Bas-Courtils to Mont Saint-Michel to Pontorson 9.5.17.
In this part of France I would suggest that it’s always better to go by the randonnées, Sentier de Littoral (coastal path), than by the road, as there are rarely pavements.
I left Bas-Courtils at 8am on a gloriously sunny morn. Beside the sea, the land stretches level affording a distant, nearly unbroken view.
What a racket! Sheep: many, one after the other, having been let out (perhaps after the winter?) moving slowly in single file across the field, over the grey clay. A female and her lamb were leading, with not a human in sight, and yet they were reminiscent of the group of us who crossed the bay yesterday, though we did follow a guide.
Unlike the walks I had been making in the days preceding this, the path crossed numerous obstacles. To be honest it was a trial to have to climb and clamber over fences with a huge backpack. What with that, gates which do not open, and crossing deep, wet grassy fields, well, really this way is not pilgrim-friendly.
Mont Saint-Michel is clear in the distance. My human eye (rather than the camera) can see the shuttle buses, like black and white caterpillars on the horizon, the place I walked along 14 hours earlier. They are in contrast to the luminous spring green of the fields.
￼It is cold, exposed like yesterday, but still I have bare arms. I did not even think about it. It was more that I moved instinctively towards the Mount.
I crossed rivers by planks, sidled round deep pools, and struggled to follow the way which did not seem clear to me.
Another surge of black-headed sheep ma maaa-ed their way from their farm onto the plains.
I arrived at the M S-M service buildings: restaurants, shops (though I followed the signs and found none), toilets (equally hard to locate), and so on. And then having completed the ‘Chemin de la Baie’ I launched straight, alongside the River Cuesnon, a new ‘randonnée’ in the direction of Pontorson.
After the hubbub of the tourists, the peace of the river was potent. Birds quietly mentioned, incongruous chariots raced silently round the track nearby, dogs were carried patiently in the backpacks of two cyclists, and just me making my way along a hard path beside a swollen river with butterflies blue.
I was continuing to take care of the way I walked, the parts of my feet on which the weight landed, and minute details of my posture. This walking provides ample time to pay attention to long-practiced bad habits.
Hush reeds in the wind, like witches whispering. It was a very short 10 kms to the next town, so I gave in and lay down, with my mind all but clear and just the sensation of the sun on my back.
My feet were throbbing, my ankles had felt quite unpleasant for a stretch. Now I listened lazily to the ducks, the farm machinery moaning, and felt the grass dampen me. Seed pods sailed down and piqued my thigh. I was not exactly pushing myself. There was no need to be in Pontorson before 5pm when the youth hostel opened.
Random thoughts passed through me: When you wait, you see more around you. There was no signal so no sending or receiving. It was the hottest day so far, and I needed a hat and sunglasses for the first time!
There was nothing to do when I arrived at 1.30 – all was closed. So I had a peaceful beer and sat in the main square opposite the Hôtel de Ville. It is a comprehensive town with a thoroughly helpful tourist information: there was free wifi where I could wait as long as I wanted in order to book trains and send messages. The only down-side were two men who would not leave me alone as I picnicked so I had to move on.
It was 22 degrees. I was impressed by the pharmacy because it sold herbs and homeopathy too. I was surprised by conversations in English at the next table. In fact it took me a while to realise, while I sat and wrote, that it was the English language I was hearing; about dogs and living here in Normandy; believe me, it was about the M25!
There were a couple of women with rucksacks at the hostel: the first time I had seen other trekkers since I started walking. They did not stop and exchange despite my smile. The very young man in charge of the hostel was welcoming and helpful. All was clean, and I had a room with bunks to myself and space to do my t’ai chi.
Genêts to Mont Saint-Michel (13 kms across the sand) to Bas-Courtils 8.5.17
‘As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.’ Laurie Lee, London Road chapter.
Yes, me too! Several people had recently enquired, on hearing I was going to visit Mont Saint-Michel, if I was planning to walk or not. It is an island in the bay which forms a maritime corner of southern Normandy. I had replied that I was walking around the coast and crossing the boardwalk to get there from the south. Until, that is, I realised what they meant: these people had already been to the Mount before me and they had crossed the sands on foot from Genêts. Then I knew that was what I had to do this bank holiday Monday.
The day began with 25 minutes of fast walking from the youth hostel to the set-off place. (Note: If you want to do this too, and I highly recommend that you do, and if you are not just making a day-trip from home, you must book accommodation in advance (see below)). It was the track I would have taken last night had I not been distracted by the beach and tiredness, and consequently missed the markers. I rushed cross-country, through soft grass and pale powdery sand, as the day heated up. As always, everyone was really helpful, and I made it just in time.
It is impossible to make the journey to the isle from the east without a guide as the sands are treacherous and the tide must be at the right turn. There are two companies which offer to take you as part of a group (see below for details), and it was busy, busy, busy, possibly the busiest day of the year. As a result there were groups leaving every 30 minutes or so, and I had to wait. No problem, I whiled away the time in a cafe with wifi and the most generous waitress. I know I have ‘brass neck’, but it comes in useful in certain situations, such as when you need to send a well-translated message in French but do not know how to do it yourself
I watched the others who were massing: men, women and children; old and young; some who had clearly been many times before. I was the only one with a ‘serious’ rucksack (by which I mean I had clothes, sleeping bag, cooking utensils etc on my back – stuff for a month’s travelling), and I too removed my footwear, dangling them from a strap so I had both hands to steady myself as we negotiated the sinking sands.
What a wonderful and moving experience! Layers of time seemed to concertina, and I felt as if I was simultaneously myself and a medieval pilgrim, arriving at last from afar, at the culmination of an arduous journey and full of spiritual expectation.
Trekking across the sands like that takes two and a half hours. Be prepared for cold feet, lots of mud, and finding yourself in seawater to mid calf or knees (depending on the weight of what you are carrying).
There is a large rock, very similar to Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian in Scotland, called La Roche Tombelaine, which you stop at on the way. The guide gives continuous commentary (in French) about the fascinating history and wild-life, together with stories galore.
In 1423, Tombelaine was taken over by the English because it was close enough from which to attack the Mount. Luckily it was unsuccessful. In actual fact, no-one has managed to damage M S-M, not during the war, before, or since, so it is easy to understand why some Normandy folk believe it has divine protection.
As we got closer and closer, the grandeur, the sheer size of the Abbey on top of such a small base, was awe inspiring.
The Mount is made of granite, like our own Aberdeen, from the nearby Chausey islands. Rising 80 metres above sea level, it was quite some task, in the past, to bring the rocks up.
Many ‘workers’ trod this wheel to do the job of raising food, tools and building materials in 1880.
When I arrived, there were long queues for the foot fountains for washing so I did not bother, and I had to pay to get into the toilet. Then the woman in the tourist office told me I would not be allowed into the Abbey with my back pack due to terrorist threats. I reckoned differently, not having come all this way on foot, with this weight, only to be refused admittance. Barefoot, I continued my winding way up the back street to avoid the crowds.
Today I made an exception to my own rule and bought a ticket. I do not usually pay to go into places because I do not have the money for the expense, and because it encourages me to go to different venues and see things from different angles. But I knew I needed to go into this one, and I discovered later that the entrance ticket hall was the place the very poor pilgrims of the past were received to be given alms and admitted for a blessing. If I did indeed come here in a previous life, I was surely one of this group.
We waited for our English speaking guide (he was very entertaining and knowledgeable) on the terrace before entering. As it turned out, no-one looked twice at my pack so I did not have to plead or prostrate myself to be let in. Once again my age, sex, and perhaps skin colour seemed to be a bonus. It was well worth it, but a long tour. I left after 2 hours because I was very cold and getting tired carrying the weighty luggage around with me, but it was still going strong when I peeled away.
There is so much to say about this place, and many photographs available elsewhere. I listened and looked at chamber after chamber, conscious of the cold stone under my soles and imagining myself as one of the nuns he was describing, silent and worshipping through the ages.
The cloisters were being rennovated so I had to take this through the railings.
I was moved by the dark, Romanesque Crypt of St Martin with its eight pillars where sinners awaited sentencing;
And fully engaged by the tale of a 1000 years of construction stimulated apparently, originally, by Saint Michael (as in the archangel) speaking not once, but twice to Aubert, Bishop of nearby Avranches, before he took heed and started construction; and, finally, with the building of the Gothic-style choir (chancel).
It was sumptuously hot once outside again, and I wound my way down between souvenir shops and restaurants, sampling a small red wine to warm my cockles. There I spied a picture of a man on a donkey, the grandfather of the owner, held up by his son.
By the time I walked out towards the northern coast of Brittany, under a baking sun and along the sun-bleached wooden walk-way, I was not a little dazed by the special energy of the place.
I found my way to the bus-stop, ate a snack while I waited, sailed eastwards right through Bas-Courtils, making a mental note that there was somewhere I might eat later, and alighting some 5 kms further on in Courtils, not knowing they were two different villages with almost identical names.
I had booked a bed, but when I went into the first shop I could find to get wifi so I could look on my phone for the address, I realised I did not have it. I started to panic (I rarely worry when I am away walking, but have noticed that it can happen when I am tired). The kind proprietress came to help and suggested I look on my list of received calls from 2 days ago. That way I managed to phone and get the address, only to then discover my mistake. Of course, I planned to walk, but no, the same woman insisted that she take me back there in her car – what a sweetie, such kindness.
A double bed, in fact the entire place, all to myself for 11 euros (no breakfast but a place to hang my washing).
I have discovered that I am the sort of person who wants to know why things happen. Walking has taught me that when I pay attention, if I am very quiet inside, and I listen in a very relaxed way, the reason for everything is simply there. But it does require me to be calm, to really stay in this exact moment. It means that the anxious parts must go to the back, and trust or acceptance must be in the foreground. (Although trusting can be a conscious act, and this other thing simply happens while you are living.) Perhaps it is an undoing rather than a doing. Undoing the learned concern, questioning, and fearing.
I could still see the Mount from where I stayed the night, almost the same size as it was on another horizon when I left earlier that morning (see photo above).
It is proven to me by a tiny thing like forgetting to eat the orange and discovering it days later when there’s nothing else except hunger; larger things, such as not planning accommodation and then it rains so you could not have walked anyway; and even larger things, where you meet the right person at the right time, and although it can seem completely unfathomable then, it results in a major life change. That phrase comes to me: ‘mine is not to question why’.
That night I felt blessed. Truly.
I stayed at the youth hostel in Genêts on the mainland (http://www.hifrance.org/auberge-de-jeunesse/genets–baie-mont-st-michel.html). You may be able to book there at the last minute if it is not a bank holiday or high season, but if you want to stay on the Mount (it is an island), you definitely have to plan ahead as it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in France.
La Manche tourist site (English language version) with details of walks, maps etc. http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path
One company with whom you can walk across the bay. Cost: 7 euros one-way (you can walk back (or go by bus, or in a horse and cart) via another route). You can also go and return in one day, with time there to sight-see. And there are other alternatives. https://www.decouvertebaie.com/42-traversees-traditionnelles-traditionnelle–depart-genets-point-a.html
Mont Saint-Michel tourist site http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en