Monday, February 23, 2009

The 39 Steps - I don't think so!

Last night we passed a windmill illuminated in the night sky on our way back to the hotel. The camera batteries were dead so we could not get a photo at that point but decided we should have a look today. So we turn off the road to Mont St-Michel toward Le Beauvior to get a closer look. No, this is not the sort of thing you would expect to see smack bang in the middle of the Normandie landscape - but there it is.

And while this one is restored, there is the shell of another one forlornly unloved just a short distance further down the back road that runs along the ridge. There are cattle in the fields around and a lone donkey just standing - enjoying the pale sun on its back, winter fur still attached to its othewise boney frame.

We spent the better part of today on the 'Rock' visiting Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel. Like Ken Follett who claims Cathedral visiting as a hobby, we find ourselves drawn to the large churches and cathedrals that are so plentiful across Europe. And also like this renowned author, we are starting to realise that the building of these beautiful edifices is more about wealth and power on earth than for any heavenly aspirations. And as we remarked yesterday, this rock just rises up from the open plain - well, from the sea actually.

Mont St Michel is a true example of living breathing architecture adapting and moulding to the times of the day and the best use for its spaces. The earliest church on this site dates back to the 8th Century. This first shrine has been added to, over built, rebuilt and renovated since these early times to produce the Abbey and its accompanying village that exists today. It has been used as a church and abbey, a prison and a fort. Lying as it does just off the Atlantic coast of northern France and only a few short miles across the English Channel form England, it has been the source of seiges more than once.

Now, imagine this - a cathedral style church perched on a monolith that juts out of the landscape some 90 m. What would expect to find plenty of? Come on - how do you get to the top? You got it. S T E P S. thousands of the b***** things! Quite literally. And me with a bung hip. Thank goodness for drugs. In all the extolling my brother Michael has done, not once did he mention those steps - oh sure, he said it was a steep climb, but, thousands of steps! Nah, didn't mention those. Today we walked about 2 kms and climbed up and then down at least 1,100 steps. The Grand Staircase itself has 350 steps in one hit. Thank god there are some stone seats around though not many!

But despite all this, the trip is very definitely worth it. The sheer domination of the buildings over the landscape, the history, the architecture and even just the views are all stupendous. Within the buildings of the abbey itself it is very dark and would have been a very eerie place before electricity - a candle flickers and casts moving shadows and I can just imagine more than one poor monk being spooked by his own imagination. In les chevaliers des chambres (the knights chambers) however there are leadlight windows that flood the room with bright light. Here the monks worked on the manuscripts that the abbey was known for. It was also an area where they gathered to dicsuss religious issues in the warmth of the two large fireplaces.

And the cloister is an unexpected place of tranquility and beauty. You come upon it not expecting such a beautiful place and it strikes at you straight away - now, if it were not for the very noisy (lots of) Japanese tourist groups and there enthusiastically loud guides (sigh)! I guess we should not be complaining too loudly - it is the first time on our trip so far that we have encountered any groups of other tourists and to be fair, they weren't all Japanese.

And back to those stairs - they do not all belong to the Abbey itself, but are all over the rock - up to and within the ramparts and even throughout the village as well as within the buildings themselves and yes - many of the internal ones are spiral stairs! There are many souvenir shops that are only outnumbered by the eateries. In Summer, this place must be a licence to print money.

We do enjoy a hot chocolate and crepe and waffle though after our exertions. On the walk back to the car we can see the tide coming in, though the high tide today will not inundate the car park as happens at least 8 or 9 times a month. Another consequence of this watery phenomena and the soil type is the prevelance of quicksand. All around the entries there are warnings in five languages of the dangers. Somehow, I prefer the statuesque warning that once stood at the entrance to the complex to warn the would be wanderer! This is a rugged but beautiful part of the country and the world.

Our hotel also has quite a history as well. Originally, the Montgomery hotel in Pontorson was the mansion of Gabriel I, Earl of Montgomery, who killed Henri II, king of France in 1559. The main building of the hotel was built in 1526 and has kept many of its original features - the wooden carved staircase, the painted ceilings from the Renaissance as well as an exceptional four-poster bed. General Montgomery also this hotel as his headquarters after the D-Day landings. Their restaurant however is closed at the moment and we are craving a steak (and not more crepes) so head for La Tour Brette nearby. I begin with a Kir Normande as an aperitif - blackcurrant liquer, calvados (for which the area is famous) and apple cider. Very nice.
Borlots mayonnaise (whelks in mayonnaise) Michael
Œufs mayonaise (eggs with mayonnaise) Maria
Faux Fillet au Poivre sauce (Fillet steak with pepper sauce) Blue for Michael and Medium for me - whch disappointingly was almost as rare as Michaels!
No desserts tonight - just coffee which was good.
Now, what the hell are whelks I hear you ask. Well, they are a shellfish very similar to a conch. Michael tells me that the flavour is a cross between a prawn and an oyster and you need to dig them out of the shell just like you do with escargot.
So there is today. Tomorrow we have another 5 - 6 hour drive ahead of us to get to Calais and the car train back to Folkstone near Dover in the UK. Not sure if we will post tomorrow or leave it until Wednesday. Stay safe everyone - especially all you in Australia with the weather deteriorating in the fire prone areas again.

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