As a child, and even as an adult, there have been places I saw in photos or film and thought, “I’ll never go there.” The reason has never been security concerns or lack of interest; it has always been the perceived financial cost.
Mont Saint-Michel, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and medieval abbey perched on a rocky island on the coast of France, was one of these places. My earliest memory of being mesmerized by the island was around 1985. This happened at Epcot, one of Walt Disney World’s theme parks in Orlando, Florida, where a 220° film called Impressions de France played at the French Pavilion. About halfway into the film, an aerial camera swoops down over Mont Saint-Michel, and the voice of the narrator (French accent, of course) rises over magical music to describe the majestic structure we are seeing: Proud, full of grace and symmetry. Rooted firmly to the ground, yet dedicated to the spirit.
I would see the film at Epcot at least two more times, in 1999 and 2010, and each time Mont Saint-Michel would still feel out of reach. As a budget traveler, more expensive countries like France were places I visited on my own only briefly and in moderation, which meant that trips to places far from big cities and transportation hubs, like Mont Saint-Michel, never made the cut.
But then came 2014 and a trip to France with dad. With a good deal on a transatlantic cruise sailing from Florida to Normandy, a rental car waiting for us in the port of Le Havre, and a wonderful French couple hosting us near the town of Coutances, Mont Saint-Michel, a place I thought I’d never see, was now on the itinerary.
We drove to Mont Saint-Michel on a Sunday morning. Once on the island, we walked past the gauntlet of shops, museums, and restaurants which line the narrow street leading up to the abbey. The climb is no more than 300 feet in elevation. Remarkably, however, in an article in the June 2014 issue of Smithsonian, we’re told that of the 2.4 to 2.8 million people who visit Mont Saint-Michel in a year, only 1.2 million walk to the top.
The top is the best part, of course. Here is where you find the church first built in the eleventh century, then mostly rebuilt in the late fifteenth century. Here is where you best see the landscape (the coastline of both Normandy and Brittany) and architecture that enabled the island to withstand siege during the Hundred Years’ War. Here is where you look out at the vast tidal flats, which pilgrims may walk across at low tide, and which can quickly fill with 45 feet of water at high tide.
But perhaps the best way to see Mont Saint-Michel is from afar. And so, after attending mass, walking through the abbey, and eating lunch at the base of the island, dad and I drove up the coast toward Granville, stopping at several points on the 30-mile drive to look back toward Mont Saint-Michel and enjoy the view.
And what a view it was: an architectural wonder, a childhood impossibility, a small dream come true.