One of the benefits of living in Europe is that everything feels so close—at any moment, ancient monuments and breathtaking cities are only a brief train ride away. As if the destinations themselves weren’t attractive enough, my study abroad program provides a financial incentive to motivate students to explore France, offering reimbursements for up to 350 euros for travel within France and other Francophone countries. When my friends proposed a weekend getaway to Mont-St-Michel, a mountain-city in Normandy that is reputedly one of the most incredible European destinations, I jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing, all-expenses paid trip.
When planning a weekend trip, I find myself looking forward to the train ride almost as much as to the ultimate destination. I love the solitude of train rides—the ability to put in headphones, tune out the world, and spend three or four hours watching the landscape change outside of the window. Immediately upon arrival at the Paris Montparnasse station, however, I faced an obstacle to my fantasy trip: I had purchased a ticket online, but needed to redeem the ticket at a kiosk using my credit card. When I attempted to print the ticket, I received a flashing ERREUR message. Panicking, alone in the station, and with only ten minutes until my train departed, I rushed to the ticket counter in the hopes that the folks there could print my ticket. After seeing my worried expression and listening to my frantic, garbled French ranting, the ticket agent started laughing and explained to me the American credit cards did not work at the kiosks, but that she would be happy to print my billet.
Successfully boarding the train with only seconds to spare, I made it to Dol-de-Bretagne—a tiny, adorable town in northern France—in about three hours, then taking a bus to meet my friends at Mont-St-Michel. The Mont is renowned for its incredible location as well as the abbey located on its peak and built during the 11th century. Since Mont-St-Michel is an island, it is only accessible at certain times of the day due to the tide level, and can only be reached by bus or on foot. As we neared the island, the mountain-city suddenly appeared on the horizon—surrounded by miles of water and sand, the Mont rises from the landscape, a winding mountain of stone walls and turrets with the spire ascending towards the blue sky.
We met at the bottom of the Mont, pausing to take some photos of the amazing scenery, and then passed through the stone arch that serves as the singular entrance to the island. Immediately it felt as though I had left reality and stepped into an ancient, magical realm—with all of the stone buildings and winding uphill passages, I thought for a second that I had walked into the City of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings, and that I would see Gandalf at any moment. After turning and walking up a narrow staircase to a stone balcony overlooking the landscape, we stood speechlessly gazing over the wall, stunned by the beauty of the stretches of sand crossed by currents of water. Once we had fully appreciated the view, we continued to follow the balcony around the periphery of the city, slowly circling higher and higher towards the summit of the island. Every few feet, we saw other narrow staircases that connected to other parts of the island. As we ascended, we could look down at the lichen-covered roofs of the stone houses and peer into the flower-filled courtyards.
We finally reached the abbey, which was even more magical up close: surrounded by mossy rocks and trees, the church seems to be a product of nature rather than an elaborate human construction.
Having seen several people walking on the sand, we decided to try to find a passage to the beach. After some searching, we finally found a stone staircase that led right down to the sharp orange rocks lining the water. After braving the endless rain and cold of Paris, it was amazing to finally be on a beach, lounging in the sunlight without a coat or an umbrella. We walked on the sand in a giant circle around the island. After constantly sinking knee-deep in the soft clay, we finally understood why the Mont is covered with signs warning against quicksand and rip currents.
As the sun began to fall, we started to walk down the tidal pathway to the mainland, stopping periodically to look back at the darkening mountain-city. Looking at the turrets and spires rising into the pink clouds of the sunset and the water glistening in the bay, it was easy for me to understand why the Mont-St-Michel is considered one of the most magical places in the word.