In 708 AD, according to the legend, in the little town of Avanches in Normandy, France, the glorious Archangel Michael appeared in the dreams of the Bishop Auvert of the Diocese, and commanded the churchman to build a church on a rocky little island near the town. “Build here, ” cried the Angel, “And build high!”
The terrified Bishop, being intelligent enough to know the huge demands such a task would place on him, dallied until the angel had appeared in his dreams three times. On the third occasion, the angel tired of repeating himself, poked a finger into the Bishop’s skull and wrote the message on his brain — at which point, the Bishop began preparations for the construction.
A difficult location
Despite his acquiescence, the Bishop must surely have questioned the Archangel’s judgment a time or two, for the island which St Michael chose could hardly have been less congenial. During low tide, the island was surrounded by a vast and flat expanse of sand, but during high tide, the waters rushed swiftly forth and surrounded the island, cutting it off completely from the mainland. The tides of the Bay of Mont St Michel are some of the most dangerous in the world, both in terms of depth and speed. The high tide mark can reach 50 feet above the low tide mark, and the incoming tide is ferociously swift. Medieval writers stated that the tide moved in at the speed of a galloping horse, and modern scientists have clocked it at about 12 miles an hour — more than fast enough to overcome anyone foolish enough to cross the sand beds at the wrong time, let along anyone bringing in heavy building materials.
Fortunately for the Bishop, the Archangel’s choice of locations was (for lack of a better word) inspired. The treacherous tides of the Bay, which have claimed so many lives, are an inextricable part of Mont St Michel’s mystique. It is the tides that transform the abbey from being just another beautiful church (of which France has plenty) into a romantic prize held tantalizingly just out of reach. The incoming waters of the high tide lend the island and the humble oratory the Bishop commissioned an air of isolation, made all the more poignant by the fact that it is only a scant kilometre away from the coastline. Over time, generations of monks and rulers altered and added on to oratory, until today, over a thousand years since that dream, that humble beginning has grown to become the world famous Abbey of Mont St Michel, the Marvel of the Western World.
Pilgrims of all sorts
The first wave of visitors to make the journey to Mont St Michel were pilgrims. Until very recently, the island could only be reached by foot on the sand beds during low tide and only the most devoted pilgrims braved the sands to reach the distant abbey, for despite their placid appearance, the sand beds were a source of terror. Not only did the pilgrims have to avoid the incoming tide, but have to pay strict attention to finding their way. Except for a few narrow, winding paths, most of the bed was quicksand. Many pilgrims have sunk into the treacherous sands, and the Bayeaux tapestry mentions that even William the Conqueror once had to be pulled out of the quicksand by Harold the Saxon while they were on a pilgrimage to Mont St Michel.
Today, true pilgrims are few and far between, but the second wave of visitors to make their way to Mont St Michel make up in numbers what they lack in devotion, with over 2 million visitors to the island every year. Fortunately, since 1879, visitors have had the convenience of a causeway and on many days, the road itself is choked full of cars and shuttle buses during low tide, either driving up to the island itself or parking on the causeway.
The flow of visitors have very definite ebbs and flows, for the causeway is submerged at high tide, and there is usually a great exodus from the island just before the high tide. The really cautious park on the mainland and walk across the causeway on foot, for during the high tide, cars and buses carelessly parked along the causeway will come back to a damp spot where their car used to be. There was once a Scottish bus driver who, being rather busy in his hotel room at the time, neglected to pay attention to the tides and found his bus destroyed by a salty bath.
Watching The Tide Rush In
Watching the tide come in is a popular activity, and is a breathtaking and awesome experience. Many visitors watch the tides come in from the mainland, after they’ve moved their cars from the causeway, but easily the best way to appreciate it is from the island itself. On really good days, the island will be almost deserted as the other visitors rush off the island before the high tide.
From a high vantage point, a viewer can see far into the distance, perhaps even to the ocean itself some seven miles distant. Then, as the tide grows nearer, a thin white line appears on the horizon. The line closes in with astonishing speed, and as it moves nearer, the sound rushes with it — a great whoosh of cascading water as the waves sweep in and cover the sands. The speed of the incoming tide is frightening at the best of times, but during the fierce gales of the autumn and winter, they are even swifter, and even a horse would not help any man unlucky enough to be caught far from shore.
Interestingly enough, despite the dangers of the sand, every year a few daredevils make their way to Mont St Michel the traditional way — across the sands. Fortunately, in recent years, that hasn’t been as dangerous an undertaking as it once was. The causeway has not only brought a greater flow of people to the island, but has also stopped the flow of water around it. Today, this part of the bay is silted up and the tide rarely comes in twice a day as was the norm — twice a month is now more the norm, and the island is rapidly turning into a peninsula. Given the island’s status as a National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the French government aren’t taking the matter lightly and have put into place an engineering program to replace the causeway with a pedestrian bridge that will allow the waters to once again surround the island.
One of the best ways to enjoy the beauty and romance of Mont St Michel is to book into one of the few hotels on the island, and wait for the evening. The island takes on a more romantic and enchanting air once it is emptied of all the tourists. The medieval village sprawled out below the abbey appears mysterious and filled with tantalizing secrets, especially as the dusk hides the more commercial and tourist-oriented aspects of the houses. The abbey above is floodlighted at night, transforming it into a breathtaking beacon at the summit of the island. In the morning, a well rested visitor can watch the sunrise gilding the walls of the Abbey of Mont St Michel, before leaving the island to the hordes of tourists once more besieging the island.
And incidentally, it might be interesting to stop by the town of Avranches and visit the St Gervais’ Basilica where the Bishop’s skull is said to reside, complete with a hole where the Archangel poked him.