A visit to Mont-St-Michel


On my trip to Paris in October ’06, I didn’t decide which day to go to Mont-Saint-Michel until I got to France. I decided to book my visit at the office of Paris Vision (214 rue de Rivoli; phone +33 1 42 60 30 01, fax +33 1 42 86 95 36 or visit www.parisvision.com).

The itinerary, at 155 (near $200), included a 7:15 a.m. departure, a multilingual guide, lunch on the Mont at one of the La Mère Poulard places, admission to the abbey, and the return to Paris by 8:30-9 p.m. We had heavy traffic on the way back and still made it back to the Paris Vision office by 8:45 p.m.

At Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, the abbey’s cloister offers a unique view of the surrounding ramparts and the sea. Photos: Elaine Lavine

(The Cityrama [149, rue Saint Honoré, 75001 Paris, France; phone +33 [0] 1 44 55 61 00, fax 33 [0] 1 42 60 99 36 or visit www.cityrama.fr] tour offering was similar — a few euros more but also including a dinner stop in Caen and a return to Paris later, at about 10 p.m. I had my doubts in advance about the likely quality of the dinner, so that and the later hour of return made me decide in favor of Paris Vision.)

The ride each way was about four hours, including one bathroom stop. The bus did not have a toilet of its own. The guide did some narration during the outward-bound trip but not for the whole time. She spoke English and Spanish; she had a colleague with her who spoke Japanese. The narration was not in depth, and the English wasn’t entirely fluent, but it sufficed. I’d done a little reading on my own.

Mont-St-Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and among the many websites devoted to it is one mini-website, www.monum.fr.

La Mère Poulard started out as one restaurant at the Mont many years ago. It is now a Mont tourist industry of its own. “La Mere Poulard” is the name on half of the cafés and souvenir shops in town. The café specialty is a unique omelet, sort of an underdone soufflé.

When our bus group arrived, waiters scurried about to accommodate us, and other serving staff were doing the same for other arriving bus groups. The omelet was okay but not to my taste. The rest of the lunch was a French version of cafeteria food — not surprising, not terrible. That’s what you get when a meal is included in an excursion.

At Mont-St-Michel, the Romanesque section of the abbey originated in the 11th century.

Before leaving the Mont, I had time for a treat of a Normandy sundae, made with apple ice cream and some warm Calvados poured on top. Quite yummy!

We had some rain on the ride out and a downpour on the way back, but for most of our time there we were lucky, with the sky ranging from partly sunny to mostly cloudy.

The abbey has the nickname of La Merveille (The Wonder), and it is of course remarkable for having been built at all, let alone splendidly and with great difficulty by people of faith, in such a challenging and lonely location. At times in its history, it was also used as a prison.

Note that in order to visit the abbey it is necessary to climb up hundreds of steep stone steps. There are a few landings but no resting places along the way plus very few handrails. This climb was as many steps as I’ve ever climbed in one place in my life, and I’ve climbed plenty of steps in my travels. Visitors younger than I were huffing and puffing as we neared the top. This is not an easy visit to make, and there are no accommodations made for infirmity nor even for safety.

There are rest rooms just inside the town entrance and, of course, in the restaurants.

I am very, very glad that I went, but I wasn’t terribly moved by being there. I had a similar reaction when I went to Stonehenge: I can appreciate with my brain how remarkable the accomplishment was, but it didn’t arouse an emotional response in me.

By no means should anyone take that to mean that I think it’s not worth visiting or that it is in any way second-rate.

I have also read that the Mont is best appreciated at night. Staying overnight gives one the opportunity to see it without a lot of other tourists, and to see the tide come in.

I keep a long Paris file. Feel free to contact me c/o ITN.

ELAINE LAVINE

New York, NY