Driving along the coast road from Normandy to Brittany, we began to see Mont St. Michel when we were still miles away. Rising from the waters of the surrounding bay, it was enshrouded with mist as though trying to conceal some mystical secrets.
From a distance, you can see why 12th and 13th century citizens would travel long distances on a pilgrimage here, its spirituality rising like the Mont and drawing them nearer. We felt that same anticipation.
Unfortunately, most of our excitement dissipated as we drove over the causeway and were overwhelmed, not by the monument, but by the crowds. As one of France’s main tourist attractions, Mont-St.-Michel, declared a historic monument in 1874 and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979, draws thousands of tourists each day on their own pilgrimage – to eat, shop and swim.
Once hollowed grounds are now filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, all serving Mont St. Michel’s native dish, the omelette. Invented here, it is an overwhipped, overpriced ($14 for a plain omelette?) egg dish with little taste. Yet visitors wait in line for hours to try one made in the original inn – Mere Poullard – that made it.
The Grand Rue, the route once taken by early pilgrims to the abbey, is now filled with tourists. We found, however, that the higher we walked, the fewer people we encountered. Until we got to the abbey which was practically empty. Too bad because the abbey, rather than the omelette – is the highlight of the island.
The original abbey was built in the 10thh century to honor the Archangel Michael. Over the centuries, the abbey was enlarged to more than double its size while a village grew up in the walls below.
A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, it was built over three levels to reflect the hierarchy of the monastery. Still in marvelous condition – it withstood attacks during the Hundred Years War – it houses the church, cloister and refectory.
Its high walls and unusually long tides that virtually sealed off Mont St. Michel at high tides, made the island impregnable. At least until 1879 when a causeway was built to link the island to the mainland.
Where To Stay: About 8 miles away from Mont St Michel lies Chateau Bouceel, a wonderful place to stay after a busy day of sightseeing. Tucked away on a 600-acre estate, the chateau is owned by Count and Countess de Roquefeuil, a lovely and very hospitable couple who make you feel at home in their home. Three exquisitely romantic rooms are available for guests. Ours was the Ba-Mé decorated in pale blues with antique furnishings and family portraits scattered about. Large by even American standards, the room has superbly draped windows overlooking the gardens in the back. And the bathroom – oversized and including every amenity one could ask for – is a refreshing change from most French hotels. Breakfast at the chateau is served in the dining room painted in beautiful shades of pastel green. The large family table is covered in fine white linen above a green brocade cloth that matched the chair covers. Rooms at Chateau Bouceel range from 175 – 195 Euros. For more information and reservations, visit www.chateaudebouceel.com/.
Where To Dine: The count made reservations for us at Auberge du Terrior in nearby Servon. The dining room is small and pretty. The menu was a delight: delicious homemade frois gras; sweet oysters served in their own sea water; roasted duck cooked in its own fat and filet with a truffle sauce. Heavenly. All of it.
– Judi Janofsky & Rich Steck