1,300 years on, Mont-Saint-Michel is now open to followers of all faiths, agnostics and atheists.
France’s stunning Mont-Saint-Michel, the coastal abbey set atop a tidal island, was erected in 708 to warn unbelievers of the terrible power of the Christian God.
Ancient pilgrim trails
Enthusiasts seeking to revitalise ancient pilgrim trails to the “Mont” say faith should no longer be an issue for those footing it to the site.
“All sorts of people are using the pilgrim routes today. There are of course those who do it for reasons of faith, but we also see agnostics and atheists. The routes are a place where people can meet and talk,” Juliane Hervieu of “The Routes to Mont-Saint-Michel” group told AFP.
“We are open to all walkers, whatever their beliefs,” added the
group’s president Marie-Paul Labey .
For 75 year old Englishman John Cawley, enjoying his ninth walk from
Winchester in Britain to the Mont in as many years, there is no such thing as a typical trail walker.
“From the faith point of view, personally I would say I am searching. But you really can come for all sorts of reasons. You meet people from all classes and backgrounds. It’s a great way to make friends and its a very cheap way to see some absolutely wonderful countryside,” he breathlessly told AFP via his mobile telephone as he completed a final day’s march to the Mont.
Cawley, an active member of the UK Ramblers’ Association, added that a couple of years ago he walked the Way of Saint James from Le Puy en Valay in southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain for, “20 euros (30 dollars) a day with enough left over for a beer in the evening.”
Three million visitors
Of course many of the three million plus visitors who every year make their way to the most popular French tourist destination outside of Paris do not go for religious reasons at all. The magnificent Gothic Abbey perched high on its rocky island in one of the most beautiful bays in the country is worth the visit for the view alone. And the vast majority of tourists now drive to the Mont in cars or coaches, rather than arriving on foot.
But things have not always been so.
“In the Middle Ages the Mont was one of the most important pilgrim sites in Europe. We were very much part of a web of routes,” said Lebey.
Open to all walkers, no matter what their belief
The pilgrim routes group was set up a decade ago to encourage visitors to the site to discover the Normandy countryside around the Mont-Saint-Michel.
“A huge number of people visit the Mont, but very few see the surrounding area,” said Hervieu, referring to the salt flats, sandbanks and huge variety of wild life of the Mont-Saint-Michel bay.
But the group too has widened its interest in pilgrim routes beyond the immediate area. Medieval pilgrim trails linked the abbey with sites as far afield as Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Britain, Santiago de Compostela and the Sacra di San Michele in Italy’s mountainous northern Piedmont region.
Like the abbey, most of the sites were dedicated to Saint Michael, a character Christian texts describe as an archangel who helped drive the devil from heaven.
Over the past decade, members of “The Routes to Mont-Saint-Michel” have joined forces with like-minded enthusiasts in other countries to encourage the use of the ancient trails, such as a sign-posted route from the Mont to the start of a popular pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, located at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France.
“You should allow two to three months for that trip,” said Hervieu.
In 2007, the group’s work was recognised by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, when the international organisation awarded the trails the status of European “Cultural Routes.”
A permanent causeway
While the anniversary has been the occasion for a slew of concerts, art exhibitions, debates and religious ceremonies, building works have been proceeding to ensure the site once again resembles an island.
At present, the Mont is linked to the mainland by a permanent causeway. But the architects of an ambitious public works scheme hope that by 2015 it will be encircled by water for much of each year.
“Thanks to the works, the Mont will be surrounded by water 150 days a year instead of 55 days at present,” a spokesman for the public-private partnership carrying out the work said.
The plan is to remove the causeway and its adjacent car park and replace them with a bridge, allowing water to flow around the monument instead.
At the same time, a tidal barrier is being built on the small Couesnon river, which flows into the Mont Saint Michel bay directly behind the tidal island.
Once the barrier is complete, it will hold back water that flows into the river at high tide and flush it back downstream when the tide drops. This, it is argued, will help to wash away sand and silt that has built up around the base of the Mont-Saint-Michel over the years.
But opinions are divided over how successful this can be, with critics arguing that the bay is silting up naturally and that the works will only serve to delay the process for a few decades.
Mont Saint Michel http://flickr.com/photos/anthony_m/
Saint Michael’s Mound http://flickr.com/photos/antoon/
Santiago de Compestela http://flickr.com/photos/miguelitosql/