I wasn’t certain what to expect as we boarded the bus for the short trip across the causeway to Mont-San-Michel. Yes, I knew it was an island with only one point of entry across the causeway. Yes, I knew there was an abandoned medieval monastery soaring above the tiny piece of land. But beyond that, I really had no idea what to expect when we clambered off the bus along with the rest of the tourists visiting the site.
Mont-Saint-Michel has been at various times a trading post, the site of a medieval monastery, a place of pilgrimage, and a prison. The first religious house was built during the 8th Century BCE, and the garrisoned island successfully fended off attacks from English forces during the 100 Years War between England and France in the 15th Century BCE. The prestige of the abbey had declined by the time of the French Revolution and it was converted into a prison. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and it was declared a historic monument in 1874. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site that is visited by almost 3 million tourists a year.
While it’s possible to cross from the mainland to the island at low tide, you may only do so with a guide due to the extensive quicksand that serves as a natural defence for the island. Generally visitors are carried across the causeway by bus or horse carriage. From the point where you disembark from the transport, you start to climb as you enter the cobbled streets of the village that supported the abbey, monastery and the garrison. Right from the start you’re aware of the way the abbey buildings tower high above the village, almost appearing to defy gravity as they cling to the summit of this tiny island. Nowadays the town has mostly been converted into shops and restaurants catering to the visitors, much as they would have done to those who came to the abbey on pilgrimage. I was amazed at how small and crowded the buildings in the village seem, but that may just have been due to the large numbers of tourist and school groups.
From the town you start climbing stone stairs up to the monastery and abbey. I suppose it’s not such a long climb but, as we climbed higher, I began to feel exposed and my vertigo began to set in in a bad way. It felt like an eternity before we finally arrived at the office where we could buy tickets to see the ruins of the monastery and abbey and by that time, I was a nervous wreck. I know it may seem strange that a person without sight can suffer from vertigo but, for me, it feels like I am constantly standing on a precipice and that I’m likely to overbalance at any moment. I decided to rather find a secure place to wait and let Craig carry on with the tour without either of us having to worry that I was going to have a panic attack. Or that I was about to fall off the side of the mountain.
I found a stone ledge where I could sit and spent the next half hour watching the people coming out of the site. I was frankly amazed at how nonchalantly the throngs of school children, both French and English, leapt down the uneven stone stairs that had caused me such stress. But I was probably filtering what I was hearing through my own anxiety. At least I was far from the only person who decided to wait there. Several others did so too. And they weren’t blind!
Was the trip to Mont-Saint-Michel a waste of my time? By no means – I may not have managed to experience the entire site, but the ambiance of the parts that I was able to experience made it worthwhile. Perhaps I would have felt more able to go further if the weather had been clear rather than the intermittent gentle rain that made the stones somewhat slippery and added to my anxiety. I enjoyed being able to visit various buildings in the town and imagining what they might have been like in medieval times. I also enjoyed the feeling of antiquity that seems to permeate every stone. And I found the story of the site interesting as I always do.
A note to travellers in wheelchairs: I’d suggest contacting the site ahead of time to see if your needs can be accommodated. I didn’t see an easy way to access the site, but there may have been options of which I wasn’t aware.