My recent visit to Mont Saint Michel. I'm so glad I took my dear Papa's advice to go to this iconic destination!
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Regular listeners to the Loulabelle’s FrancoFiles podcast will know that I have inherited my love of France from my dear Dad, my Papa. My Loulabelle’s Instagram followers might have seen a post a few weeks ago where I mentioned that my darling Papa passed away suddenly. I am so fortunate that in the weeks leading up to his death I spent lots of time with him after I returned from France at the start of July. I’ve often mentioned Dad on the podcast and chatted about how I would go to stay at his place for 3 or 4 days every fortnight up in the bush about an hour from Melbourne in regional Victoria. We would potter in the garden and listen to French music playing outside from my Loulabelle’s Fabulous Frenchy Spotify playlist, we would cook and eat French food together, watch French movies, chatter away en français to each other. I’d listen to Papa play French music on the piano or on the accordion and often we would sing too. We’d watch French documentaries and plan our next escapes to France. I even interviewed him at episode 29 which I listened to again just the other day. It was so lovely to hear his passion for France and his wonderful knowledge and expertise on certain things we talked about. I thought as I listened, that instead of being sad that he’s gone, which of course we will be and that can’t or shouldn’t be avoided… but instead of that taking over as a sense of loss, what I actually choose to focus on now is the wonderful gift he has given me. My love of France and a French way of living (whether in France or here in Australia) is truly a gift. It is something I would not be immersed in if not for my dear Papa and his French obsession! So for that I say a huge merci to him.
Memories of my 2023 vacances en France
In my most recent trip to France I visited so many regions and had some amazing experiences. I went to the Cannes Film Festival and ended up on the red carpet with my friend Ruby Boukabou. I spent a weekend in the champagne region and got to see the inner workings of a champagne house with a wonderful woman wine maker called Piot Sevillano that has been in the same family for hundreds of years. I met up with my uncle and his best mate just as they finished the last day of their walk on the Chemins de Compostelle which is part of the French Way on the Camino Trail in France. I had a roadtrip with a beautiful friend of mine Simone across south west France ending up in the Luberon and northern Provence and I enjoyed a beautiful week with some girlfriends first in Lyon and then the country region of Burgundy south of Beaune. Dotted through all of these amazing experiences were check-ins with beautiful podcast guests like the divine Claudine Hemingway who showed me her corner of Paris when I arrived, then Jane Hiscock at her gorgeous Château Jonquay in Normandy. I stayed with Sarah Zwick at her beautifully immersive home in the Basque region. I caught up with Nathan and Kate Veach in Burgundy and I saw Adrian Leeds in her neighbourhood of the Marais as well as I catching up with Lisa Anselmo to hear more of her Paris life. I also spent a magical week in the beautiful town of Saint Malo with the lovely Katherine Watt who lives there and took me under her wing for the week!
Loulabelle visits Mont Saint Michel
I have talked briefly on the podcast before about Mont Saint Michel, but given I had never been there it was only really in relation to how it was one of my Dad’s favourite places to visit in France. Mont Saint Michel in Normandy on the northern French coast is somewhere my Papa visited many times as well as the Channel Islands and Saint Malo, but it was Mont Saint Michel that he would rave on and on about to me! It also happens to be one of the more popular tourist attractions in France and was actually designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. When I decided to do a solo roadtrip across the northern coast of France this year, I was instructed by my dear Dad to visit this amazing mega structure!
When driving up to Mont Saint Michel from the east of Normandy, I was not really prepared for the incredible view of the mount from the roadside from miles away! I saw a busload of people stop and jump out with the phones all pointing up at something and then as I turned the corner past the bus, the mount came into view. It was simply breath taking, the way the flat farmland stretched out in front from where I viewed it plus the salt bush flats closer in surrounding and framing it, the structure just magically rising out of the water. I had a momentary thought that this beautiful view was enough for me and I’d give it a miss and continue onto Brittany. But the thought of Dad shaking his head in disbelief at me for skipping this experience once I returned home was enough to make me go. And I was not disappointed.
Mont Saint Michel is not hard to get to. I was travelling by car on my roadtrip across the northern coastal towns of Normandy and with my GPS maps as well as the excellent sign posting it was an easy drive. My dad was never keen on driving in Europe so on one of his visits there in 2015, I dropped him off at a train when we were in the Loire Valley together. He then caught the train to Rennes and then another train onto Saint Malo which is the end of the line. Papa stayed there in Saint Malo and from there he caught a bus which took about an hour to Mont St Michel. Being on an island, it’s not possible for everyone to drive out to the actual monastery, but there is an excellent system of shuttle buses leaving regularly from the large car parks that take visitors out across the causeway. There are also horse drawn carts for tourists taking people across.
The Mont Saint Michel abbey
I had no idea that Mont Saint Michel is not just an abbey on a rocky island, but that it also has a village of sorts. As I wandered up through the winding streets to get to the abbey, I could imagine the life that many religious or other inhabitants had lived there over the centuries. Around its base are medieval walls and towers, then above these rise up the clustered buildings of the maze of the village and then there’s the ancient abbey crowning the top of the mount. The island is an almost circular granite outcrop rising sharply out of Mont-Saint-Michel Bay. Most of the time it is surrounded by huge sandbanks which apparently have pockets of quite dangerous quicksand, so my Papa stressed to me the importance of only walking across the sand to the island with the assistance of a guide. It becomes an island only when the tides are very high and they also should be viewed with some care as the tides rise so quickly that according to Dad, in times gone by people could not outrun them to get back to dry land. When I was there the tide started coming in during the last hour of my visit and I was amazed at the speed of the rushing water. It really is something to see.
The first building on the island was constructed in the 8th century after St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, had a vision of the archangel St Michael. It very quickly became a destination spot for people of the time who fancied a pilgrimage, and in 966 a Benedictine abbey was built there. It has survived fires and wars in the middle ages, sieges during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 1300/1400s, the French Wars of Religion after that and then suffered a bit of a decline in the 18th century, before being dissolved as an abbey during the French Revolution. After that it became a state prison under Napoleon I until 1863. And then in 1874 it was classified as a historic monument and restored.
The abbey at Mont Saint Michel has such extraordinarily beautiful architecture. I arrived in the church at the top of the winding walkway and sat in absolute awe at the imposing 11th and 12th century Romanesque nave. There are some original features from the 8th century too as well as some sections in a Gothic style built after 1450 as well as later additions from the Napoleonic era. It just combines the strong characteristics of a military fortress and the simplicity of a religious building, whilst also being a place where I could imagine ordinary everyday life taking place. There is a panoramic view of the bay from the medieval walls and at the very top, after winding through all the various rooms and additions constructed or eventually restored over the last 1300 years, is a quaint and peaceful garden overlooking the bay in a very windy but simultaneously calm and reflective corner of the whole structure.
I found Mont Saint Michel to be a place of contradiction. It is so very beautiful but at the same time has a sense of harsh reality about it. It feels magical and other worldly, but also now very touristy with restaurants and souvenir places crammed into the medieval streets below the abbey. I tried to imagine as I sat in the nave at the top, how was this constructed with no modern machinery, with high tides, quicksand and no causeway built as we have today? I recommend getting the audio guide as it explained brilliantly the answers to most of my questions. There are also tours conducted in various languages regularly. I stood near one tour in progress to hear snippets in the sections where I wanted more info, but with an audio guide of your own you can move more at your own pace. A number of hours is needed to adequately experience all that Mont Saint Michel offers. If you find stairs difficult, add in a little more time to take breaks. I was there for three hours and I felt I was a little rushed. Dad always set aside a whole day or close to it starting with his departure from Saint Malo to the end of his return. He told me that they still don’t know the full extent of all the passageways contained within the Mont Saint Michel structure, it’s like a labyrinth so it’s also best to stay on the marked passageways!
Other Loulabelle’s episodes for the Normandy & Brittany region
LFF episode 29 – Paris memories, Mont Saint Michel & more of my Papa’s French faves!
LFF episode 119 – Making the move to Saint Malo
LFF episode 117 – Road tripping the magical and rugged northern coast of France
Agneau de pré-salé (Salt marsh lamb) is a type of lamb which is raised in the salt marsh meadows, especially around Mont Saint Michel. The sheep graze in pastures that are covered in native grasses that have a high salinity and iodine content which causes their meat to have a distinct taste that is considered a delicacy. So it’s almost like it’s pre-salted lamb! Agneau de pre-sale!
Salt marsh lamb raised raised near Mont Saint Michel is now registered with an Appellation d’origine contrôlée, an AOC naming it Prés-salés du Mont-Saint-Michel, just like Champagne has for its sparkling wine and some cheeses have across France as well to protect their products from being copied elsewhere.