Except for one day, our French vacation was all about touring Paris. Toward the end of our trip, we took a bus trip to the Brittany coast to view the famous island/fortress/church of Mont St. Michel, or “the Mountain of Saint Michael” for us Anglophiles. If you do not know who Saint Michael is, apparently in Catholic theology angels can also be saints. In this case, Saint Michael is none other than the Archangel Michael.
The mountain is actually a small island that sits just off the northern coast of France, where Brittany and Normandy join. As mountains go, it is more of a molehill, with rock faces pushing up a few hundred feet above the English Channel. For most of its history, it truly was an island. Lately tidal forces have largely taken away its island status. Silt and sand have effectively joined it to the continent. This is a development alarming enough to the natives that there is a large restoration project underway. This effort is trying to reverse the course of nature. If it succeeds, Mont St. Michel will become a proper island again.
It is still impressive, both as an island and as a religious destination. It is also a long day trip from Paris. We had to rise before six in the morning in order to make our way to downtown Paris to meet our tour bus at the Cityrama Offices. In order to make the trip to Mont St. Michel in one day, our time at the island was necessarily short: a few hours. It took six hours on an extremely comfortable tour bus with about seventy other tourists to get to the mountain. By this time in our vacation, we were glad to escape Paris. Our dawgs were tired after a week of touring. It was nice to spend most of the day relaxing in an air-conditioned bus and watch the French countryside pass us by.
On the trip to the island, our bus took the back roads. This gave us a taste of the French countryside that was very welcome. Cloistered farms account for virtually all of the available countryside. There are no primordial forests left in that part of France, but there are numerous small French towns populated with small stone buildings that look like they have been around hundreds of years. The French are if nothing else a tidy people. Their yards are small and well maintained and their towns clean and attractive to the eye. At the center of each small town was a traffic circle. We stopped in one small town whose name I did not capture for a hotel brunch. We were fed well with a quality selection of pastries, eggs, meats and fruits. Not all of us had English as our native language, which meant there was little conversation with others on the tour. Two interpreters were brought for the trip: one who spoke French, English, Spanish and Italian, and another one just to translate for a large number of Chinese.
Our bus was very big and very long, so I was amazed that it was able to negotiate some of the hairpin turns. In some cases, it had to block traffic coming in the other direction in order to make the turn. Eventually we descended into the Normandy coast and caught Mont. St. Michel in the distance.
Until we arrived at Mont. St. Michel, Notre Dame seemed ancient. I learned that Mont St. Michel’s modern history began in 6th century as an Amorican stronghold. It first became associated with Christianity in the 8th century with the construction of a monastery called Mont Tomb. The island turned out to be strategically valuable. With its large rock-facing cliffs, it was easily defensible. Consequently, it was not too long before it became a combination monastery, fort and church.
The island is not for the vertically challenged. Do not expect special accommodations for the handicapped. Prepare to climb. Fortunately, the climb was rather predictable and not too onerous. In some ways, it reminded me of Minas Tirith, the mythical city created by JRR Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Maybe he was inspired by Mont St. Michel. As with Minas Tirith, on this mountain the higher you were the more elevated the status. At the top was the church itself, which was plain by the standards of Paris. However, the church was not designed to be ornate. It was a church designed for a monastery. The clerics and civic officials inhabited the next level. Further down lived the merchants and the citizenry. For a time the monks abandoned the mountain and it was transformed into a prison. By the 19th century, in part due to an initiative by the French writer Victor Hugo, the Mont St. Michel the prison was closed and the mountain was transformed into its latest incarnation: tourist attraction.
In that sense, it is wildly successful. The tour buses and cars extended for a mile or more into the mainland. There were many places on the island to buy souvenirs, meals or ice cream. Yet still the island feels remote. Even in the middle of the summer rush on a beautiful day, it felt cool and windy. Perhaps the island loses much of its charm during the other seasons. It offers an unparalleled view of the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. Nearby is another smaller island, which was used as a convenient quarry for constructing the fortress. The English Channel in its immensity is to the north. Somewhere across that wide blue expanse is York.
We had about three hours to spend on Mont St. Michel. We followed our tour guide, and then bought a few souvenirs and some ice creams before heading back. We returned to Paris via a different route that took us along interstate quality toll roads. We stopped at a D-Day museum in the city of Caen for dinner. If Paris is ancient, Caen felt very modern. If I had to live in France, Caen would be a logical choice because it felt so comfortably modern, prosperous and clean. We did not return to downtown Paris until around 10 p.m., which made for a very long day.
On our last day in Paris, we had planned tours of Versailles and Chartres. Our Versailles tour was canceled the day before. However, we were able to take a RER train out there in the morning and see it anyhow, although our visit was rushed. We had to hurry back to Paris to catch the bus for our Chartres tour. Unfortunately, we beat our way back to Paris to discover that Travel Bound, the agency AAA contracted with for our tour, had screwed up. They subcontracted the tour to CityRama. Travel Bound they told us they offered the tour on Thursdays, even though our reservations showed confirmations for a Thursday tour. Instead, we hung around the fair grounds for a while, and then returned to our hotel to pack: we would fly back the next day.
Thankfully, our trip back to the States was uneventful. Our flight left Paris on time, which was good because Iceland Air only makes one trip a day to Paris. Our connecting flight in Iceland to Baltimore was delayed about an hour, but we made up some of the time on the flight back. We found the customs process returning to the United States more than a bit xenophobic. There were no less than four separate processes that jet lagged tourists have to navigate. My sister Mary picked us up at the airport, and we chose to drive home to Northern Virginia, arriving home around 10:30 PM. It made for a very long day. By the time I stumbled into a foggy sleep in my own bed, the sun was rising in Paris.
Overall, it was a good vacation. Despite the slipup with the tour, I did not feel cheated. I hope I can explore Paris in a more leisurely fashion some other time, perhaps when I am retired. We just scratched its surface. There is so much to admire about France and Paris in particular. My expectations were modest before the vacation. I got far more from Paris than I expected. I think the French deserve to be proud of their country and their culture. It is an enlightened country.
Occam’s Razor will now return to more traditional content.