Day 10 |
May 12, 2011

St. Malo and Le Mont-St-Michel, France

By Lucy Hallman Russell, Cultural Historian

Weather: brilliant sunshine, sudden overcast, brisk winds

Of Pinnacled Churches and Dramatic Tides

For our first visit to Normandy, the Silver Explorer docked in the heart of the charming port city of St. Malo in Brittany, entering the enclosed port through a lock in the wee hours due to the tides. Brilliant sunshine and cool temperatures greeted us as we arose and walked ashore.

Like many of our choice excursion sites, Le Mont-St-Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architectural, religious and historical significance. Driving along the bay of the same name, we became quite excited by the thrilling views of the rock-pinnacled churches dating from the 11th to 16th centuries and dedicated to the Archangel St. Michael.

The name St. Michael in Peril of the Sea recalls the perishing of thousands of pilgrims due to natural phenomena. Nowadays we understand the so-called “quicksands,” which are actually firm sands atop more liquid ones, the sudden dense fogs, and the tides “racing faster than a galloping horse.” No longer must the church bells peal out warnings.

In the present age there are other threats to the achievements of past centuries, including the deluge of tourists and the silting up of the bay due to the causeway construction of 1877. The new Couesnon River dam, which restrains the influx of sand and the imminent bridge to allow the free swirling of tidal waters, will help alleviate some of the current ecological issues.

There are two high tides daily at Mont-St-Michel, so the water levels change drastically every six hours. Between the high tides there were groups of tourists wading or wandering around the salt marsh meadows where sheep graze. Indeed the protection of the ecosystem is an important issue, so the new bridge replacing the causeway will keep parking areas further from the mountain top churches and allow visitors an impressive and slower walk to reach it.

After our initial awe on the approach to Mont-St-Michel, we slowly began our thirty-minute ascent to the churches, where monks no longer reside. The churches, chapels, refectory, knights’ hall and gardens were all constructed of pillars and columns of stone, which reminded us of the enormous toil involved over many centuries of construction. The rounded Romanesque arches contrasted vividly with the pointed Gothic arches, whose ribbed structure allowed larger windows and greater luminosity. And, of course, the grotesque gargoyle rain gutters protruded dramatically in front of pointed spires against the clear sky.

Our excellent guides recounted the characteristics of Normandy and also of St. Malo, where salted butter, buckwheat gallettes, crepes, and the infinite variety of shellfish (fruits de mer) and lobster and crab dishes reign supreme. We savoured the local restaurants in St. Malo after an afternoon at leisure spent strolling through the city, on the city walls or along the beaches. Brilliant emerald waters and dashing waves surrounded the royal fort built by Vauban in the 17th century. St Malo was a haven for the corsairs or legalized pirates of centuries past as well as home to Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada.

On this perfect day accentuated by the brisk winds of Normandy and Brittany, we enjoyed the colors that have inspired painters and poets, the steep slate roofs with pert chimneys, grey stone houses with yellow lichens, and the irregularity of ancient cities. Eventually, it was time to head back on board, and Silver Explorer followed the tides again through the lock heading out to sea toward Guernsey.