Posts Tagged ‘Mont Saint-Michel’

A Taste of Brittany and Normandy – Saint Malo and Mont Saint-Michel

May 17th, 2008 at 3:48 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

On Saturday night (May 10th), after two days at see, we approached the walled city of Saint Malo, France. It was after sunset as Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour neared the lock that would let us into the protection (and higher water level) of the harbor of Saint Malo. We cleared the lock a bit after 10pm, and moored alongside the city close to 11pm.

A lighthouse island as we approach Saint Malo at night
A lighthouse island as we approach Saint Malo at night

There was quite a crowd of locals watching our arrival, apparently because vessels the size of the Endeavour were not particularly common in the harbor.

The National Geographic Endeavour moves out of the lock into the harbor at Saint Malo at night
The National Geographic Endeavour moves out of the lock into the harbor at Saint Malo at night

As we needed to sort through our photos for a composite slide show for the following night, and because we were pretty tired, we opted to stay ashore instead of pursue the nightlife, but heard from others that went that the town was hopping. It was a long weekend in France, and many visitors were in Saint Malo taking advantage of their time off and the nice weather at the time.

Saint Malo at Night
Saint Malo at Night

In the morning, after having to cope with a problematic and chilly lack of hot water for our showers, we were ushered back onto large motor coaches, and driven to Mont St. Michel, about an hour or so away. For those not familiar with Mont Saint-Michel, it is the place where the abbey on top of a rocky island which was made famous by previously only being accessible at low tide. However, at some point in the past, the government built a causeway from the mainland to the island, and now it is accessible pretty much all the time. And there are plans to replace the causeway with a bridge to resolve a major siltation issue.

However, that change does not preempt the fact that the abbey is a stunning piece of architecture, and only in part because of its altitude and precipitous position high atop the mount. Due to various “owners”, fires, wars, etc., the abbey blends gothic and baroque styles, for example. One other thing that we found interesting was that as a result of revolution in France in the late 1700s against the nobility, and as an perceived collaborator the Catholic Church, all of the friezes and statues which feature Jesus were defaced as revolutionaries expressed their resentment against the Church in physical ways.

Mont St. Michel looms overhead
Mont St. Michel looms overhead

Mont Saint-Michel, at low tide, is surrounded by miles of wet sand, some of which can act as quicksand. When the tide rushes in, all 14 meters of it (about 45 feet – one of the highest tides in the world) at its extreme, it can sweep away most anything in its way, as it rises very rapidly, and has been the cause of many deaths of livestock and humans alike. Tides are worst during the full moon and the new moon.

It’s about a 20 minute walk up to the abbey from the bottom where all the tour buses park, and further yet from the areas where cars need to park (an area which incidentally is under water during the highest tides). Little shops, cafes, and museums line the medieval walls along the path on the way up to the abbey summit. Our tour guide, Virginie, gave us the history of Mont Saint-Michel, little of which I could hear because I was always playing catch-up with the group because I was taking photos, but let me just point you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject here.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas on the terrace near the top of Mont Saint-Michel, France
Krystyana, Linda, and Bas on the terrace near the top of Mont Saint-Michel, France

One thing I do remember was that there were three levels in the abbey in terms of common rooms, with the clerics being on the top level, visiting nobility on the middle level, and commoner petitioners in the bottom level. This was allegedly done to remind the nobility of their place before the Church, and commoners of their position relative to both the nobility and clergy.

After we finished our tour, our guide told us we had ten minutes to get to the buses, even though it was at least a 15 minute hike down (more when one considered the crowds clogging the narrow road down). We ignored the deadline a little bit by stopping at a creperie for an assortment of crepes (chestnut cream, apricot jam, banana and chocolate, and hazelnut and chocolate), which we ate on the bus while waiting for everyone else to show up.

As we ended up leaving Mont St. Michel almost an hour late, we had to also forgo the scenic coastal ride back to Saint Malo, and instead took the highway back. During the bus ride I call our concierge service and secured a late lunch reservation at L’Ankerage, a small seafood restaurant situated along the busy rampart wall on the south side of the town. The meal we had was quite good, and the shellfish platter I ordered was chock full of assorted shellfish, including a large crab, whelks, shrimp, langoustines, cockle shells, and more.

Linda and Krystyana examine Jake's lunch of shellfish in St. Malo
Linda and Krystyana examine Jake’s lunch of shellfish in St. Malo

We waddled away from lunch for a walk around the rest of the ramparts, and then caught a Zodiac back to the Endeavour, which had left the dock a few hours earlier due to the tidal situation.

A man in St. Malo befriends a seagull
A man in St. Malo befriends a seagull

There was a presentation that evening by Massimo Bassamo, the National Geographic photographer we had on board, followed by the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail party (best quote “CPA means Captiain Pays All”, referring to drinks from the bar). We also had our farewell dinner, which was pretty reasonable. I didn’t enjoy much of the evening though because I was stewing about how little time we had had in Mont Saint-Michel, something that was a repeat of most of the other land-based excursions during our Lindblad trip – basically large buses, large groups, and being rushed, just like on a large cattle boat cruise ship (which also costs maybe half of what a Lindblad trip does based on our experience last Fall).

I therefore found myself working for several hours on a letter to Lindblad management about how we felt the trip had not met our expectations, which in turn were based on their marketing materials and discussions with repeat Lindblad clients. I sent the letter in the following morning, and apparently was not the only one, as Sven Lindblad, the current owner of Lindblad Expeditions sent out a mass e-mail apologizing to everyone about the shortcomings of the trip, and a few days later offered either a cash refund for what worked out to about 25% of the fees paid for us, or a certificate in the value of about 50% of the trip fees to be applied towards a future trip with Lindblad. This refund was offered to every passenger on the trip, and I must say that we are very impressed with how quickly Lindblad admitted they had fallen short, and how quickly they came up with what appears to be a pretty reasonable financial apology for those shortcomings.

We’ll be reviewing other Lindblad trip options to see whether or not we go for the cash refund or the credit certificate. Certainly we have heard nothing but good about Lindblad with respect to natural history expeditions they make to places like the Galapagos or Antarctica.