On Sunday, I visited Mont St Michel (yes, again – that’s the second time this year!). This time, it was with a translator colleague for a guided tour. When we arrived at the car park, it was absolutely pouring down, but by the time we’d got across the causeway and up to the abbey, where we had to collect our tickets, it had pretty much stopped. However, the glum face of our extremely serious guide more than made up for the lack of rain.
But it only took a few moments of his introductory speech for us to realise this was just part of a running joke that continued throughout the entire two hours of the tour. And it turns out that François Saint-James is as much of an institution as the site he knows so well.
As he took us right up to the roof of the abbey and deep into the crypts beneath it, he would periodically offer us the choice of visiting a part of the abbey inaccessible to the majority of visitors… or going straight to the shop. He also had some extremely forthright views on the superiority of Normans over Bretons, and which crêperies on the island were worth patronising (answer – there’s only one that actually prepares the crêpes fresh).
The tour as a whole was fantastic and highly recommended – you get to see some really interesting things, you get to cross the extremely fragile lacework stone bridge disguised as a flying buttress that leads to the roof, you learn fascinating facts about the abbey (normally involving bits of it collapsing. “One collapse every hundred years. Last collapse 1811. Keep together”, said Mr. Saint-James)… but the things that really made an impact on me were less obvious.
The first was that you can visit the second church to be built on the site, Notre-Dâme Sous-Terre. This was once a normal roofed building, dating right back to 966, and forgotten for many centuries after the vast structure above it was constructed, which is impressive enough in itself. But when they excavated behind the double altars, they found a wall from the original church on the site – constructed in 709 by Saint Aubert. And if you go on this tour, you can touch the stones of this wall! Maybe this wouldn’t do anything for you, but I trained as an archaeologist, and to me there’s nothing quite as exciting as being able to put yourself in the place of the original inhabitants of a site.
My second spine tingling moment was in the monk’s refectory, where our guide demonstrated how the acoustics didn’t work for normal speech, but that they did for a kind of chanted speech id (there’s a word for this, but neither my colleague Nelia nor I can remember it!). He read a short section of the Benedictine rules – as would have been done during every meal the monks ate there – and everyone in the huge room turned to listen as his voice effortlessly cut through the background noise, like a beam of warm, magical light.
And the third moment, which actually came at the very start of the tour, was listening to the bell being rung in the abbey. For 11 minutes. At 11 am, on the 11th day of the 11th month…
If you get a chance to do this particular tour (assuming you speak French, of course), it’s definitely worth doing. I think you’d have to do it several times before you took in all the information and sights that flood over you as you’re marched at top speed around the abbey, and it only cost 13€, which is just 3€ more than the standard, unguided entrance fee – and you effectively get that included in the price too!
We’d both seen the abbey before so we decided not to go back and have a further look this time – and also by this time we needed coffee. So we went down into the town and headed for a crêperie I’d visited last time I was there. We drank our coffee, and when we tried to pay the owner refused, saying that it was on him because it was his last day open before the winter break. So all in all, we had a really great day out!
And of course I took some photos (all of the ones in this post, in fact) with my new camera, the Yashica Y35 too.