Mont Saint Michel is one of the truly unique spiritual and physical landmarks of France. It has held its ground for years, in the face of incredible forces of nature. The abbey, which crowns the bluff of rock, was inhabited by monks more than a thousand years ago. At one point, erosion compromised the foundation, and part of the abbey church collapsed into the sea.
Then there is the Couesnon river: the long-standing boundary between Brittany and Normandy heaves out loads of silt daily (so much that a new dam and set of hydraulic lifts had to be constructed, to keep the stuff from clogging up the bay).
Consider, as well, the rip tides and patches of quicksand. The tides come in at about 12 miles per hour, over a tidal plain eight miles long. Watching this drama – you can actually observe the tide coming in like a herd of animals – is a sight to behold.
But the fury of the sea, the weight of silt and ripping tides are things that Mont Saint Michel has endured since the dawn of the world. There is one thing, however, that is now crashing against its rocks, and from which the island has no real defense.
That would be tourists.
Recently, the French government has opened an immense system of parking lots just across the causeway to the island. This set of lots can accommodate hundreds of cars and fleets of buses every day. Free transportation takes the hordes of people up to the gateway of the Mont.
When we were first putting our itinerary together, Michele and I had really looked forward to a visit and even a stay at Mont Saint Michel. But we found, to our great sadness, that the iconic mountain of rock, and the abbey that still survives, is fighting for its very soul.
It used to be, for instance, that the gates to the town were closed by dusk. The streets emptied, leaving only those who were staying on the island, along with the religious up in the abbey. But bus service now extends to 1AM, and even the abbey church participates in the late night hours, offering a music and light show in the nave during the summer months. There is no rest at what was once a sacred destination.
And here, too, was another great disappointment. The only time you can visit the church – without paying a nine euro admission fee – is at noon each day, when you can join the Jerusalem Community (the current monastic community at the Abbey; the Benedictines vacated several years ago) for mass. But even here, the press of tourists in the rear of the nave makes it difficult to be attentive to the prayer and song of the community.
And let's remember this: Mont Saint Michel was designed and built centuries ago, as a medieval town. Her streets are simply not designed for bus loads of tourists all hitting the cobblestones at the same time. It's not Disney World. And yet those who are "developing" this area seem to think that the Mont can handle an infinite number of people.
This holy citadel has long been one of the most important places of pilgrimage in all of Europe. But tourists have now overwhelmed the pilgrims. Completely and totally overwhelmed them. It is the desecration of a sanctuary, the moral erosion of an island.
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