Le Mont Saint Michel: an abbey built on a rock in the middle of an empty bay. Normandy to the north and Bretagne to the south, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the wet mud, the towering spire at the tip of the abbey visible for miles on a day when it isn’t shrouded by fog.
The legend says that in the year 708, Saint Micheal made an appearance to a local bishop, telling him in his dream to build an abbey on top of the island, which at first was called Mont Tombe. Over the years the abbey grew and it now has a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and classical architecture. Alongside the abbey grew a medieval style village on the southern part of the island that developed in order to house the many pilgrims that made the religious journey to the abbey.
The amazing thing about Mont St. Michel is how impenetrable it is. In order to lay an attack on the island, you would have to deal with the extreme tides, the mudflats and quick sand when the tide is out, and being completely out in the open with no where to hide. Unfortunately for pilgrims, these same difficulties arise during their journey. The typical route of the pilgrimage leads to the coast of Normandy, where one would then cross the expanse of mudflat to get to the island, hoping that the tide would not come in unexpectedly and hoping to evade capture by quick sand. This stretch of land was vital to the path of the pilgrim because it was seen as crossing hell, and to make it to Mont St. Michel was like making it to paradise.
At the top of the spire stands a statue of Saint Micheal with a sword in his raised hand.
This was my second time visiting Mont St. Michel; we made a quick stop while I was on my France trip in the summer of my junior year. This time, however, we were able to spend an entire day at Mont St. Michel exploring both the abbey and the village, and from the view of the mud.
From the entrance of the abbey you can see the surrounding nothingness that makes up the mudflats. At certain times of the day, the tide will come in and fill this area with water.
It was actually quite comical. Imagine around 50 NYU students, most of whom are female, suddenly learning that we are about to go for an expedition of the mudflats that surround the island, and that this expedition would require us to take our shoes off and get our feet dirty. Really dirty.
A few girls blatantly refused, arguing that if the trip organizers wanted us to go play around in the mud they should have told us beforehand (there was some confusion with the schedule, so no one really knew what we were doing that afternoon until it happened. I found the element of surprise added to my experience. Others did not). I was unfortunately wearing tights and after a few minutes wavering on what to do, I sneakily pulled my tights off and was ready to go. What was the worst that could happen?
The mud was ridiculously slippery, so the worst outcome was that I could fall, but luckily that didn’t happen. (Photo by Caitlin Kelmar)
Every second of the expedition was completely worth the dirt underneath my toenails. From the first few seconds feeling the terror of possibly falling, to the awe filled sight of the abbey from the perspective of a pilgrim, to the repeated feelings of terror when the guide had us try out the quick sand (I’m not joking, I danced on top of quick sand and while it was fun, I think it was a once in a lifetime thing. As in I’m too scared to ever do it again.) I went through a range of emotions that encapsulate “living in the moment.”
Even though I was wearing a dress and in a large group of NYU students with a somewhat exasperated French guide, being in that wide expanse of danger filled mudflats made me feel like I was making the pilgrimage. The sight of Mont St. Michel from the distance on foot was close to a religious experience, and I understood why making it to the abbey was so important for a pilgrim.
Not only was it an awe-inspiring moment of self awareness, but having a romp around in the mud was plain old fashioned fun, and our guide informed us about the geological importance of the area, as well as showing us the local flora and fauna. The wind put us in high spirits, and we even collected a little of the mud to give ourselves facials with later–according to our tour guide, French athletes will come and use the mud at Mont St. Michel to help their muscles and tendons, and obviously we saw a beauty product in that.
Not sure what type of dance this is, but it makes me laugh. (Photo by Caitlin Kelmar.)
I do not think I will ever forget the burst of giggles brought on by the squelching feeling of mud in between my toes accompanied by the towering sight of Mont St. Michel, the mixture of silliness and reverence too heady an emotion to overlook.