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Up the garden path

Time and tide at Mont Saint-Michel

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The narrow street that winds up the island is choc-a-block with souvenir shops and restaurants.

Adash of bright orange suddenly pierced through the gloomy overcast sky, while icy cold winds froze exposed parts of human skin. Hordes of tourists, who had decided against going out of their hotels earlier on account to the incessant rain, suddenly started streaming out - as if to the sound of an invisible pied piper. It appeared strange that they were all heading to the same spot in France, something that aroused my curiosity. 

I followed and a 100-metre stroll soon brought us to a fibre-glass bridge over a river that flowed lazily beneath. Ahead, on a rocky island exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany, and bathed in orange sunlight, stood the magnificent abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, its famous golden spire with its gilded statue of an archangel reaching out to the heavens above.

Popularly referred to as the 'Wonder of the West' Mont Saint-Michel - identified by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1979 - is a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel Michael with a small village in the shadow of its great granite walls. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, this 1000-year old abbey in the Gulf of Saint-Malo in northwestern France is famously connected by a causeway with the mainland and was the fourth most revered site for European pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

According to Victor Hugo, "Mont Saint-Michel is to France what the Pyramids are to Egypt". The best way to reach Mont Saint-Michel is by Rail Europe. Take a France rail pass and hop on to a train to Pontorson. This storybook town is quiet and well-planned, with large stretches of road winding through manicured farmlands, interspersed sometimes with an isolated wind mill. A seven-minute drive will take you to an area with a few hotels and eateries. Private cars aren't allowed beyond this point. The bridge is a five-minute walk from every hotel. From the bridge, regular shuttles ferry tourists and pilgrims over the causeway to the gate of the high walls. Entrance to the medieval town of Mont Saint-Michel is through a huge fortified gate known as the King's Gate. The French flag flutters on top, alongside the red flag of Normandy.

A second gate - the Bavole Gate, built in 1590 - is the entry to the town. A single narrow street winds up the island, cramped on both sides by souvenir shops selling mementos, and, of course, restaurants. As you walk up the cobbled streets, you'll arrive at St Peter's church, with its statue of a woman with a sword in her hand standing by a red door. My guide, the eversmiling Florence Rocaboy, tells me that it was Joan of Arc, who fearlessly led the French against the English after being ordered by St Michel himself, who appeared in Joan's dreams.

This, however, is the church of the village and has no connection to the abbey above. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to St Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in the year 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet in his honour. But Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger. That worked and the first abbey then came up that year.

During the historic Hundred Years War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's impenetrable fortifications. But its fame principally rests on its status as a pilgrimage centre. However, that stalled with the French Revolution, when monks were banished and the abbey was converted into a prison.

In 1836, several influential figures - including Victor Hugo - launched a campaign to restore Mont Saint-Michel to its erstwhile glory. The prison was closed in 1863 and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.
Getting to the abbey from the King's Gate requires one to climb over 900 steps. The higher you get, sometimes walking through a graveyard, the more stunning is the view of the surrounding bay. One of the place's most interesting features is that the waters recede almost 18 kms twice a day, and leave behind vast swathes of sand.

"Such is the importance of Mont Saint-Michel that French president Nicholas Sarkozy started his political campaign for his second term in office in 2007 from here, even though there are only 100 people who vote here. The village is home to only 25 people. This includes eight nuns, six monks and three priests, " Rocaboy says.

In the abbey's main church you will see a copper statue of St Michel fighting and defeating a dragon. This statue, made out of plaster, is a replica of the copper statue perched atop the Mont Saint-Michel spire.

You will also see desecrated parts of the abbey and the church, victims of the French Revolution. From the terrace, black colonies of mussels and oysters are clearly visible on the sands. The doors of the island stay open till 1 am and one can walk around its dark alleys and abandoned houses. One can walk on the bay too, when the water has receded, but that's not for the weak of heart though, as the water come in pretty fast. Mont Saint-Michel is one of France's top attractions. It receives more than three million visitors a year. Very few are likely to leave without fond memories.

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