Throwback Thursday: Mont Saint Michel (Or Hogwarts in the Flesh)

Like so many twenty-somethings who grew up reading about the adventures of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of their wizarding cohorts, it still breaks my heart a little bit when July comes and goes and still I haven’t received my owl from Hogwarts. Such is life as a lowly Muggle. But a small consolation comes from the fact that, for all intents and purposes, you can waltz off to Hogwarts for a weekend. And no, I’m not talking about the theme park in Florida. 
When can I move in?
When can I move in?

I mean an honest-to-goodness, medieval castle that looks like it would be the perfect home for Harry and co. I’m talking about Mont Saint Michel, a castle off the coast of Lower Normandy in northern France. When you think of Hogwarts, you might as well think of Mont Saint Michel.

On one of the abbey's walls.
On one of the abbey’s walls.

To be clear, getting to Mont Saint Michel from Paris can get a little complicated. If you rent a car, it’s probably the cheapest and easiest option, and if you get an early enough start and don’t mind returning to Paris late, a day trip is a doable – if tiring – option. For my Paris-dwelling friend and me, though, trains were the way to go. There are a few options, but we chose to go from the Gare Montparnasse station in Paris to Rennes, and then change over to another train until Pontorson, a tiny town near the castle. There are buses to MSM from Pontorson, but we chose to walk instead.

Walking to MSM meant that we didn’t have to work our schedule around bus timings, so we grabbed lunch in Pontorson. I love France…so by default I love French food. Crusty bread, more kinds of cheese than I could dream of, and pastries that make me swoon? Sign me up. In Pontorson, I got my first taste of aligot, the heavenly offspring of mashed potatoes and melted cheese (usually Tomme de Laguiole, but sometimes mozzarella or cantal). Between the cheese, potatoes, butter, and cream, it will have your tastebuds singing and your cholesterol weeping. The thing that sets aligot apart is its smooth, elastic texture; you know you’ve got good aligot when you can stretch a forkful away from the plate without the string breaking. Spread on a slice of baguette, it is carbohydrate heaven. If you go to France, for the love of Eric Ripert and Julia Child, eat aligot. 

Aligot and confit de canard
Aligot and confit de canard…and some salad as an afterthought.

I also got to try kouign-amann, a Breton pastry specialty that’s basically a crusty cake with layers of butter and sugar folded in. My sweet tooth and I could write a love letter to this beauty…when it bakes, the butter puffs up the pastry and the sugar caramelizes into a perfectly sweet outer crust that banishes every thought of dieting from your mind. Its interior is flaky and buttery, a perfect complement to the sweet crunch of the caramelized sugar crust. Basically, it’s the stately grandfather of the cronut.

Kouign-amann, served with vanilla ice cream...because, really, this dish needed more sugar.
Kouign-amann, served with vanilla ice cream…because, really, this dish needed more sugar.

Eventually, we did finally make it to MSM, which sits on a tiny island connected only by a thin road to the mainland. MSM has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, and the abbey is the most famous structure on site. It rises out of the sea during high tide, and no matter the time of day, your eyes are drawn to it. You can’t help it. Once you’re on the island, winding alleys and steep staircases twist and turn as they lead up to the entrance.

Archangel Michael, for whom the site is named. Legend says that Michael appeared to St. Aubert, a bishop, and instructed him to build a castle on the tiny island. Aubert ignored the command...until Michael burned a hole in his skull with his finger. Pretty sure construction on the castle was begun shortly after that...
Archangel Michael, for whom the site is named. Legend says that Michael appeared to St. Aubert, a bishop, and instructed him to build a castle on the tiny island. Aubert ignored the command…until Michael burned a hole in his skull with his finger. Pretty sure construction on the castle started shortly after that…

Another note about MSM: it’s not really a budget location. The food on the island is ridiculously expensive, especially when you consider that most of the fare consists of crepes, galettes, and omelettes. Same goes for the drinks, especially alcoholic ones. There are the usual gamut of souvenir shops, as well. And unless you’re made of money, forget about staying on the castle’s island; accommodations are cramped and rather expensive. You’re much better off staying on the mainland and taking the three-minute free shuttle bus to the castle.

Creperies like this abound on MSM. If you're willing to indulge in a crepe or galette, head towards the outer edge of the island. That way, you'll get a view of both the abbey and the surrounding flats.
Creperies like this abound on MSM. If you’re willing to indulge in a crepe or galette, head towards the outer edge of the island. That way, you’ll get a view of both the abbey and the surrounding flats.
Why sit inside, when you can have a view like this on one side...
Why sit inside, when you can have a view like this on one side…
...and this, on the other?
…and this, on the other?
(Glass of wine necessary, of course.)
(Glass of wine necessary, of course.)

In the Benedictine abbey itself, it’s difficult to say what’s more impressive: the gorgeous architecture or the expansive views of the surrounding sea and flats. The beauty of MSM is a heady mix of man-made and natural, architectural and atmospheric. Entrance to the abbey will run you about nine euros, but it’s well worth it.

You can't possible tell me that this is NOT the Great Hall of Hogwarts. It even has the floating candles. (Well, sort of.)
You can’t possibly tell me that this is NOT the Great Hall of Hogwarts. It even has the floating candles. (Well, sort of.)
One of the castle's inner gardens.
One of the castle’s inner gardens.

After my friend and I had wound our way through the abbey, we snagged a spot in one of the alcoves looking out to sea to watch the tide come in. This might sound a bit boring, but the rising tide around Mont Saint Michel is one of the fastest in the world. So fast, in fact, that helicopters circle the island as the tide is coming in to ensure that no one is still traipsing around on the surrounding flats.

A helicopter out on patrol.
A helicopter out on patrol.
As the tide is coming in.
As the tide is coming in, the sand begins to disappear.
The tide has risen.
The tide has risen and now MSM is truly an island.

MSM has its fair share of small walled gardens that look out towards sea, and we eventually relocated to one of them for dinner. Another thing I love about France: stop at a bakery, buy a loaf of bread; walk a bit; stop at a supermarket, buy a bottle of wine, a few different cheeses, and an apple or two. Dinner is served!

A perfect sunny summer day graced us.
A perfect sunny summer day graced us.

It was while we were lounging with our cheese, bread, and wine that we discovered just how significant of a change that the tide around MSM made. I walked over to the garden wall overlooking the base of the island, which included the gate through which we had entered. Our following conversation basically went like this:

Me: “Remember that bridge we crossed to get here?”

Friend: “Yes…?”

Me: “It’s not there anymore.”

A few tardy tourists wade their way ashore. (The part of the bridge blocked by the gateway is already underwater.)
A few tardy tourists wade their way ashore. (The part of the bridge blocked by the gateway is already underwater. You can see wet footprints on the other side.)
The footbridge in the lower left corner becomes covered by the rising tide.
But after a few minutes, only the railing rises above the water.

The rise of the tide is so major that the footbridge gets covered by about a foot or so of water, which leads to loads of tourists carrying their shoes with their pants rolled up around their knees wading across to the mainland. Obviously there’s another gate (that I assume) doesn’t get flooded during high tide to ensure there’s a way to get on/off MSM in case of emergency, but it was definitely a surprising moment to see that our path had basically disappeared.

Mont Saint Michel illuminated at night embodies an entirely different kind of beauty. It becomes both more magical and foreboding. A view like this is why I think it's worthwhile to make a trek out to MSM an overnight trip.
Mont Saint Michel illuminated at night embodies an entirely different kind of beauty. It becomes both more magical and foreboding. A view like this is why I think it’s worthwhile to make a trek out to MSM an overnight trip.
The full moon gave me a good reason to use one of my favorite untranslatable words, too: mångata, which is a Swedish term that means "a road-like reflection on water caused by the moon."
The full moon gave me a good reason to use one of my favorite untranslatable words, too: mångata, which is a Swedish term that means “a road-like reflection on water caused by the moon.”

That resulted in a spontaneously lengthened stay of a few hours, but when you get to spend them with a glass of wine in a garden at Hogwarts? It’s not exactly the worst thing in the world.

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