Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Mudflats of Mont Saint Michel

-by David McGuffin

The incomparable Mont St. Michel rises out of the bay, adorned with its medieval abbey. It’s a well-known tourist destination and it can get pretty crowded during the day, but it takes on a whole new atmosphere at night. Here, I share the story of one of my visits to Mont St. Michel.

It first appeared on the horizon as a hazy mirage floating up from the sea. The bus filled with sounds of “ooohs” and “aaahs” followed immediately by the click-click of hastily positioned cameras trying vainly to capture the moment on film.

Crowded in the day with tour groups

This scenario is played out every time I take a group to visit Mont St. Michel in western France. The medieval abbey was built atop a hunk of rock jutting prominently into the Atlantic Ocean. The abbey has been a religious pilgrimage site since the 6th century when the Archangel Michael told the bishop of Avranches to build a center of worship here. The abbey you see today is a Romanesque church built on top of the original Carolingian structure. Saint Michael was the patron saint of many French kings. Consequently, this had become a favored site of French royalty through the ages.
Just as thousands of pilgrims have done in the past, our group arrived (by air-conditioned motorcoach) to views of the Mont floating mysteriously above the coastal waters of Normandy and Brittany.
Mont St. Michel is situated in a bay where the coastal tides rush in at up to twelve miles per hour. In medieval times the ocean was said to rush in at the speed of a galloping horse, often sweeping away anything in its path. These tides are the most dangerous in all of Europe. Consequently, many warnings are posted and broadcast via loudspeaker when the tides are approaching.

Mont Saint Michel at low tide.
We arrived in the morning walked up the narrow winding street to the top of the Mont.  From this high vantage point, we could see the tidal mudflats becoming larger at the tide receded.  I found it hard to believe that anyone could be so slow as to get trapped by the approaching tides, but the warnings were broadcast on a loudspeaker in six languages for all to hear. 
Heading back down the mont, we trudged down the cobbled street passing souvenir shops loaded with tourists frantically rushing about to make their purchases before their bus left for its next destination.

Staying Overnight = No Tourist Crowds 

What made my group’s experience different was that we traveled just 3 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) to our hotel located at the edge of the mainland. Here, from our porch, the majestic Mont St. Michel abbey dominated the horizon. We had the whole afternoon and evening to relax and enjoy the essence of western France. 

Have a Picnic

The only shop in the village was kept busy throughout the afternoon by members of our group purchasing snacks and goodies for the evening. You see our plan was to witness the other grand Mont St. Michel event of watching the sun gently set into the Atlantic. 
Mont San Michel - Summer 2002

At the supermarché, my daughter Jamie and I purchased drinks and Belín brand crackers. We packed it up and headed out to the low-lying pasture lands that defined the end of the mainland and the beginning of the tidal mudflats. We spent the afternoon basking in the sun, stretched out on our ponchos, sipping our drinks and munching on crackers. There were local folks fishing in the canal, occasionally catching a fish, but mostly whiling away their time while exercising the “art of doing nothing”.
Late in the day sheep began to appear, apparently heading home for the evening. Far in the distance, we could see a shepherd and his dog encouraging the herd in the direction of the gate located just beyond our position. Finally, all the “baahhhing” ended as we saw the man and his dog pass through the gate and head towards home.

Sunset and High Tides

As we passed through the gates that marked the beginning of the fortified Mont St. Michel for the second time this day, we were treated to a completely different sight than that of just six hours before. Now at 9 p.m. the island was desolate! Just a few lucky tourists fortunate enough to have stayed on the island for the night. Winding our way up the crooked street we saw the village closing after another busy day. Women were sweeping their shops, there were some people eating or drinking in the local bistro, but for the most part, the streets were left to us. 

We arrived near the abbey doors, found a quiet spot to enjoy the sunset and waited! As usual, the sunset was beautiful, a ruby red dollop of orange melting into the deep blue sea. 

After the sunset, some folks in my group found a stairway down to the mudflats on the west (oceanside) of the island. From my vantage point up at the abbey I could see the kids in the group playing soccer and walking out on the muddy flats left vacant by the receded tide. The kids’ moms and I sat enjoying the view and peace of the abbey. We noticed our daughters walking far out from Mont St. Michel toward the other island about two kilometers to the north. Of course, there was no danger because it was low tide and we could see others wandering on the mud flats too. But unbeknownst to us and our daughters out on the flats, the tide had begun to return for the second time of the day.
We stood helplessly, watching the tide come in and our daughters, apparently unconcerned, making their way back toward us. We could hear their laughter and playful screams in the distance as they passed through tidal pools getting wet and muddy. But, from out high vantage point, we could see  the tide rolling in swiftly. I was not too concerned because from our vantage point I could see that they were walking much faster than the incoming tide. The problem was that it was now almost dark, and the girls appeared only as shadows on the distant mudflats. 
Soon a helicopter began circling the Mont and then headed out to the girls on the mud flats. As we watched from the safety of the abbey walls we saw the helicopter swoop down and land near our daughters. This started our hearts racing, knowing there must be imminent danger for the helicopter to land and send a person out to get our kids. But to our amazement the would-be rescuer approached them, apparently said something and returned to the helicopter, then flew off toward the mainland. Our girls began heading away from the Mont toward another group of people on the flats. Once they merged with the other group we saw they were taking a route around some tidal pools and then back toward the Mont.
Finally, they were within a few hundred meters of Mont St. Michel. We could hear their voices and see them covered with dingy gray mud up to their knees. Up the stairs they came, sheepishly making excuses about their adventures. They told us the helicopter guy had come to tell them about the approaching tides and to warn them of pools of quicksand located in their path. He had advised them to join the larger group, which was under the supervision of a local guide. They had joined the group but the guide spoke only French and they could not understand why he was leading them away from the direction they needed to go.
By this time it was approaching midnight. We walked in silence down the Mont and out onto the causeway that connected it to the mainland. About halfway across we looked back. There, basking in the beauty of a full moon was Mont St. Michel adorned by the ancient abbey, its gothic spires reaching to heaven, a perfect example of man’s handiwork seeking to praise God! 

As the Christian pilgrims have done for centuries I too offered a prayer that night thanking God for protecting my kids’ “explorations” on the mudflats!


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David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on  Twitter,  Facebook,  Google+,  LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website,


  1. What a beautiful church plus and incredible back story. Reminds me of the castle in the Three Musketeers.

  2. What a great way to enjoy the tourist traps without the tourists. That's another reason why it pays to have a knowledgeable tour guide like David.


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