Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mont-Saint-Michel -- Fulbright Does Normandy, Pt. 1

Samschdeg, 17 Oktouber.

Fulbright Belgium has organized some killer trips for its grantees, including an evening at Ambassador Denise Bauer's official residence in Brussels and a guided tour of Mons (next weekend). In addition to trips organized specifically for grantees, we've also been given the opportunity to tag along on field trips organized by CIEE, a college study abroad program. This weekend, we joined the CIEE Brussels students on a trip to Normandy!

After a long (and I mean looooong) bus ride from Brussels, we made our first stop at the Mont-Saint-Michel. It had been a long time -- we're talking fifteen years -- since my last visit and I was so excited to get out and explore!


In retrospect, the trip itself was more than a little surreal ... especially on the very first day. As a Fulbright ETA in Luxembourg, I am very conscious of my American identity. (In fact, four thousand miles away from the United States may be where I feel the most "American.") While in Luxembourg, I spend a lot of time both consciously addressing American stereotypes and unconsciously trying to avoid fulfilling them. And although I speak English daily in my residence and in school, I am growing accustomed to a place in which I am very much an outsider trying to fit in.

It's been over a month now since I was last surrounded by Americans ... and as you can imagine, to be thrown on an eight-hour bus trip with fifty of them was a little overwhelming! Still, I had a wonderful time getting to know the CIEE students and faculty and spending time with my fellow Fulbright grantees.

We took a guided tour around Mont-Saint-Michel with a French-speaking guide. She was incredible and knew the answers to questions I would never have even thought to ask. For example, did you know that Victor Hugo once stayed at Mont-Saint-Michel? He was actually quite influential in its restoration during the 19th century! While staying at le Mont, Hugo wrote letters to his wife to tell her how cold, wet, and miserable his stay was and encouraging her not to come visit. But, as our tour guide pointed out, he was staying at Mont-Saint-Michel with his mistress ... so there might have been more an ulterior motive!

In searching for information about Hugo's stay at Le Mont, I stumbled across a wonderful article from the Smithsonian Magazine about the Mont-Saint-Michel's enduring allure: The Massive and Controversial Attempt to Preserve One of the World’s Most Iconic Islands. The full article is well worth a read if you're interested in the controversy surrounding the abbey, but I particularly loved Alexander Stille's description of the visit:
"In some ways, the trip to the top offers a modern version of the medieval journey through life—a kind of Divine Comedy. The way up is demanding: One must pass through the tourist hell of the town below and make one’s way up the increasingly steep ascent to the abbey, where many must pause to catch their breath after one or other of a seemingly infinite set of stairs. As one ascends, the crowd thins, discouraged by the demanding climb, the lack of shops and cafés, or simply held in thrall by the distractions below. Suddenly, as one approaches the top, the views open up—the horizon widens; one can see the immense and gorgeous bay; the sand and water glisten in the sun. There is quiet other than the occasional cries of seabirds. 
The climb is well worth the effort. The abbey is one of the great living expressions of European medieval architecture. The builders’ genius was called forth by the extreme difficulties of constructing a massive complex on the narrow summit of a jagged piece of granite rock some 260 feet up above the sea. Had the abbey been built on flat ground, it would no doubt have been a large, horizontal complex of buildings with a church, courtyards, cloisters and so forth all on the same level. Instead, there was not enough room for a large church on the top of the mountain. But rather than build a small one, they built into the side of the mountain an ingenious, massive structure on three levels. The church—appropriately—sits atop the whole structure, opening onto a terrace with amazing views. But only about half of it sits solidly on rock; the other half, called the choir, is perched somewhat perilously on top of the two levels of buildings below."
Let me assure you: he's not wrong about the climb. Steps on steps on steps. I was surprised at the difficulty of the hike, which seemed to comprise of one steep staircase after another. (I should mention that while we huffed and puffed our way to the top, our guide continued to chat animatedly about the history of the island while practically skipping up the steps.)

Today, the island of Mont-Saint-Michel is dominated by the abbey. But that wasn't always the case!

While the island had been popular with hermits for decades if not centuries before, the first religious structure on Mont-Saint-Michel was built in the early eighth century by a bishop named Saint Aubert d'Avranches. According to religious legend, Bishop Aubert was visited in a dream by the Archangel Michael, who commanded him to build an oratory on the island. The archangel appeared to him three times before becoming frustrated and poking the bishop in the head with his finger. Today, you can still see Bishop Aubert's skull -- complete with a hole from the archangel's finger -- on display in a local church. After monks settled on the island in the 10th century, it became the home of an abbey -- the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel. This "Pyramid of the Seas" was repeatedly built, damaged, rebuilt, purposefully destroyed, and rebuilt throughout the Middle Ages. (For a more detailed timeline, check out the official Mont-Saint-Michel website.) Although the abbey was used as a prison during and after the French Revolution, it is once again a religious site and even houses a small community of monks and nuns.

Interestingly, the abbey is not the only church at Mont-Saint-Michel! In fact, for many centuries, the abbey was reserved solely for the island's monastic population. The laity -- including local fishermen and pilgrims to the island -- had to worship at the Eglise Saint-Pierre. Residents (including the famous Mère Poulard, who I'll talk about in just a second) were also interred in the church's small cemetery.


If those columns look familiar, it might be from a previous photo ... from the year 2000! Remember this Throwback Thursday post with photos from our family trip to Normandy? We took silly photos at the same exact spot. 

(If only Madeleine could have been there to recreate this picture...)

Our tour of Mont-Saint-Michel took us through the stunning abbey church and many of the rooms once inhabited by medieval monks. In one room, our guide pointed out that the large windows were installed not for visual appeal, but for light -- to prevent the monks from having to burn candles! (Apparently these medieval monks were not the fat, rich kind.) In another room, she pointed to a recently-discovered mural. The mural, which is located in what was at one time the abbey's infirmary, depicts people dying ... rather a morbid topic for a hospital! But, as our guide explained, death was not particularly scary to people in the Middle Ages. It was -- and still is -- an inescapable part of life. What truly horrified medieval hospital patients was the idea of spending eternity in Hell. That's why depictions of the Last Judgment are often so horrifying!

Although the abbey tour was fascinating, we might have had an even better time just walking around the ramparts. Even on a cloudy day, the views of both the abbey and of the surrounding landscape were incredible!

At the bottom of the island, just inside the exterior gates, is Mont-Saint-Michel's Main Street. (Well okay, it's called the Grande Rue.) It a small but bustling street, full of shops and restaurants, most of them bearing the same name. La Mère Poulard.

Wait, so who was this Mother Poulard? (Good thing you asked, because our guide told us ALL ABOUT IT.) The now-famous Mère Poulard was in fact a young woman named Annette Boutiaut. She first came to Mont-Saint-Michel as the maid of the wife of Edouard Corroyer, a French architect who was working on the restoration of the island. Annette Boutiaut met and wound up marrying Victor Poulard, the son of a local baker, and the two set up shop at Mont-Saint-Michel. They operated an inn, where Annette served enormous omelettes to their guests. Eventually, the omelettes began to attract an audience of their own. Since the creation of the restaurant, everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Winston Churchill has come to Mont-Saint-Michel and stayed for one of the Mère Poulard omelettes. (For more information about the creation of the "Mère Poulard" legend, check out the history section of the restaurant's official website.)

Today, you can eat at the restaurant and order an official Mère Poulard omelette ... but it will set you back around $75! For a slightly smaller sum, you can also purchase a huge variety of Mère Poulard biscuits -- cookies made from traditional recipes perfected by Annette Boutiaut herself.

Today, Mont-Saint-Michel is visited by over three million people per year. But our tour guide made a point of explaining that as a famous pilgrimage site since its inception, Mont-Saint-Michel has essentially ALWAYS been a tourist destination! In this way, the gift shops and overpriced coffees are as much of a tradition as the abbey itself.

Want to read more about our adventures in Normandy? Check out my friend -- and fellow Fulbright grantee -- Thea's post on the Fulbright Belgium blog. And stay tuned to hear about our Saturday in Normandy and our afternoon stop in Amiens on the way back to Brussels.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting!!! And the picture of you and your sister at the same place! Aw, was it really 15 years ago? It sure doesn't seem it. Anyway, I'm so happy you were able to get a real tour. When we went we walked to the top and around and had lunch, but no omelettes I don't think. haha!