When Mont Saint Michel becomes an Island
Mont Saint Michel is a village. There is no kiosk to buy a ticket at the entrance, no opening and closing hours; you walk into it like you would any other village, and apparently three million people do so every year. I was tempted to skip it.
I don’t like crowded tourist destinations and often opt out with some regret, and some relief, and a lot of justification to myself for my actions; oh, you’ll be back another time. But, I knew if I bypassed this iconic place, there was no defence. Arthur took some convincing, but as soon as we drove over the hill above Mont Saint Michel Bay and saw the distinctive outline of the abbey spire on the distant horizon, we were both drawn in.
The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached the bay, and I was hungry, so when I spotted a farmer grilling sausages in front of his house we pulled over and order two. He gave us three and invited us to spend the night in his field. But first, he announced, you must go to the Mont! (Of course, he said this in French, but lucky for me, I have a sidekick who understands this language and translates for me.) We told him we’d go in the morning so we could also visit the abbey which was now closed, and he went on to explain that there was an extraordinary high tide tonight, and one of the rare occasions when the rock becomes an island.
With my nonchalant attitude for tourist attractions, I’d been remiss in my research of the area. It turns out, not only is Mont Saint Michel a UNESCO heritage site but so is the entire bay, where there are tides up to 16 metres (52 feet)! I come from a part of Canada where we have 16-foot tides, and I thought they were big. He went on to explain that the tide goes out for 15 kilometres. Fifteen! And when the big tides rise, they are speedy, like, galloping-horse speedy. All right, I had to see this.
We drove to the parking lot, planning to take the shuttle bus along the new $200,000,000 bridge built a couple of years ago to replace a 135-year-old land-based walkway that was messing up the ecology of the bay. I was speed-reading my guide book, trying to play catch-up. Hey! After 6:00 pm they allow bikes on the bridge, I read aloud. Great, we could skip the tourist busses, things were looking up. As we cycled into the sunset, full bus-loads passed by, heading toward shore. People were clearing out for the day. Maybe I wouldn’t have to share my experience with 10,000 others?
The coast-guard arrived alongside us in a blocky red vehicle with bulldozer-style tracks. Two wetsuit-clad folks jumped out, clearly ready to save the lives of tourists who might not understand that they can’t outrun a galloping horse. How high will the tide be tonight? Arthur asked in French to the guard, who used hand gestures to show a height of about 12 inches and said something by way of explanation. My interpreter turned to me, the tide will leave a walkway height of about 30 centimetres, and right there, my interpreter got it wrong. The coast-guard headed off to make a sweep of the beach.
We parked the bikes and wandered down the shore to watch the sunset. Soon there was a hum in the air that grew into a soft roar. And there it was, the tidal bore; a powerful wave that raced toward shore. Water poured onto the surrounding beach like a river in reverse, swirling and dancing, and filling the area around the Mont with incredible speed. The west basin was quickly full. Let’s go up there, I pointed to a tower overlooking the east side, we can watch the water come in on the other side.
There are two entrances into the fortress. We ducked through the closest one and ran through the darkening village, weaving our way eastward, until we popped out on top of the ramparts. As we watched the water erase the sand, I questioned my interpreter. Uhm, do you think it’s possible that when the farmer said the rock becomes an island, he meant no way on or off? And, maybe the coast guard’s hand gestures meant water would cover the causeway by 30 centimetres, rather than leaving it bare? Understanding dawned, and we backtracked hastily through the now dark and empty streets to check the bikes. At the first entrance, the lower of the two, the sea was spilling into an inner courtyard. Exit was out of the question. We mounted a set of stairs and exited through door number two to find our bikes at the water’s edge. We moved them to the highest ground possible and raised an eyebrow to the coast-guard. He nodded his approval.
Back inside, about 15 people joined us to watch the ocean continue its trespass, rising to cover stairs and benches and splashing in through an ancient arrow slit built into the thick stone wall. We stood riveted with the group, waiting for it to stop. To turn. And then Arthur gave me a nudge, hey, let’s go. We’ve got the place to ourselves! He was right. People were either here watching the flood or sitting in a restaurant munching moules-frites, oblivious to their stranded status. We turned and slipped silently back into the maze of elaborate medieval architecture, and made our way twisting and turning up to the base of the abbey. A cobbled alley hugging the towering walls led us to a small courtyard overlooking our watery surroundings. The coast-guard, directly below us stood on a dry patch of high ground beside our bicycles. Waves rolled up from both sides of the bay and splashed together in the middle, creating treacherous white-caps and burying the exit ramp. Mont Saint Michel was an island.
We stayed there until nearly midnight, kings of our own castle, watching with a drone’s view as a small group gathered at the receding waterline. Eventually, the guard stepped aside, people removed their shoes, and pools of light began to move through the ankle-deep water between the island and the bridge. Squeals pierced the darkness as the stranded reached the other side. When we could see that the waves no longer met in the middle, we wandered down through the village, relishing every quiet step, and emerged at the base.
We cycled away into the dark, sticking to the narrow swath of dry in the parted sea, and stopped after a while to look back at the glowing mound. That really happened! I whispered, not daring to raise my voice and erase the magic.
Will I regret that I missed the abbey? Nah, I’ll be back another time.
Click here for a short video of the galloping tide, and hover over the images below (or choose landscape and tap the pic on mobile) to see some pictures of our magical night.