At first it appeared on the horizon as a hazy mirage floating up from the sea. The bus filled with sounds of “oooos and ahhhs” followed immediately by the click-click of hastily positioned cameras trying vainly to capture the moment on film.
This scenario is played out every time I take a group to visit Mont St. Michel in western France. The medieval abbey is constructed atop a hunk of rock jutting prominently from the Atlantic Ocean. The abbey has been a religious pilgrimage site since the 6th century when the Archangel Michael told the bishop of Avranches to build a center of worship here. The abbey you see today is a Romanesque church build atop the original Carolingian structure. Saint Michael was the patron saint of many French kings. Consequently this has become a favored site of French royalty through the ages.
Just as thousands of pilgrims have done in the past, our group arrived (by air- conditioned motorcoach) to views of the Mont floating mysteriously above the coastal waters of Normandy and Brittany.
Mont St. Michel is situated in a bay where the coastal tides rush in at up to twelve miles per hour. In medieval times the ocean was known to rush in at the speed of a galloping horse often sweeping away anything in its path. These tides are the most dangerous in all of Europe. Consequently, many warnings are posted and broadcast via loudspeaker when the tides are approaching..
We arrived in time to walk up the narrow winding street to the top of the Mont to watch the afternoon tides roll in. Although I find it hard to believe that anyone could be so slow as to get trapped by the approaching tides, the warnings were broadcast on a loudspeaker in six languages for all to hear. It took about 30 minutes for the tide to roll completely around the Mont. It happened quickly indeed, but not as rapidly as one would imagine after hearing the stories of trapped people and the tides.
We saw the tides come in along with the hoards of tour groups on the abbey Mont. Everyone was jockeying for a strategic position to see and photograph the tides. Accompanying this was the shout, laughter, and loud talking characteristic of most large tour groups. Once the “thrill of the event” was over, all 500 tourist decided to head back down the Mont at what seemed the same time. As we trudged down the cobbled street we passed souvenir shops loaded with tourist frantically rushing about to making their purchase before their bus left for its next destination.
What made my group’s experience different was that we traveled just 3 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) to our hotel located at the edge of the mainland. Here, from our porch, majestic Abby Mont St. Michel dominating the horizon. We had the whole afternoon and evening to relax and enjoy the essence of western France.
The one and only village shop was kept busy throughout the afternoon by members of the group purchasing snacks and goodies for the evening. You see our plan was to witness the other grand Mont St. Michel event of watching the sun gently set into the Atlantic.
At the supermarché, my daughter Jamie and I purchased drinks and Belín brand crackers. We packed it out to the low-lying pasture lands that defined the end of the mainland and the beginning of the tidal mudflats. We spent the afternoon basking in the sun, stretched out on our ponchos, sipping our drinks and crunching the crackers. There were local folks fishing in the canal, occasionally catching a fish, but mostly whiling away their time while exercising the “art of doing nothing.”
Late in the day we began to see sheep appear, apparently heading toward their home for the evening. Far in the distance we could see a shepherd and his dog encouraging the herd in the direction of the gate located just beyond our position. Finally all the “bahhhhing” ended as we saw the man and his dog pass through the gate and head towards home.
As we past through the gate which marked the beginning of the fortified Mont St. Michel for the second time this day we were treated to a different sight than that of just six hours before. Now at 9 p.m. the island was desolate! Just a few lucky tourists fortunate enough to have stayed on the island for the night. Winding our way up the crooked street we saw the village closing after another busy day. Women were sweeping their shops, there were some people eating or drinking in the local bistro, but for the most part the streets were left for us.
We arrived near the Abby doors, found a quiet spot to enjoy the sunset and waited! As usual, the sunset was beautiful, a ruby red dollop of orange melting into the deep blue sea.
After the sunset some folks in my group found a hidden stairway down to the mudflats on the west (oceanside) of the island. From my vantage point up at the Abbey I could see the kids in the group playing soccer and walking out on the muddy flats left vacant by the receding tide. The kids’ moms and I sat enjoying the view and peace of the Abbey Mont. We noticed our daughters walking way out from Mont St. Michel toward the other island about 2 kilometers to the north. Of course there was no danger because it was low tide and we could see others wandering on the flats too. But unknown to us and our daughters out on the flats, the tide had begun to return for the second time of the day.
We stood helplessly, watching the tide come in and our daughters, apparently unconcerned, making their way back toward us. We could hear their laughter and playful screams as they returned through tidal pools getting wet and muddy. But we also saw the tide rolling in. I was not too concerned, because from our vantage point I could see that they were walking much faster than tide was coming in. The problem was that it was now almost dark. The girls appeared only a shadows on the distant mudflats.
Soon a helicopter began circling the Mont and then headed out to the girls on the flats. As we watched from the safety of the Abbey walls we saw the helicopter swoop down and land near our daughters. This started our hearts racing knowing there must be imminent danger for the helicopter to land and send a person out to get our kids. But to our amazement the would be rescuer approached our girls, apparently said something to them and returned to the helicopter, then flew off toward the mainland. Our girls began heading away from the Mont toward another group of people on the flats. Once they merged with the other group we saw they were taking a route around some tidal pools and then back toward Mont St. Michel.
Finally, they were within a few hundred meters of Mont St. Michel. We could hear their voices and see them covered with dingy gray mud up to their knees. Up the stairs they came, sheepishly making excuses about their adventures. They told us the helicopter guy had come to tell them about the approaching tides and to warn them of pools of quicksand located in their path. He had advised them to join the larger group, which was under the supervision of a local guide. They had joined the group but the guide spoke only French and they could not understand why he was leading them away from the direction they needed to go.
By this time it was approaching midnight. We walked in silence down the Mont and out onto the causeway which connected to the mainland. About halfway across we turned to face Mont St. Michel. There, basking in the beauty of a full moon was the Mont adorned by the ancient abbey, its gothic spires reaching to heaven, a perfect example of man’s handiwork seeking to praise God! .
As the Christian pilgrims have done for centuries I too offered a prayer that night thanking God for protecting my kids “explorations” on the mudflats!