none of this was ‘real life’, but the whole tourist experience was well organised, pleasant and stress free.
Even in October the island was packed, people walking, eating, drinking and filing into the abbey. We gathered on a wall with many others to watch the tide creeping in and laugh at teenage boys vying to be the last standing on a rocky outcrop. The top terrace of the abbey had the best view out over the bay and back across the way we had come. Those who work on the island in catering must be constantly busy; for those who live here their homes are unique, but they must be constantly stared at by tourists such as myself, trying to peep in their front doors as they unlock them or peering down into their tiny gardens.
Writers can take inspiration; what a perfect place to be anonymous in the crowds, or elude capture if their character needs to escape. The abbey itself is a maze of stone arches and flights of stone steps, if you did not adhere to the signs and follow the correct route it’s unlikely you would get out of the building; even following the route I thought we would never get out… But we did emerge into the sunshine to enjoy coffee with a view at one of the many cafes.
For holiday pictures visit my Beachwriter’s Blog, this month ‘Ecrivaine de La Plage’.
and read more about the trip to Normandy in Chapter Four