Quicksand, snails, and pilgrims: One last look at Mont St. Michel

This is the last installment of Esteban’s and my trip with our dear friend Des to Mont St. Michel, off France’s Normandy coast. (In Part 1 we almost didn’t get there, and in Part 2 we marveled at the views and stayed the night.) Now it’s a mild Wednesday morning in September … and I’m racing to see as much as possible before we have to leave the island at 9 a.m.

I sprang out of bed at 6:15 and checked the weather: Cloudy, but no rain. I pulled on my boots and meandered in the dark down the mountain, past the cemetery I’d seen the day before.

Mont St Michel cemetery 1490259 BLOG

If there were ghosts here, they were as peaceful as their surroundings.

But it was a different story on the main street, where workers were delivering goods for the day ahead and hauling away empty wine bottles. The noise was a sharp contrast to the silence near the cemetery only moments earlier.

Mont St Michel baguettes 1490334 BLOG

Mont St Michel wine bottles 1490342 BLOG

I walked through the main gate and onto the causeway.

Mont St Michel morning 1490363 CL BLOG

In the 45 minutes I spent watching the sunrise, I was struck by how often the light changed. (As you can see, Normandy is famous for its fickle weather.)

Mont St Michel light change BLOG

My only companions were a couple of passing tourists and an egret. It was so quiet that I could literally hear the tide coming in.

Mont St Michel egret 1490805 BLOG

I was reluctant to leave my perch — but it was 8 a.m. already, and we had to be out by 9. On the way back to the island I decided to wander off the causeway just a bit, and walk on the same beach millions of pilgrims have braved over the centuries.

My adventure was short-lived, alas: It took just five steps to land in quicksand. (It really does feel like it’s pulling you in.)

Mont St Michel mud 1490960 STEPS BLOG

I was rattled as I half-ran, half-walked up those interminable flights of stairs. Maybe it was because I was in such a rush that I noticed a shiny snail making his way over a stone wall.

It was probably just my imagination, but he seemed as curious about me as I did about him.

Snail Mont St Michel 1500093 BLOG

Snail 1500133 BLOG

An aside: Imagine traveling all the way to Mont St. Michel, only to become obsessed with a snail.

Snail Mont St Michel 1500135 CR BLOG

Snail Mont St Michel 1500105 BLOG

Back in the room Esteban and I weaved and bobbed like a couple of boxers (the fighting kind, not the shorts) as we tried to pack in the cramped space. The bathroom had one of those ridiculous showers with the glass half-door. WHY??!!!

Bathroom Mont St Michel 1500200 BLOG

In spite of my great care, I still soaked the floor somehow. Gah. Esteban left me to the flood remediation and wandered off to meet Des.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes your brain gets scrambled when you’re in a hurry? That happened to me — and in spite of the island having only one main road, I still managed to get lost.

I asked directions of a man who was sweeping. After much pointing and waving of arms, he directed me to a shortcut. (Full disclosure: I took this photo the day before, and in a different spot. But now you have a mental picture of the sweeping man.)

Cleaning up Mont St Michel 1500036 BLOG

I was dismayed to discover that the alleged alley was more of a rain spout, really. (Did he think I’d slide down the drainage ditch with my luggage, and drop one story onto the road below?)

Instinct told me to keep walking until I found a set of stairs. Then another. And another. As I turned left onto the last steep flight and descended onto the main street, a crowd of Chinese tourists parted to let me through. A few were madly snapping photos of the red-faced, sweaty American as she wobbled down the last few steps.

They clapped when I finally reached the bottom, and we all had a good laugh. I love it when humor transcends culture and language …

Esteban and Des were waiting just a few feet away. We walked through the huge main gate one last time, toward the shuttle.

I couldn’t believe how high the tide had gotten! The mud flat where I’d gotten stuck only 90 minutes earlier was now under three feet of briny water. Here’s a parting glimpse through the window:

Mont St Michel from bus 1500305 BLOG

While we waited for the bus back to Rennes, a young woman with a backpack approached us. She had walked all the way from Le Mans and had spent a couple of nights at Mont St. Michel, she said.

This was her third pilgrimage. “It changes your life,” she told us in English. She was born in Lithuania but had studied in London and now lived in Rennes. “Une citoyenne du Monde,” I joked. A citizen of the world.

Mont St Michel pilgrim 1500375 BLOG

She lamented how commercialized the pilgrim route has become, even since her first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 2007. It used to be you paid what you could, she said, but now by law it’s a minimum of five euros per night.

Likewise, Mont St. Michel used to shelter mostly pilgrims, but now only six such rooms remain. She also contrasted how many pensiones there were in Spain, compared to the few in France. On this trip she’d brought a tent, she told us, and had camped along the way.

I gladly acquiesced when she asked me to watch her bag. It was the first time I’d seen a real coquille St. Jacques — the pilgrim’s symbol. I loved her hand-carved walking stick, too.

Mont St Michel coquille 1500427 BLOG

Mont St Michel pilgrim staff 1500391 BLOG

Mont St Michel pilgrim staff 1500460 BLOG

Across the street, three other tourists missed the whole exchange because they were engrossed in their phones.

Mont St Michel tourists 1500349 BLOG

The bus ride to Rennes went quickly as we passed Pontorson and a dozen other little towns, each with its own diminutive church and wee cemetery.

Mont St. Michel bus 1500505 BLOG

The other tourists missed that, too.

Mont St. Michel bus 1500515 BLOG

Almost four years later I’m left with only fleeting impressions of Mont St. Michel: the mossy roofs, the masons’ initials on the stones they had cut, the haphazard foundations, the stone pillars’ precision …

Roof tiles Mont St Michel 1500192 CR BLOG

Mont St Michel 1480677 BLOG

Mont St Michel construction 1490177 BLOG

Mont St Michel columns 1480952 BLOG

Mont St Michel wall 1490255 BLOG

Mont St Michel waterspout 1480566 CR BLOG

Mont St Michel window 1480975 BLOG

Joan of Arc 1500028 CR BLOG

But the most lingering impression of all is one of having gone back in time.

Mont St Michel street 1500173 CR BLOG

If you’d like to go even further back in time, check out Victor Tribunsky’s marvelous post about the pre-Christian history of this mountain, complete with his own wonderful photos.

We’ll leave it there for now …

Des and Esteban 1500250 CR BLOG

… but I promise to continue this adventure soon as we go on the road to Rouen.

62 comments

    • We’re kindred spirits, Patti — so of course you loved the snail, too. 🙂 In hindsight I just thought it was kind of funny to travel such a great distance and then spend my precious time on something I could see in my back yard. But why not? Life is short. (You never know when the quicksand is going to win, ha ha.)

  1. What a great post and stunning photos. Loved you coming down the stairs with your luggage. I resemble that often these days! I have to find the earlier posts you mention and find out how you arrived at Mont St. Michel. It is one my list, one of these days. Have a great weekend!

    • Oh, Marie … I do hope you’ll be able to visit! I would love to see it through your eyes, too — and it’s easier to get to than Africa! 😉 Thank you so much for stopping by.

      • After my 17 hour flight from Addis Ababa to DC, I think anything is easier to get to than Africa. 🙂 But I do want to go. I will have to see if I can find a tour that stays on the island. Hope you don’t get new snow with the pending bomb cyclone headed your way.

        • 17 HOURS!! My goodness, but you’re a committed traveler. I can’t imagine being on a plane for that long. Well … compared to that, Mont St. Michel will be a piece of cake! But don’t despair if you can’t find a tour that stays on the island itself; they’re used to tourists, so it’s quite easy to self-cater if you need to make your own arrangements. As for that bomb cyclone … sigh. The forecast changes hourly, so we’ve just resigned ourselves to slog and shovel through whatever we get. At least this late in the year it’s unlikely to stick around for too long. [Fingers crossed.]

  2. Your last look at Mont St. Michel was definitely worth it ~ those 45 minutes watching the sun & light dance around giving you such different looks is priceless. Great photos, and it seems your adventure was just beginning. The snail photos were perfect, and in a sense is the best way to travel ~ take your time and enjoy the stories and sights along the way…especially when coming across a pilgrim. How cool this must have been to share stories. Enjoy the spring and your next adventure.

    • Your observations reveal you to be a wonderful traveler (which I knew already from your marvelous blog and your own gorgeous photos). You are right that the snail photos represent the best way to experience such a journey: To slow down, to observe, to take each experience as it unfolds. That was my only disappointment, I think — not having enough time to soak everything in. Still, rushing through Mont St. Michel is better than not going at all, so no complaints here. Thank you so much for stopping by, and for making my day with your kind comment.

      • So funny, I felt this way about my last travels ~ would have liked to have spent more time at each location, but some balance is needed…and agree ~ if there is an awesome sight, see it no matter what 🙂

  3. So glad I caught this series of posts! Brought back wonderful memories of a place I visited briefly many years ago. How wonderful you were able to stay right there — even if in a tiny room. Kudos to you on making the most of 18 hours. That morning walk sounds lovely but I am somewhat mystified by the quick sand. Is that really quick sand? I had no idea it existed in France!

    • I’m so happy to have brought back some wonderful memories for you. If you ever get back, I do recommend staying on the island; the word “magical” keeps coming to mind. As for the quicksand: Yes indeed, you have it in France! In fact, if you Google “Mont St. Michel quicksand” you’ll find several videos that demonstrate it in action. Scary stuff.

  4. What a wonderful series of posts – and hardly a tourist crowd in sight. Well targeted and great shots of a place I have seen from a distance but never visited. You gave us a really good taste of its character. Thank you

    • The place was absolutely mobbed when we got there, Alastair, but fortunately the crowds thinned out after the abbey closed. That’s why I felt so lucky to have stayed overnight: otherwise my impression would have been rather off-putting, I’m afraid.

    • I am beaming from ear to ear, thanks to your kind comment! And I must agree: There is a beauty and perfection to nature’s design that humankind’s creations will never quite match. (Though the abbey was still pretty breathtaking.)

  5. So many (again) wonderful pictures and experiences! I think I didn‘t really take in (at the times I went) that this also is an important ‚step‘ on the way to St Jacques de Compostelle, or I‘ve forgotten !
    Love those photos of the rushing in tide – during my stay in England and on both Mt St Michel I saw a total of THREE cars being ‚floated‘ in the tide because ppl didn‘t believe the signs or were too drunk or just thought it wouldn‘t concern them….. One was in a pub where at least 5 signs were right outside and a few inside the pub (OK, the pub was really close to the beach, with a parking for 3 cars and a well used stone stair leading up to the house)….. We were eating there and coming in we said to the barman: There is a red car outside on the parking, it will get carried away in about 20‘ – the barman laughed loud and joyfully and said: Well, if the driver can‘t read, he shouldn‘t be on the road – and sure enough, when we got out, the car was carried away some dozens of meters into the sea. Other times (at least once I remember), the driver just about got away with his car partially filled already and about 15 ppl pushing him to safety. Come to think of it now, our UK stay was great fun in so many ways….. 🙂
    What you say about the weather: That‘s so true, but it‘s even true here just outside of Paris; Some days last week we seemed to have all 4 seasons in one day, but mostly it‘s 100% spring now.
    Thank you for this precious reporting of your Mont St Michel Trip. You‘re a great travel writer.

    • Ah, Kiki … you sure know how to make a gal’s entire WEEK with your kind comments! But I must repay the compliment, because I was chuckling so much over your description of the pub and cars being washed away in England that my husband came in to investigate. As he and I always say when we witness such stupidity: “Darwinism in action.” Thank you so much for stopping by!

    • Thank you so much, Michael! The whole trip was such a blur that I was delighted to find I’d captured a few details here and there …

  6. Hi Heide, thank you for the wonder series of posts. I truly enjoyed your commentary and enchanting photography. Mont St. Michel is on my bucket list, but it will probably be a long time before I get there. Seeing it through your lens was a treat.

    • … and what a treat it is to find your kind comment, Joe! Any compliment from you is a huge compliment indeed, so thank you. And I’m sure Mont St. Michel will still be there when you’re ready to make the trek yourself. Thanks again, and cheers!

  7. Love these vicarious journeys via your writing and photos, Heide – thank you! The photos here covering changes in light/sky/weather early morning are beautiful. And love the photo of the early morning deliveries; bags of baguettes in the half light – wonderful “) Thank you so much for sharing your impressions and experience, in image, word, and humor =)

    • I’m so happy you enjoyed this series, dear Lara! For once, it really was worth getting up (literally) before the crack of dawn. 🙂 I hope all is well in YOUR world too. Thanks so much for stopping by … xx

      • Lol = p I’m with you – getting up before dawn is not my favorite, yet for certain contexts, it’s an amazing experience =) Glad you made it happen so we can all share in the results! Cheers “)

    • Thank you, Otto! I agree wholeheartedly that being open to encounters and exchanges greatly enriches the travel experience. So much so that I’m trying to bring that openness to my daily life as well!

  8. Hi H. I didn’t receive any snail mail from you so I guess this post is all I’m getting! But very happy to receive. Great read and great post pics. The incident with the clapping Chinese had me smiling! Regards. MB

    • You got me, MB! When I saw “snail mail,” I was puzzled for a moment because I don’t believe I have your mailing address. But then it struck me: snail. Very punny! I’m glad the Chinese applause brought a smile, too. I still grin every time I think about it; it was such a silly, serendipitous moment. Although it does aggrieve me to think of how sweaty I must look in all those photos …
      Well, thank you as every for stopping by. Cheers!

  9. Wonderful description and pictures, Heide! You find on each place you visit something that transcends the mere curiosity of a tour by adding a special, often times humorous, touch (I especially enjoyed your brief adventure on the quicksand :)). Thanks for referencing the article by Victor Tribunsky. Those pictures were fantastic too. 😀

    • How wonderful to know that you enjoyed this, Alberto! Your kind words have me beaming from ear to ear — because I do make a conscious effort to get beneath the touristy veneer when I travel. I’m happy that comes through. And thank you also for checking out Victor’s blog. Aren’t his photos wonderful (not to mention his world travels)? Muchos saludos. 🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing your brief visit and discoveries at Mont St. Michel. I’ve never been there as I thought it would be a tourist trap (as some of your initial impressions showed). After reading your fascinating stories, I may change my mind if I am in France in the future 😉

    • Your comment makes me so happy, Angelina, because that was what I hoped to accomplish with these posts! Too often I’ve written off destinations like Mont St. Michel because I prefer to wander off the beaten path. But with a little creativity you can still see these well-known places in a different light. Thank you for stopping by!

  11. This essay is loaded up with so many fine images it’s like stop motion, a wonderful free flowin’ read along. Guess I’d be selling you short if I made it seem like I really believed it was so easy for you to organize your thoughts about what you wanted to share, what you wanted the reader to see. Quality control is part of the fun, if you’ve got the goods and you do. You make it seem so easy. Cool pictures of the snail, they’re awesome. Really got into close-up photography of snails a few years ago and the neighbors just kinda shook their heads….

    • Only a fine writer who understands his craft would write this kind comment, Jason. Thank you! I am putting more effort into editing both my photos and my words — which in this case came quite easily because it was such a simple, linear recounting. But sometimes it can be a bear to find the center of your story and then decide which tributary to follow (or limb to go out on, if you prefer a tree-based metaphor), can’t it? And I do remember your snail phase! In fact, that was the first post of yours I read, I think. I knew in that instant I’d found a kindred spirit. Let the neighbors shake their heads at us; personally, I think anyone who doesn’t stop to befriend a snail every now and then is missing out.

    • The problem with quicksand (and bad relationships and spoiled food) is that you don’t realize you have a problem until you’ve put both feet in, so to speak. 🙂 But go with a trained guide, and you’ll be fine. Wish I’d had the time.

  12. After reading all three, I am in awe of your camera skills. You say so much with the images (where I tend to be just the opposite). I love Mont St. Michel and i regret not staying overnight on it yet. I did learn the hard way about the tides and had to wade thru chest high water as the tide was rushing back in… a strong wind, hot day, and long walk back to Pontorson did the trick though 😂 Your pictures really bring me back way better than my own and I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 posts…. 😁

    • OMG. You seriously ended up in chest-high water? I’m glad you lived to tell the tale — that sounds terrifying. But as you say, there are few things a walk to Pontorson can’t fix, right? Ha ha! Well … I do hope you’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight sometime. It’s a totally different vibe, and truly beautiful. I also appreciate your kind words about my photos. I’m not a professional by any stretch, but I sure do enjoy creating a visual diary of my travels. I’m honored you enjoyed it too! Thanks so much for stopping by.

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