Sunday, December 26, 2010

Green grass and high tides forever, castles of stone souls and glory

Our next destination is a place I'd wanted to visit ever since I was a little girl. I saw a poster of it a long time ago, in an elementary school office, I think it was, and was immediately besotted. This place of my little girl-dreams is Mont-St-Michel, a tidal island of rock with an enchanting village spiraling up to a Gothic abbey which stretches up to the heavens. It just doesn't get any better than that.

What makes this place truly mystical is the tides, which come in at a 17 feet a second. When pilgrims travelled across the tidal flats to Mont-St-Michel they risked their lives, braving not only the tides but also disorienting fogs and quicksands. A destination this stunning and deemed worth peril to attempt through many, many centuries is a treasure indeed.

Our journey would be much more prosaic, of course. A train, and then a bus, and we had no intention of wandering out onto the tidal flats, though one can, with a guide, if you're wise.

I hadn't even realised we would be anywhere near Mont-St-Michel when we first started planning the trip, and when Mike came to me with the idea, I was thrilled. Mike was really rather pleased with himself that he'd be making a childhood dream of mine come true. I'll tell you about inside the walls in the next post, but for now, let me show you the tide. You'll indulge me, I hope. The gendarmes' major task is to keep dumb tourists from drowning or getting sucked into the sands, and as huge numbers of people come every day to watch the tides galloping in, some 10 million a year, the officers have their work cut out for them.

To this end they have the exciting looking vehicle, above, and when the tides are due to come in they escort anyone who even looks like they might want to leave the safety areas back to where they belong. I foolishly tried to peek around the corner of the walled city to see if we could see the tide coming across the plain and got the whistle. And felt both guilty and chagrined.

Of course, I feel guilty whenever I think a store clerk is watching me like I'm plotting some shoplifting, and I really feel guilty whenever we go through questioning at airport security.

You'd think I was either a criminal or Catholic.

With the floods of tourists, we watched the tide that Victor Hugo famously described as moving à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop, "as swiftly as a galloping horse." It was very much as if an enormous salty, muddy river had changed course. It pulled and seethed at the buoys, foaming in waves upon the rapidly disappearing shores.

We backed up, then backed up some more, and still more...

The Gendarmes took to their motorboats, circling rapidly over the turbid tidewaters around Mont-St-Michel, looking for flailing arms or cars foolishly parked outside the safe zones. Apparently a bus had to be tethered once, to keep it from floating away, and when the driver came back he found it a total loss, full of salt water and silt.

I'll bet that was an interesting conversation between him and his boss.

The waters came up and covered everything but the causeway. We retreated and went for higher ground, climbing the ramparts to get a view over the waters, marveling at the swirl of the powerful currents and vehicles massed to view the spectacle that has been drawing tourists since the Middle Ages.

Leaning against the ancient stone, I spied the tiniest hummingbird feeding unconcernedly from bright flowers clinging to the steep walls. He was so tiny that a Frenchwoman beside us insisted that it was a bug, not a bird.

Whatever. I have video footage, and I know that difference between an insect and a hummingbird.

As it turned out, there are no hummingbirds in Europe and I was in for a lesson in humility. The critter we saw was a hummingbird moth, which apparently so closely mimics the behaviors and appearances of hummingbirds, including making a humming noise, that many people are fooled. Me too.

Humility and awe. I was doing well.

Medieval courtyard and crucifix with the shadow of the abbey over the tide.


*Paula* said...

You're not going to believe this but I guessed that you went to Mont St Michel after reading the 1st line of your post! I'm quite proud of myself I will have to admit :)

Oh and you cracked me up with your "You'd think I was either a criminal or Catholic" comment. Classic!

Hope you and the family are having a wonderful Christmas!

Nathalie said...

I took my family to Le Mont Saint-Michel a few years ago. It is truly awe inspiring, no matter how many time you go!
Bonnes Fetes! :D

Natalie said...

Paula! I entirely and without reservation, believe you. You should be proud. Well done m'dear! :)

Nathalie, Mont-St Michel was almost indescribable, it was so incredible. I'm going to try, though I fear I will fair and fall short. Wish me luck!

AKBrady said...

We're so there.

paris parfait said...

I wanted to visit Mont St. Michel since I was 12 years old and saw a framed poster of it in my orthodontist's office. Many years later, when I finally visited Mont St. Michel, it did not disappoint.