Among the Modern Pilgrims

08/08                     23:30                                     Hotel in Rennes

Mont St. Michel is the site of a millennium-old Benedictine abbey in western France. In visiting, I thought of pilgrims.

Pilgrims are a logical object of thought when visiting an abbey. Mont St. Michel has long been a site of pilgrimage, both as a destination and as an early stopover on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Key elements of the site have been built or altered with pilgrims in mind.

I thought of pilgrims the day before when getting off the train in Dol-de-Bretagne. Backpackers and sack-laden bikes were legion on that train. One German my age stood out; he had a red goatee tufting off his chin and a fedora-like hat, and he asked in English at the train station how to get to Pontorson, one stop away on a different train or a short bus ride away, the town closest to Mont St. Michel. He bore the burden of his green backpack well, but not doubt grew tired of it at times.

I thought of pilgrims again at dinner that night. A table away at the crêperie sat a British family. The white-trimmed father plowed away with his French in ordering for the table, dictionary in hand, while the two university-age sons played an actor guessing game, and the mother and older daughter looked on in faint bemusement. Much English was to be heard on the train to Dol, as well as on the streets of the small town. I was now on the north coast of Bretagne, hardly a ferry ride away from the UK, so it stood to reason. The main site in the area, of course, was Mont St. Michel. Pilgrims.

Pilgrims came to mind on my bike ride to Mont St. Michel in the morning. Gîtes and chambres d’Hôtes advertised their proximity to the site. In one intersection, I passed a troop of backpackers. “All their lives on their back and all their hopes in front of them.” There were not many on my side path, but they could be found, in German-plated cars or on bikes.

The historical pilgrims and the modern pilgrims share more traits than it seems at first. Both come from distance, near and far to experience a form of bliss and escape from everyday life. Both are inspired by thick books with solid information and dull prose that speak of strange feats and mystical places. Both get on the nerves of locals but also fuel the nearby economy. Both pack away their lives and carry them as penance for the journey. Both smell bad.

Pilgrims discomfort me. The historical ones are more interesting and more honest in their faith, but the piety and closed-mindedness that usually carried those pilgrims on their path would make me uneasy. The modern pilgrims move like herds with their babble of languages and their incessant memorialization of the present. The expectations for a site rise when modern pilgrims are afoot, and fall because of the presene of those same pilgrims. When I see the packs of modern pilgrims, a part of me tenses up. That part twists over itself even more when I remember: I am one of them.


The French verb “dominer” is not quite a false cognate with the English “dominate, but it doesn’t have quite the same meaning either. Dominer is to look over, be higher than, or in a sports context, to lead. There is not the strong sense of power and the judgment of force that the English word holds. The French states a fact, plain and ungarnished.

Mont St. Michel domine and dominates the surrounding area. I approached on bike from the southwest through les polders, open wheat fields just short of the salt marshes in the Baie St. Michel. It was a flat, peaceful route, with only the rare tractor, hiking family, or foreign-plated car to be seen. Also a dog, whose sudden barging run startled me enough to send me crashing in a ditch, head over handlebars, cursing furiously in English and French. I hate dogs.

I made a turn east and now ahead of me the back of a sign. “Great, I thought,” I can make sure I’m on the right path.” Then I by chance looked up to my left and cried, “Oh!” I halted in my pedaling.

If you click on this picture, you can see MSM in the center backgronud.

There past the fields stood Mont St. Michel, dominating the landscape. The abbey stood like a bauble castle, on a rock in the bay and fitting in with nothing, yet fitting with everything since it, the castle, the fortress, the abbey, dominated the landscape. To come on it all of a sudden, to witness its power and splendor in both comparative and absolute senses, is to understand how, why Mont St. Michel is a site of pilgrimage. Awesome, that much-abused word, fits this first sight, some 1300 years on.


Mont St. Michel was first conceived, the story goes, by Bishop Aubert after the archangel Michael came to him in a dream and inspired him to build a sanctuary on a rock standing out in the curve of the French coast, on the modern-day border between the regions of Bretagne and Normandy. This was in 708. In 966, it became a Benedictine abbey, though much of the current structure dates from the 12th or 13th centuries. The abbey was constructed with military might and held out during the English sieges of the 100-year War, unlike the rest of north and west France. After the French Revolution, the anti-ecclesiastical current turned the abbey into a prison for about 70 years, before at last it became the historic monument it remains today.

There is only one road leading to Mont St. Michel, leading due North from Pontorson 10 kilometers away. One can also reach it by crossing the bay when the tide is out, but bikes ride poorly on wet sand. I joined the Pontorson road about halfway up, knowing I had arrived by the sight of my fellow travelers, picnicking or walking north, undeniably from elsewhere. French families and Spanish speakers, large tour buses of Asians and elderly, bebaseballhatted Americans, German groups and Italian individuals, a few Brasileiros, a melting pot of strangers seeking to behold the abbey, the castle. Pilgrims.

The stream of people approaching the site could not diminish its majesty. We walked on the 19th century causeway across the bay – one the French are replacing with a bridge to allow the bay its traditional tide and to flush out those salt marshes – and the abbey grew to its full might and stature, a power pictures cannot capture. The hour or so I spent between first espying the Mont and finally reaching the site was among the best parts of the visit.

Indeed, once entering the little town at the foot of the abbey, the majesty is shrouded. We came too close to see, and the pilgrim wave overwhelmed. I walked through the street leading up to the abbey. The street was narrow, four people wide, with the upward flow constant and slow, the downward varied and hurried. Souvenir shops, hotels, and crêperies lined the street, seeking to ease and add to the pilgrim’s load in equal measure.

I arrived at the steps at 13:00. The line, or so I heard, was shorter an hour or two before my arrival. When I left two hours later, it was shorter. I waited, treading slowly up the stairs with limited achievement – shade, indoors, at last a ticket – for about 45 minutes.

And for all that, the abbey itself is the least impressive part of the visit. Not that it lacks highlights: the first staircase is grand; the terrace offers fine views of the dominated landscape; the oft-cited cloister is pretty; the audio guide informs in a restrained manner; and a few quiet corners of green or brownstone beauty can be found. It’s not that the site isn’t impressive, but it is on the order of similar medieval churches, abbeys, and the like. For example, I would rank Mont St. Michel’s abbey, known as “La Merveille”, the wonder, higher than the monastery/castle in the Lisboa suburb of Belem, but lower than the more bewitching, wondrous Alhambra in Granada. What sets Mont St. Michel apart is its setting, and on the site that can be perceived only in passing.

One of those hidden green corners.


There is another way to appreciate the Mont and its setting: encircling the rock on foot, when the tide is out. The tide was out when I reached bottom. I stripped off my shirt, socks, and shoes, lathered on sunscreen, and took off barefoot.

The dark gray tidal sand rippled beneath my feet, caking my toes in mud, which left over puddles would wash. A small child played naked in one of these puddles with his swimsuit-clad older siblings, parents not plainly in site. Maybe a hundred people in total walked on the sand, including a large group led by a guide and an Asian fellow my age, with glasses and a camera, mud snaking up past his calves. He pointed out a piece of my bike helmet strap which had fallen.

To the north of the Mont, a large rock or a small island stuck out as an afterthought. Above us, the Mont regained its majesty, sundered from the wider landscape by our limited perspective but mighty in its absolute sense, alone. The bay offers one views from all sides, pictures dotted with ant-like pilgrims, a final, sustaining image.

The bay crossing comes with risks. My guidebook talks of the massive tidal variation and the tidal return racing like a horse. I did not see this, but I felt the sands shift beneath my feet. In crossing a large pool of water to complete the circle round the Mont, I picked a path I thought shallow and safe. Just shy of the “shore” I suddenly found no ground, my leg plunging into water mid-thigh deep (only about mid-shin for most people, but still). I worried for a moment of my backpack getting wet, even of quicksand, of becoming an example for why one does not cross the bay alone and unguided. Another foolhardy step, another mid-thigh plunge. I changed direction, kept relatively calm, and found slightly faster than normal but not quite quicksand. I pulled myself from the water, half my shorts damp but no further damage taken.

My feet were fully caked in mud now, and the mud snaked up to my shin. I carried my shoes in hand and walked back on the causeway, sneaking glances over my shoulder at the receding Mont. I smiled at passers-by who gave my muddy feet once-overs ranging from sneering to curious. I heard comments about them in several languages.

My day and, in most senses, my trip were at end. My bike, a short flat ride, a brief train journey, and a hotel in Rennes awaited me. My backpack dug into my bare shoulders and the afternoon sun worked from the South to even my biker’s tan and dry my mud. I was tired, hungry, dirty, barefoot, and mostly satisfied.

I was at journey’s end. I was a pilgrim, turning for home.

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