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Friday, June 16, 2017

Memories from Mont St Michel


                                                                                              By Andrew Wan

To Papa, who was at home, but always a part of the journey

And to many, many more stories to come……


In the year 708 A.D., St Aubert, the bishop of Avranches in the land of Normandy had a visitation from the archangel Michael. The angel instructed the good priest to build a church on a rocky islet nearby, then known to locals as Mont Tombe. Presumably overwhelmed by the size of such an undertaking, Aubert ignored the angel’s instructions several times. His reluctance persisted until Michael burned a hole in the holy man’s skull, upon which the bishop wisely, and I think promptly, obliged.

And thus, the rocky islet became the site for an abbey called Mont St Michel. In the 15th century, the English made repeated assaults on the island during the Hundred Years’ War. But the abbey had now become a formidable fortress, and despite a year-long siege in 1423-1424, the English failed in their attempts. Mont St Michel is still besieged by foreign forces to this very day. The foreigners (and their wallets) are however, welcome, and the English have been joined by visitors from halfway across the globe including battalions of camera toting Japanese and American tourists.

And now, we were amongst them.

In the year 2007 A.D., I received some funding to visit a lab in Paris, as part of a scientific collaboration. Mummy, I Chun and Audrey had tagged along, everyone eager to sample a two week stay in the City of Lights. Euro Disney had fallen victim to our tourist instincts on our first Friday in Paris.

Mummy at Paris Disney Land

Enjoying a carousel ride

Andrew and Audrey in front of a statue

And we had signed up for a day trip to Mont St Michel on the very next day.  Mont St Michel was a few hundred kilometres north-east of Paris, but since we were already in Paris and more than ten thousand kilometres away from home, it made sense to travel out of town to visit a unique place in France- a tourist spot, no doubt, but with reason.

On Saturday morning, we got into the cab that we had booked the previous night to get into town and the travel agency, France Tourisme.

The cab driver was curt and did away with the standard `bonjour’, asking only for the address of our destination which I showed him in the form of a handwritten piece of paper. I suspected the early hour of half past six to be part of the reason for his brusqueness. France Tourisme was still closed when we arrived, but half a dozen people that looked to be of an international variety (and probably tourists like ourselves) were already waiting outside its locked entrance.

Once inside, we paid for our tickets and did the obligatory visit to the toilette.  An elderly Vietnamese lady with thick white hair pleasantly enquired as to my origins. Madam Truong was an American citizen who resided in Washington DC with her son and his family for most of the year. The rest of the time, she was either in Paris or Brussels, doing a rotational visit between her two sisters who were resident in the latter two cities. I introduced her to Mummy and they quickly picked off in amiable conversation.

We were ourselves introduced to Arthur, who was to be our tour guide cum driver for the day. Six of us were fitted into one van- a Thai student from Australia’s Curtin University and her partner, who was presumably Australian, a Mrs Pandit from India, and the four of us in a family. The four to five hour ride to Mont St Michel was a long and sleepy one for myself, as I had considerably less than forty winks the previous night, and presumably an onerous one for Arthur. I was grateful to the Australian guy who kept up a conversation with our driver for most of the journey- the risk of dozing on a neverending road with monotonous stretches of country on either side was ever present!

As a lazy passenger, I did sleep though, and soon we had arrived at Caen which was quite close to our destination. Caen is itself a historical town- it is not very far from the beaches of Normandy where the Allied forces had landed on D-day to end the Second World War. Its greater claim to fame however, is as the final resting spot of William the Conquerer, who of course, conquered England in the 11th century. Incidentally, the famous Bayeux tapestry that immortalizes the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is also decorated with a map that includes Mont St Michel.

Mont St Michel itself is really made up of two parts, the Abbey which sits on the island, and the town, complete with hotels, restaurants, church, city hall and mayor. As we approached Mont St Michel, Arthur pointed out that the stone used to build the houses in the locality was exactly the same type that made up the abbey. In a short while, we had entered the town of Mont St Michel with its disproportionately large number of hotels and museums. In the next instant, we were in the shadow of Mont St Michel itself.

Mont St Michel  shrouded in haze

From a distance, my first sight of Mont St Michel was that of a celestial island shrouded by haze- kind of like Bali Hai from South Pacific. One could almost hear the haunting strains of the song accompanying the surreal image of the island in the backdrop! However, the element of danger that surrounded the island was not in the form of WWII bombers. It took the form of the ocean and its swiftly changing tides.

An interesting feature of Mont St Michel is that it is an island at high tide and becomes part of the mainland at low tide. Emerging from our van onto dry land and into bright sunlight, Arthur told us how the carpark would be immersed in seawater at 5 pm that day. Even in modern times, many visitors have been taken unawares by the rapid movement of tide, described by Victor Hugo to be “as swiftly as a galloping horse”. Perhaps Arthur wanted to make the point that we should punctually gather outside the mount at the fixed hour, in order to leave it in time!

The first thing our guide did was to get maps of Mont St Michel and tickets for us to visit the abbey. After distributing these items, he led us up some flights of stairs up to a rampart, from which we were afforded a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. Walking along the rampart was like visiting a medieval mall, as the fortress housed restaurants, souvenir shops and even hotels in abundance. It was a new experience for us to see these modern commercial establishments interred into the old granite walls. Mummy and I were wondering whether a similar concept could be applied to the old buildings and tourist sites in Malacca.

We passed a restaurant that Arthur mentioned was internationally renowned for its omelette, which is in fact, a culinary specialty of Normandy. Throngs of passers-by were just hanging outside the entrance, peering into the kitchen and the cook at work. Papa has always maintained that he married Mummy because of her omelette, and I wondered if there was a worthy contender in there. However, the prices displayed on the menu outside were somewhat prohibitive even for a famed delicacy, and I decided that I didn’t have to know the answer straight away!

Arthur then left us to do our own exploration of the place, reminding us to meet outside at half past three. We headed straight for the abbey as it was the main attraction of the Mont. After ascending many flights of steps, we found ourselves on a terrace with a panoramic view of the bay. A line of pilgrims were making their way along the coast to the Mont, a scene that was essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. Professional guides had to be employed for these pilgrimages as it was a trail made treacherous by the presence of quicksand. A little further in the distance, we caught sight of a second mount, but which was without settlement. During the 100-Year War, the British had built a mirror castle and fort there, but one which no longer stood its ground.
The tourist instinct in us informed of a good picture opportunity and we were soon liberally snapping photos. Mrs Pandit requested our help to capture her sareed silhouette against the splendid backdrop, and she reciprocated in kind for our family photo.

The scenery was all well and good, but we wondered if that was the only feature of the abbey that was accessible to visitors. We in fact left the abbey once, and it was only our suspicion that we had missed something that prevented us from leaving it altogether. Retracing our steps with the help of a staff member, we located a bookshop selling Mont St Michel books and memorabilia and a serene church where a service was actually being held, before emerging into a cloister. Afterwards, I found out that a cloister is a characteristic part of a cathedral, monastic or abbey architecture with four sheltered corridors surrounding an open courtyard. A decent floral garden occupied the courtyard, and I imagined how the monks of the Middle Ages would walk mindfully around the cloister in deep contemplation and prayer.

The cloister with a floral garden

Just adjacent to the cloister was the refectory, which had hosted visiting dignitaries- kings, presidents and all manner of royalty from medieval right through to modern times. It was now a large empty chamber with translucent, crystalline windows and stately pillars holding up a ceiling of rather unique design.

Being contented that we had done the tourist thing, we retreated downstairs for lunch, grabbing sandwhiches at one of the many food establishments at the Mont and topping them with generous helpings of ice-cream. Our lunch venue was a cosy hole in the wall that was in fact a telephone booth, its granite seat now serving our tired legs and empty stomachs as well.

It was almost time to leave the Mont and we made our way to the designated meeting place where loads of other tourists were already lounging around in the sun. But we were early and Arthur hadn’t turned up yet, so we had friendly conversations with the other tourists on the same trip. We were all visitors to Paris, and welcome to ideas of worthwhile places of interest to visit.

Madam Truong mentioned the Luxemboug Gardens, which had been featured frequently in the works of Anatole France. As a student in Vietnam forty or so years ago, she had encountered descriptions of the Gardens by the famous writer that so impressed her that she had made it a point to visit it recently. And once again, she marveled- the appearance and scene and feeling of how the sculptures in the Gardens were draped by falling leaves was exactly as Monsieur France had described it a century ago!

It was time to go. The ride back seemed longer- Audrey too had become more restless. Before eight in the evening however, the welcome sight of the Eiffel tower beckoned us, with the perpetual queue reinforcing the notion that tourism is big in France. Before long, France Tourisme appeared around the corner and we said our thanks and goodbyes to Arthur, who had been a most steady and excellent guide. We faced the additional challenge of hailing a taxi from downtown Paris (our 2-week stay had provided enough experience for us to realize the enormous difficulty of that pursuit), but we were fortunate to achieve it with relative ease that evening.

The approaching windmill of the Moulin Rouge informed us that our hotel, the Citadines Paris at Avenue Rachel was just a stone’s throw away. 

Audrey and the popo in  front of the Moulin Rouge

The Hotel Citadines Paris

I Chun in front of the Hotel

It had been a great excursion to Mont St Michel, but we were glad to be back at our Paris home once again.

Video on our trip to Paris

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