“Overall, the library held a hushed exultation, as though the cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
I feel the need to start off this post with an admission that despite the quote chosen above, I am not writing about a library, per say. That is not to say the location described never held any tomes of the written word within – in fact I can safely say that it once contained mountains and mountains of books – but rather this quote seemed to help me recall the feeling of walking around its hallowed grounds in a way I found both evocative and inspiring.
For, this was the day I finally got to walk up the steep paths of the legendary Mont Saint-Michel. And let me tell you, it truly did not disappoint.
We started the morning off bright and early, having gone to bed at an overly decent hour, with a lovely breakfast consisting of fresh baguettes, homemade white cheese, butter, jams, raisin buns, cake and – of course – coffee. I must say, for the entirety of our sojourn in France, I was both confused and enamoured by their style of breakfast. See, in North America at least, the preference tends to be towards savoury-style breakfasts (definitely the kind of breakfast my husband prefers). I know what you’re thinking, “But, Erin, Canada is famous for it’s maple syrup-drowned pancakes”. Well, yes, you’re totally right. But in most peoples’ experience, I would wager, this was a treat for a Saturday or Sunday morning complete with cartoons and pajama time that stretched luxuriously until noon or later. On most mornings, some eggs and toast will suffice (and bacon! If you have the time).
However, I digress.
The breakfast, however sweet for my taste, was scrumptious. A treat I was able to enjoy largely in silence as Dad did most of the talking every time Bernard popped his head in while I proceeded to stuff my face. You’d be surprised at how much food I could consume back then – certainly not the case anymore! I have slowed down considerably in my, er, older age.
Right after breakfast, we headed out on our short journey to Mont Saint-Michel and, honestly, I was shaking with anticipation (or from the abundance of strong coffee — we’ll never know, will we?). This place had been on my bucket list forever so the chance to finally see it in person was just unreal.
Due to my sheer excitement, when we were still a fair distance away I made Dad stop on the side of some random road beside a field because there it was…already!
In the far distance, across goodness knows how many kilometers of flat ground, Mont Saint-Michel rose up our of the mists like a mirage. I can think of nothing I have seen before or since which can compare with this view. It was like reality’s best imitation of the most elaborate fairytale location imaginable.
I did, finally, get back into the car and allow Dad to drive us there but it was hard not to just stand there forever and stare. It was only the promise of seeing it up-close-and-personal that made me move.
After parking the car, we opted for the 40 minute walk to the Mont as opposed to the 5 minute shuttle service – and I’m damn glad we did. This way, we got to savour 40 minutes of that view. Totally worth the exertion (I’m not sure pregnant me would be in agreement but, she was not present at the time). I think I took a million photos – if I could only find them all!
The walled city/abbey crossbreed was no less spectacular once we entered it. A winding, narrow cobblestone street made its way languorously to the pinnacle where the abbey sat. It was a wonderful, picturesque climb.
We also stumbled, rather unexpectedly, on a plaque proclaiming that it was on that very spot in the 16th century where Jacques Cartier was given his orders to explore Canada. How cool is that? A little piece of Canadian history in my new favourite place in all the world (do I give that title out a lot? I feel as if I do…)
We explored a little chapel which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and yet another memorial to the local war dead, perhaps all the more stark for being surrounded by so much peaceful beauty. Finally, having appeased our curiosity by exploring as much of the lower levels as possible, we made our way up to the Abbey itself.
The tour of the Abbey was very well laid out, though much of it was blocked off at the time unfortunately (including the stairs to the bell tower – so much for my tradition of climbing the tallest tower available!). Despite these closures, however, it was no less awe-inspiring. So many cavernous rooms containing long rows of pillars reminiscent of Moria (though it was, in fact, Peter Jackson’s inspiration for Minas Tirith instead), and a breathtaking view of the coast of Normandy. With the fog still hanging heavily in the air throughout the countryside, the view was unforgettable.
The cloister also featured one wall which had a huge floor-to-ceiling “window” of modern glass being the only thing stopping us from tumbling to the ground below. If that had simply been precariously-thin stained-glass once-upon-a-time, as Dad suggested, it can’t have been very safe. I’m curious as to how many accidents were narrowly avoided… Not a place to walk around with your head in the clouds…or your nose in a book!
We also came across the top of a chute we had jokingly called the “toboggan run” looking up at it from below. It was, in reality, far too steep for even the bravest of Canadians to attempt a run. At any rate, as Dad and I stood there, we both experienced shaking ankles and calves as well as a pain in our legs. We chalked it up to our incredible fear of heights (we were both looking straight down) but I read over lunch that day the following story:
Random Historical Fact #17
Though intended to be a place of quiet religious contemplation, during the French Revolution and the numbered days of the Napoleonic Empire the Abbey was actually converted into a prison to house people deemed to be enemies of whatever regime they had managed to anger (remember – power changed hands swiftly during these trying years). At one point during the Abbey’s tenure as a daunting dungeon, one such political prisoner decided he would rather take his fate into his own hands and choose to leap to his death rather than face an unknown length of time rotting in an isolated cell. Though the exact location he lept from does not seem to be agreed upon publically (at least from the research I have done thus far), while Dad and I were there it was suggested that the top of this chute was where it happened. I can’t imagine being so desperate to avoid a situation that you decide to cease living instead but, then, this man wouldn’t be the first or the last to make this heart wrenching choice.
Though I may not have any proof that this is where Gautier leapt to his doom, I’ve spoken before about sensing pain or suffering in a location, even if no evidence persists. Believe what you will, but I know what we both felt standing there…and it still gives me shivers.
Our time at the Abbey did eventually come to a close as we enjoyed some fresh crepes and local cider (both specialties of the region) and a bit more rambling to walk off the food, as well as a Croque Monsieur for me because…France.
After a disappointing walk through a fake “Village Mont Saint-Michel”, which basically consisted of luxury hotels and huge restaurants to cater to the thousands of tourists who flock, unsurprisingly, to the Mont every year, we jumped in the car and headed on to our next stop – St. Malo.
As we drove through countless coastal villages, my heart was again broken by the sheer amount of memorials to lost soldiers on the side of the road. At one point, we went through two villages in the span of a minute or so, both of which had their own memorial dedicated to 40-odd combat dead…the villages today couldn’t have had more than a couple hundred inhabitants total; in either. How many men even came back? The mind (and the stomach) reels.
I was still trying to process these thoughts when we rolled into St. Malo and the finding of the Old City, thankfully, acted as a welcome distraction. We found parking underground at the port and headed a few paces through the gates of the medieval city.
The sight that greeted us was already familiar though no less striking. A curving network of cobblestone streets and surrounded by a grandiose stone wall complete with a network of defense towers.
Before the fun could begin, however, it appeared the heartbreak was not yet over.
We stumbled suddenly upon the city’s Jardin de Resistance which memorialized not only war-combat-dead but also the civilian casualties from the German siege of the city (so many) and the French Resistance fighters either executed en-place, or deported to Dachau or other concentration camps and killed there. Their ashes, or the ashes of far too many victims of Nazi cruelty in general, were eventually brought from the camps and spread on the ground around a horrible stature of an arm-less soldier crying out in agony. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears. Luckily, Dad knew me well enough to let me be. I’m not sure that I am terribly upset that I cannot find my photo of this statue but please do feel free to look it up if you want an idea of how horrifying it was.
After this incredibly somber note, Dad and did our best to enjoy an afternoon of rampart walks and a stroll along the coast, barefoot no less, to one of the adjoining islands which held the tomb of some famous writer that he knew though I was, embarrassingly, clueless.
While on the ramparts, we were overjoyed to find an hysterical statue of a flamboyantly famous Corsair as well as a statue of Jacques Cartier himself (right near the Maison du Quebec, appropriately).
After the glories of Mont St-Michel, one would think little could please Dad and I but I will say that St. Malo was a pleasant surprise. The day was then topped off by a fantastic dinner in some small town – the first place we could find as everything seems to shut there after 2pm not to re-open until closer to 9 in the evening. The owner of this place, however, made up for it by being the consummate host, serving up the best seafood pasta and Stella a physically and emotionally tired girl could ask for.
Finally, we rounded it all out with a view of the spectacularly lit-up Mont St. Michel after dark. I may be unable to find my photos of this (though I guarantee you would have no problem finding some with a quick Google search) but I’ll never forget the sight.
It may not have been a library, per say, but that view certainly held a hushed exaltation, as if the stones themselves were singing soundlessly within their mortared homes.
I told you the quote fit.
More in two-weeks! And, remember, Life is beautiful.