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15 Jan 2009

Mont St Michel 1300 years of history - plus.

A World Heritage Site, one of the modern Seven Wonders of World, Mont St Michel in Normandy near Avranches was first used as a Christian site 1300 years ago. In fact, it was also a religious site before the arrival of Christianity. One of the very successful policies of the early church was to take over existing religious places as soon as they gained enough power. By so doing, they created an impression of continuity, and used the familiarity with the site of the local people. Plus of course it made it much harder for the original religions to carry on.

Many of these takeovers are identifiable today, because most of them were dedicated to St Michael (St Michel), the slayer of the dragon, a metaphor for the old faiths. The early Celtic religions often used hill tops and other prominent locations for their shrines and meeting places, and if there is a church on a hill, it is most likely to be the Church of St Michael.

The Abbey and church on Mont St Michel, built in various stages during those 1300 years, is spectacular and overwhelming; the highest part is known as La Merveille (The Marvel). Not just a church, but an entire small town, and enormous, and above all in the most striking location imaginable. It is in fact so complex that when I went on a guided tour I lingered a litle too long in one part, and the tour had vanished; it took an hour to find a way back out. There are several of my photographs of the place in the gallery at the top of this blog, which can also be found here. Every time I visit the Mont, or go near it there is a different view, or different lighting, and I probably have hundreds of pictures.

A few years ago I visited Egypt, and went to Giza to see the Pyramids. Having seen so many pictures of the iconic group of three overlapping triangles, seeing the real things was somehow very weird. That familiarity of the image made it seem as if that is all there is, an image. It was as if having seen all the Left Turn road signs over the years, I was one day to encounter the 200 metre high original Left Turn of which all the signs were copies. It is the same with Mont St Michel: the outline is so familiar, a jagged triangle that is easy to draw freehand from memory, sitting in the sea or miles of wet sand, that the real thing becomes unreal.

The village where I live is about 30 miles from Mont St Michel in a direct line, but 50 miles by road because of the Bay. Of course, whenever we have visitors they want to visit the Mont, and even the most wonderful of places can be seen too often, so these days we tend to provide them with guide books, itineraries, and ideas on all the other nearby interesting places.

We were driving out of our village with one visitor, an old friend from Canada, and she suddenly squeaked 'I can see Mont St Michel!'. We told her she was mistaken, we are far too distant, and there is at least one range of hills in the way. Every time we saw her over the next couple of years, we would suddenly point, whether we were in London or anywhere, and say 'Look – Mont St Michel', and laugh. Very unfair.

Then, one very clear day in winter, we saw Mont St Michel from the same place. With a very detailed map we discovered that our village is on the top of a range of hills that is slightly higher than the range between us and the Mont. At one specific place, it is just possible to make out a little grey triangle, apparently hovering in the air, in the far, far distance, if the light is right, and you find the gap in the trees. Most embarrassing.

One of our neighbours then told us that the musician Jean Michel Jarre had a huge concert and light display on the Mont, and quite a few villagers gathered in a particular field to watch, and listen on their radios to the simultaneous broadcast. Apparently, so many people wanted to go to the concert that the roads were jammed for miles in all directions, and most of those with tickets missed it.

Like St Iago de Compostela, in Spain, Mont St Michel was a major pilgrim site, and indeed one of the stops on the way to Compostela. There is a little village, not far from us, called St Michel de Montjoie (Joie means, unsurprisingly, joy), which grew up at the first point where pilgrims from Paris caught a glimpse of the Mont. It is also the site of a Museum of Granite, and part of the Route du Granit walk. Much of the granite used in Paris came from here.

For some reason, quite a lot of British people either know nothing of Mont St Michel, or think it a minor attraction, like the Cornish St Michael's Mount, which is like comparing the parish church of St Pancras with Westminster Abbey. If you ever go to Normandy, or Brittany because it is effectively on the border, not to stop off at the Mont would be a dreadful loss.

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