> Normandy and the fabulous Mont St Michel
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Normandy and the fabulous Mont St Michel
1H50 by INTERCITES
Talk about heritage. Tears welled up in my eyes when I first visited the cemeteries along the beaches where the Allies invaded in June 1944. You look at what those young men had to do, and you know how hard it was, because the German machine gun nests and blockhouses are still there, too big and too historic to destroy. And then I went to a cemetery of buried German soldiers, and I felt sorry for them too. I am so glad to be in my generation, the one where Europe found a way to quit killing its people.
The train to Caen gives you time to prepare a visit, read a guidebook, reflect a little on the state of being a human.
Caen. It’s a new town, built after 1944, because it was flattened during the battles after D-Day. If you don’t want to rent a car here to visit the beaches, get yourself over to the Caen Memorial, which is 15 minutes away by taxi, 4 kilometers on foot. It’s loaded with videos, documents and personal stories of heroism, loss, sacrifice and salvation. It’s called the Mémorial de Caen, and not the War Memorial, because the idea is to help persuade people that war is the last resort for settling disputes.
Maybe Caen echoes emotionally because our fathers went to war there, but the heritage began long before. I like to say that William the Conqueror is my ancestor, who passed down his first name to me. His castle is just a 24 minute walk from the station, it’s open all year and it’s free. Great-great-granddad the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy, of Viking stock. In the late 900s, the Vikings were given Normandy so they wouldn’t attack other parts of France. They settled in, married well, and by the time the 1000s rolled around, they were no longer Vikings, but Normans.
Some went to Sicily and southern Italy and established territories and churches, and William in 1066 went over to England and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, becoming King of England. Go 30 km to Bayeux by car or taxi or train, (we went by train; it’s on the way to Mont St. Michel, our next stop, and going where you want as long as it fits the timetable is part of the fun of a Rail Pass), where there is a lovely tapestry 230 feet long said to have been embroidered by William’s Queen Mathilde, but probably not. It’s great. Helen is not much with a needle and thread, but she appreciated how those ancestors stitched scenes of daily life into the history of the invasion.
The Normans of the time were big on religion and higher education, and they built fine cathedrals and churches: check out those square church towers from your train window. But there is something far more amazing to come.
NOT TO BE MISSED
France Rail Pass’partner:
2H00 by regional train
Mont St. Michel is a sort of natural Disneyland. It is incredible. Like the Taj Mahal in India, it is just as good as or better than you thought it would be from the pictures. Mont St. Michel rises up out of the flat bay around it like a gothic pyramid. The rock was stunning in 709 when the first church was built there, and in 966 when the Duke of Normandy established Benedictine monks there, and through the gothic building in following years, and it remains stunning today.
I loved climbing up the tiny passageways that arrive by surprise between stone buildings. I love to walk the ramparts and look out at the salt flats, sand at low tide, water at high tide, and watch modern adventurers follow their guides just like pilgrims have done for hundreds of years. Helen and I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast where we had to duck our heads at the doorway, which had been made for shorter people.
There is a tourist overlay at Mont St. Michel. How could there not be? But it is relatively controlled, even modest by tourist trap standards. Tourism is overwhelmed by the actual reason that tourists come here – the exotic, surprising presence of the place. You don’t mind that storekeepers sell plastic medieval swords for your grandchildren or modern tapestries for your pillow covers. You are just happy that the cathedral on top has made it through the ages, and that you can stand where monks stood, copying Bible verses by hand.
You get here from Caen after a two-hour train ride to Pontorson, which is 10 km and a 12 minute cab ride away. For every million people who see the fabulous Eiffel Tower, maybe only 1,000 see Mont St. Michel. But while the Eiffel Tower is a “must see,” I never feel like I was with Gustave Eiffel in the building of it in 1886. At Mont St. Michel, I feel the pilgrims who came, because they are still coming.
NOT TO BE MISSED
MONT ST MICHEL PONTORSON - PARIS MONTPARNASSE
3H54 by regional train + TGV via Rennes
* (2011 frequency)
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|Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 December 2011 15:28|