Paul Bloomfield follows in the (bare) footsteps of pilgrims through the centuries on a walk across the sands to Normandy’s famous monastery-mount
One second I was happily tramping across the bay, enjoying the of soft, moist sand between my toes. Next moment the ground started wobbling beneath my feet, as if I were atop a particularly flaccid waterbed. Then, before I knew it, I was calf-deep in quicksand.
I knew, of course, how to extract myself from quicksand. You don’t watch Indiana Jones movies without picking up such tips. Grab a nearby vine (making sure it’s not actually a snake), and haul. Except the Bay of Mont St-Michel in far west Normandy isn’t overendowed with vines (or snakes). While I pondered my quandary, the sand clasped my ankles in a clammy grip that got tighter by the second.
Fortunately, help was at hand in the shape of, well, a hand – that of Bertrand Vaintan, an experienced guide who’s been leading pilgrims across the bay for 19 years.
“Don’t freak out,” Bertrand advised as he grabbed my arm, “or you’ll just sink deeper. Wiggle your legs to loosen the hold, step backwards to make the sand firmer beneath your feet, then carefully lift out your legs.”
Before long I was back on (relatively) solid ground, watching as the gloop filled in the holes left by my legs. Soon it would once again look like just any other patch of sand.
Quicksand is just one of the perils that faced pilgrims on the final leg of their journey to the abbey of St Michael. Europe’s highest tides, reaching 15m at their spring peaks, rush in “as swiftly as a galloping horse” – at least, so Victor Hugo claimed. And when fog descended to obscure the route across the bay, many perished. Today, guided walks to Mont St-Michel from the mainland coast safely shepherd tourists as well as the devout on the 6km walk across the sands at low tide.
Learning about the quicksands that still await the unwary is just one of the fascinating perks of such a walk. In fact, there’s a lot to learn, largely history – religious, military and natural. “I’ve been guiding here for 19 years, but I’m still learning,” mused Bertrand. “Just when you think you understand the bay, it changes.”
Setting out from the Bec d’Andaine near Genêts, north of Mont-St Michel, Bertrand provided a brief run-through of the key moments of the 13 centuries since, in AD 708, Bishop Aubert of Avranches was ordered by St-Michael to build a church on the rock then known as Mont-Tombe (‘Tomb Mountain’). After a Benedictine monastery was established and relics of the saint fetched from southern Italy, pilgrims began to flood in, bringing wealth to the abbey which evolved from a modest Romanesque church to the awe-inspiring gothic monument that gobsmacks visitors today.
An hour’s splashy walk brought us to Tombelaine, Mont St-Michel’s smaller sibling. Here, ruins of a tower recall the failed 15th-century English attempt to capture the fortified abbey during the Hundred Years’ War; remains of the earlier chapel at which pilgrims prayed en route to their final destination are long gone. The only residents today are nesting snowy egrets and the odd peregrine falcon.
On we walked, pausing to watch godwits foraging in the silt. We crossed fast-flowing streams, jumping as mullets splashed upstream to escape the brine, to the base of the mount where the silt created ice-rink-slippery conditions. As we picked our way cautiously from the precipitous, tree-clad northern slope to the south where the village shelters within tall ramparts, the recent transformation of the mount became clear.
Twenty years after a groundbreaking project to rescue the mount was launched, flushes controlled by an innovative barrage have washed away much of the saltmarshes and silty buildup that had been engulfing the mount. The causeway and carpark that long blighted the approach to the abbey have been largely ripped away, and by the end of the summer the last diggers will be gone, making this the perfect time to visit (or revisit) this magical place. After a century yoked to the mainland, at high tide Mont St-Michel will be an island once more.
Words and photos by Paul Bloomfield
Bay walks offer just one way to admire the mount’s facelift. Kayaking tours provide a sea-level perspective, as well as opportunities to explore the mainland shoreline, and the walk over a new wooden footbridge from the informative information centre on the mainland also rewards with lovely views, unspoiled by ranks of cars.
Brittany Ferries has convenient overnight sailings from Portsmouth to St-Malo. Buses run Tuesday-Saturday from St-Malo to Mont St-Michel. Guided walks across the bay cost from €5.50 per person, depending on numbers. The newly refurbished 18th-century Château de Chantore offers B&B in five beautifully furnished doubles/suites, some with views of Mont St-Michel, from €165/€250.
Disclosure: Paul Bloomfield was a guest of the Normandy Tourist Organisation. He had full editorial control of the review, which is written in his own words based on his experience of visiting Normandy in the summer of 2015 for Greentraveller's Guide to Normandy. All opinions are the author's own.