Gillian Thornton ventures far from the madding crowd with alternative ways to tour Mont-Saint-Michel Bay
Wind on up the busy lane to the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel and you can’t miss the racks of picture postcards: aerial images of the mount surrounded by sparkling blue water, silhouette shots in the pastel light of dawn and fiery sunsets with the abbey bathed in gold.
So my friend and I couldn’t help feeling a tad hard done by. We were about to set off on a guided bay walk when the rain began. This was clearly no passing shower, but as we pulled up our zips and tightened our hoods, we began to see compensations. For full-on moody atmosphere, this was off the scale.
Liz and I have been friends since school, regularly taking time out from our families to enjoy seaside weekends together, cultural city breaks, and walking holidays. This time we were in Normandy to celebrate our milestone birthdays.
The adventure had begun over dinner on the overnight sailing with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo and we would return from Cherbourg, a round trip that offered the freedom of the road with minimal driving time. Just one hour after disembarking, we were parking up within sight of the iconic abbey. Mont-Saint-Michel Bay stretches eastwards from Cancale in Brittany to Granville on the Normandy peninsula, but the mount officially stands in Norman waters off the coast of the Manche département. In 2015, the culmination of a six-year environmental project finally restored this National Monument to its island status and today, visitors leave their vehicles on the mainland and either walk or take the free shuttle bus.
The UNESCO-listed monastery is a must-see, but it’s not an intimate experience, even in low season – after all, this is France’s most popular visitor attraction outside Paris. But there are more tranquil ways to admire that unmistakeable silhouette and we planned to take in as many as we could.
Arriving at 10am, fresh from the ferry, we toured the abbey without too many other visitors, before meeting up with Patrick from Chemins de la Baie. These accredited guides offer a variety of walk options in all seasons, times depending on the tides. And you must take a guide: the sea surges in quickly, changing the position of channels and sandbanks and creating deadly areas of quicksand.
“Everyone get close together,” instructed Patrick after choosing a low bar of saturated sand beneath two broad channels. “Now run on the spot!” We did as we were told and suddenly the sand morphed into a springy trampoline. Stand still and you start to sink, so Patrick showed us how to pull free, not in a straight movement but by spiralling the leg upwards. Useful stuff!
We arrived wet but energised at Le Château de Chantore, an elegant 18th-century B&B in extensive grounds near Avranches. The next morning, we headed in sunshine to the nearby Ecomusée de la Baie at Vains to find out more about flora, fauna and all things tidal. Take the Sentier des Douaniers behind the centre for a view over the salt marshes to Mont-Saint-Michel and the smaller outcrop that is Tombelaine.
Water-based activities around the bay are dictated by the weather and, despite blue skies, our planned trip with Kayaklabaie had to be cancelled due to expected strong winds. So instead, we stopped near Vains at Cara-Meuh!, a fourth-generation family farm that has diversified into sweet delights, the name combining ‘caramel’ with the French word for ‘moo’. See the milking parlour; watch caramels in production; and buy sweets and sauces, biscuits and drinks from the on-site shop, which is open daily.
Cutting out the kayak also allowed time for a leisurely tour of the Scriptorial, a unique museum housing manuscripts taken from Mont-Saint-Michel during the Revolution. Among the 35,000 books are 199 medieval manuscripts, some of which date back to the 9th century. The museum is actually far more interesting than it sounds, with interactive explanations of how parchment and colours were made, and tales of the monks behind the manuscripts. There’s an activity booklet for children and touch-screen games to play as you work your way towards the 15 original books, displayed under controlled conditions on a rotating basis.
Beyond the walls of the museum, housed within the remains of the city ramparts, hilltop Avranches is a delightful spot for a stroll. Following the self-guided trail – with the aid of a free leaflet from the Tourist Office – we stopped in the Church of Saint-Gervais to see the skull of Saint Auber, former bishop of Avranches who founded the abbey on Mont-Saint-Michel in the 8th century on instructions from none other than Saint Michael himself.
FOOTSTEPS OF HISTORY
After browsing the Saturday morning market, we found ourselves in Thomas Becket Square, once the location for the town’s cathedral and today a grassy hilltop space with sweeping views over the bay. A stone pillar marks the spot where Henri II was pardoned by the Pope’s envoys for Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral. And because no proper girls’ trip is complete without coffee and cake, we then indulged ourselves at Mont Chocolat on Place Littré, which boasts a surprising selection of scrummy pâtisseries to suit gluten-free Liz.
Wherever you hit the coast around the bay, you’re treated to great views so, sugar levels topped up, we headed north from Avranches and took an idyllic walk through meadows white with giant daisies to join the cliff path to Carolles. Beyond, the coast arcs in a golden curve through Jullouville to Granville.
Late afternoon brought an assignation in a car park with Sébastien Provost of Birding Mont-Saint-Michel to discover some of the 250-plus species that can be spotted in the bay across the year, many of them migrant visitors. It isn’t difficult to spot gulls wheeling past the cliff face, but hedgerow and woodland birds are another matter. Sébastien brought the countryside alive with his ability to identify several bird calls at once: I lucked out after the cuckoo, but he alerted us to chiffchaff and wrens, blackcap, linnets, and even a short-toed treecreeper. A magical soundtrack to any country walk.
Having chosen to try a different lodging every night, we slept over at the tranquil Auberge de Carolles, and next morning made for Granville, which marks the northern limit of the bay.
The historic upper town juts out on a narrow peninsula, whilst below the once-strategic harbour, fishing boats combine with a pleasure marina and ferries to the Channel Islands and Îles Chausey.
Here we found the pontoon for La Granvillaise, a replica bisquine or traditional sailing boat once used for fishing. Take a full-day trip to the Îles Chausey or do as we did and enjoy a four-hour cruise around the bay. Muck in and lend a hand, or simply sit back and watch the four permanent crew and able volunteers do the physical stuff. The silhouette of Mont-Saint-Michel came into view as we made our way beyond the headland, and on a sunny May afternoon, there seemed no lovelier place to be.
HOME TO AN ICON
On the north side of Granville’s historic old town, we could clearly see the pink clifftop villa that was Christian Dior’s childhood home. Today it belongs to the town and hosts a different exhibition each year. This year, the museum celebrates the association between the House of Dior and Princess Grace of Monaco. So once back on land, we toured the bewitching mix of frocks and photos, magazine covers and perfume bottles, before enjoying an al-fresco drink and snack at the museum’s new garden tearoom, La Bonne Aventure.
We spent our last night at the Outremer et Terre, a delightful B&B just minutes from our final destination – the impossibly tranquil Abbaye de la Lucerne, where pilgrims once rested on their way to Mont-Saint-Michel. Founded in the 12th century by the Premonstratensian order, it was turned into a weaving factory after the Revolution before being largely abandoned until the 1950s when local priest Marcel Lelégard launched a campaign to save the site.
No religious beliefs are necessary to appreciate the spirituality of this idyllic spot, especially on a spring day when sunbeams pass through stained glass onto ancient stones, and mirror images of monastery buildings sparkle in still water. Our sense of wellbeing thoroughly enhanced, we reluctantly turned the car towards Cherbourg and home, already planning a return trip for next year’s birthday.
MONT-SAINT-MICHEL BAY ESSENTIALS
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
FOR INFORMATION & ACTIVITIES
DIOR AND GRANVILLE
Christian Dior was born in 1905 in Les Rhumbs, an elegant villa that takes its name from the 32-point marine compass featured on one of the tiled floors. He launched his first collection, the New Look, in 1947 but died suddenly in Italy from a heart attack just ten years later.
The museum gardens are open free of charge throughout the year, with a small fee for the annual exhibition between April and November. To mark what would have been Grace Kelly’s 90th birthday, the museum is staging ‘Grace de Monaco, Princesse en Dior’, with nearly 90 dresses and personal possessions lent by the Grimaldi family (until November 17). Dior and Grace Kelly never met but were both successful at a young age and shared a passion for gardens. Both died at 52.
As both a Hollywood actress and then as a princess, Kelly’s elegant frocks, renowned for their simple cut, were designed by Marc Bohan, creative director of Maison Dior from 1961 to 1989. She became the ‘godmother’ of the Baby Dior range in 1967. Swoon over the embroidered long dress in flowing coral jersey; the floaty peach evening gown worn at the wedding ball for her daughter Caroline; and the white blouson dress with blue spots worn for Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981. A must for anyone who loves film stars, princesses, or just good old-fashioned glamour.
From France Today magazine