Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Island of Galloping Tides

Dawn breaks over Granville*
I had seen the urban delights of Paris, but I wasn’t ready to leave without sampling some of the charms of the French countryside, even though I only had time for a quick 2 day sojourn.
The coasts of Normandy and Brittany are about a 4 hour drive away from Paris. Here, at the mouth of the Cousenon river, about half a mile out from the coast, lies one of the greatest natural and architectural wonders of France. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the third most visited tourist site in France after the Eiffel and Versailles: Mont St. Michel. We decided to make an overnight trip, visiting Versailles on the way and staying over at a seaside town in Normandy called Granville. It was a cold rainy day in Paris as I started out early in the morning in a rented SUV, with my brother and two of my Singaporean friends.
Our visit to Versailles on the way was a big disappointment-we had to stand in a serpentine queue in freezing rain for over two hours just to enter the chateau.
Evening Drive
The road to Granville
The chateau is always crowded, but on that day it was worse: everyone had been forced indoors by the rain. The magnificent baroque halls and passageways felt like packed subway train compartments at rush hour. We left Versailles exhausted, cold, damp, and disappointed by its crushing crowds and overpriced sandwiches.
Drive Expressway
Sunset enroute Granville
The drive onward to Granville was what saved the day. Soon after we left Versailles in the late afternoon, the clouds opened up to reveal the most pristine golden sunshine bathing the rolling green hills and pastures. A white church steeple stuck out amidst a clump of trees here, and a windmill stood silhouetted against the broken clouds on the hill there. The road ran like a shining ribbon up and down the undulating land and the evening sun glinted off the windows of distant cars on the road ahead. We reached Granville well after sunset, and made our way to the Hotel ibis Granville Port de Plaisance in the dark. We could tell that the sea was very close by the salty breeze and sound of waves but couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. That evening we were the only diners at the hotel restaurant, besides one other local couple.
Yachts in the Granville Harbour
Two Indian boys and two Chinese girls must’ve seemed like an outright Asian invasion in that restaurant in the sleepy French sea-side town.
First light Seaside morning
First light touches Granville*
As expected, the menu was French and it did not help that the waiter spoke no English. Had that couple on the neighbouring table not taken pity on us, I am sure we were in for some gastronomic (mis)adventures that night. (In fact I did have one when I mistakenly ordered some sea-snails-bulots-and then had to eat them to save face, as I have mentioned in my earlier post). 
I awoke at dawn the next day to the sound of thunder and sweeping rain, and I was afraid our luck with sunshine of the previous evening had run out. But weather can be fickle on the coast of the English Channel. Within an hour the rain cleared. As the light seeped into the sky we to our surprise saw that our hotel was built on a large jetty jutting out into the sea. Hundreds of anchored fishing boats rocked gently right next to us as the first streaks of sunlight pierced through the clouds. It was a pity we couldn’t spend more time here. After a quick walk around in the 12 degree chill of the morning and we set off right away to Mont St. Michel as the sunshine sparkled again on the glistening roads and soaked shrubbery.
Morning France
Chilly morning in rural France
France Village Morning
Breakfast awaits
Breakfast was at an unidentified village on the way consisting of two rows of low houses lining the road. The baker, the Carrefour grocery store, the dentist, the lawyer and the pub (which doubled up as the coffee shop in the morning) were all within shouting distance of each other. We bought fresh cakes and croissants from a much amused lady in the bakery (she looked at us like we were the first group of South and East Asians to be seen in her village) and settled down in the neighbouring coffee shop. Nothing can taste better than freshly baked croissants and steaming hot chocolate in a little French village coffee-shop. Of course it helps if it is a cold sunny morning after the rain.
Normandy France
First look at Mont Saint Michel
Abbey Church
Stained Glass
in the Abbey
Mont St. Michel floats like a mirage on the horizon long before you reach it. It is a rocky island in the bay off the mouth of the Cousenon river, crowned by an abbey dedicated to the eponymous saint. His gilded statue watches over the island and the surrounding country from the top of the church spire, 170 metres above the sea level. Mont St. Michel’s documented history dates back well over a 1000 years to AD 709 when the bishop of Avranches built the first church here. It has been a place of worship and retreat for monks for most of that history. But the island also came to be used as a fortress during the wars that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages, and it is not difficult to see why. From its isolated location in the bay it commands a panoramic view of the coasts of Normandy and Brittany for miles inland, so that it is impossible to approach unseen. The approach itself is perilous: until a causeway was built across the mud-flats in the bay in recent times, there was no safe way to approach it. The bay surrounding the island is inundated by some of the largest tides in Europe. The difference between the high and low watermark can be up to 15 metres. They are also among some of the fastest tides in Europe. The locals call them the ‘galloping tides’, for the waters are said to coming in ‘at the speed of galloping horses’. And as if this weren’t enough, the way across the mud-flats is fraught with danger: quicksand, disorienting fog, and a sea that can encircle unwary travellers.
France Mudflats
Wide Open Spaces
Shuttle buses ferry tourists to and fro across the causeway today. But enthusiasts are welcome to walk down if they like, and considering the fine weather that morning, that is what we did. You only realize the scale and the enormity of the place when you stand on the causeway looking towards the island. It was low tide that morning. Miles and miles of grey mudflats stretched out on either side and, beyond them, stretched the marshes and farmlands of Normandy and Brittany. White chalk cliffs rose out far in the distance and pools of sea water left behind by the retreating tide glinted sapphire-blue in the brilliant sunshine. The silence was absolute (when we were not talking), and calls of mallard ducks flying high across the mud-flats floated through air. In the vast sunlit silence, I walked for the most part to the rhythm of my breathing and my footsteps.
Ramparts Flag
National Pride
Mont Saint Michel
Massive Stone Structures
As we approached the island, we could see massive ramparts that were probably built during the years of war, with the French flag flying atop. Mont St. Michel was the only fortress in Normandy that did not fall to the English during the Hundred Years War and is still seen as a symbol of French resistance and nationalistic pride. As we passed through the through the village at the base of the island, we went up a set of increasingly steep paths and staircases up towards the abbey. The village serves as a reminder that the principal objective of this place today is no longer religious seclusion or wartime protection: it is tourism. Every shop overflows with postcards and mementos and every restaurant offers an overpriced menu. (It was interesting to know that this area does have its own signature dish: uniquely flavoured local lamb. Sheep graze on the polder lands - lands reclaimed from the sea - along the coast. The salty meadows support salt-water-loving plants that the sheep feed on. This gives the meat its unique flavour).
France Church
Tapestries of stone and lichen
Stone Canyon
The abbey itself is a colossus: an engineering marvel built on a rock that did not have enough level surface to hold its foundations. Immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform large enough to support each of its wings. A cluster of stone buildings abuts the church. They house granaries, living quarters for the monks and arms and garrison for the fighting armies among other things and blend in seamlessly with the stone-work of the abbey itself. Centuries of salt water, wind and sun have weathered exteriors of these walls into gorgeous tapestries of stone streaked with lichen. A narrow cobblestone path winds its way up to the church though the soaring buttresses and pinnacles on either side. As I climbed up, the crick in my neck reminded me that I’d been looking almost vertically upwards at the stonework for the better part of my ascent through this canyon. The statue of St. Michel was watching me every step of the way from his perch high atop the steeple. Emerging out of the shadows of the path and into the bright sunshine of the church courtyard at the top, it was the wind that took my breath away at first. Then it was the view.
Sunshine Autumn Brittany Normandy
Shadows of Clouds
Abbey Church Spire
The Statue of St.Michel
Mont Saint Michel
The Abbey
Walking was difficult across the courtyard as strong gusts of wind shoved me this way and that. A little stub of a ticket I held in my hand was snatched and blown 3 or 4 storeys high in a dizzying arc before being hurled down like a stone-only to be yanked up again inches before it smashed on the rough stones. The wind whipped my hair and tugged at my jacket and the ground slipped beneath my feet as I looked over the edge onto the sea-bed far below. Clouds floated in silence above the boundless mudflats and far-away farmlands lands of the coast, belying the cold gusty ferocity of the wind on the ground. If this was Mont St. Michel on a bright sunny autumn day at low tide, I shuddered to imagine what the place would feel like in a howling storm on a dark winter’s day surrounded by an angry heaving sea. I’m sure the images of ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ that flashed through my mind would pale in comparison to the real thing. The isolation of the place was on starkly visible from the courtyard-a mile of seabed and marsh lay between us and the nearest human settlement. Before the radio and telephone connected them to the mainland, there was just no way for people to call for help-except signalling with bonfires may be. Only the sky and the sea that embraced them would be witness to their struggles. 
Mont Saint Michel
The seabed and the marshes*

Seabed English Channel
Looking out to the English Channel
Mont Saint Michel France
Solitary walker on the mud-flats*
After the blustery courtyard, the interior of the church couldn’t have been more peaceful and reassuring. The constant rush of the wind in my ears suddenly went silent as I stepped in the high vaulted interior. It was at least a couple of degrees warmer.  I could hear echoes of shuffling footsteps of visitors as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Logs of light filtered through the high glass windows, falling at an angle to the walls, as if supporting them. A huge church organ stood in lit by a light beam at a side overlooking rows of pews in the shadows. It was a good time for us to rest our aching legs and spend a moment in silence to catch our breath  I could not help wondering what living here was like for Mont St. Michel’s monks over the centuries: isolated from the world, with only echoes of their own footsteps and the wailing wind for company. Did they find their God in this beautiful yet heart-wrenchingly lonely place? A week or two might be nice, but I shuddered at the thought of a lifetime here.

Causeway Silt France UNESCO
Restoration work on the Bay of Mont Saint Michel
Normandy Brittany UNESCO
 Intrepid explorers of the sea-bed*
On my way back, I learnt from the UNESCO signboards that Mont St. Michel in recent times is no longer completely surrounded by water except during the highest tides of the year, because of extensive silting of the bay. Reduced flow of water from the Cousenon due to activities on the shore is mainly responsible. I remember the sinking feeling as I read the signboard - the story sounded eerily familiar to so many other stories of environmental disasters from around the world. But in this case, there seemed to be some hope. The signboard went on to talk about the major restoration work on since 2005. A new dam being built on the Cousenon, dredging and de-silting of the bay and a new causeway that will allow water to flow freely underneath it are some of the initiatives under this restoration project to return the area to its natural state.
The more I read about them, the more remarkable I found the concerted efforts being put in to restore Mont St. Michel’s former glory. Such decisive action to reverse the ill-effects of human activities on the land is rare. But then, Mont St. Michel is a remarkable place, an extraordinary culmination of the work of nature and man. It certainly deserves to retain the romance it has always held for centuries.


* These snaps have been clicked by my brother, who always makes me wish he would take more of such photographs

1 comment:

  1. Did they find their God in this beautiful yet heart-wrenchingly lonely place? A week or two might be nice, but I shuddered at the thought of a lifetime here.
    Vijjay Bhat.