In the northwestern corner of France, just before you get to the other-worldliness of Brittany, lies a most uncanny landscape.
An abbey set upon a rock in the middle of a restless and muddy bay, whose portrait ebbs and flows with the predictability of the moon and tides.
This is Mont-Saint-Michel, infinitely photographed but never captured, despite our best attempts.
We arrived following a couple of long driving days through northern France. After throughly enjoying our time in Ghent, Belgium, and after stopping for reflective moments in Dunkirk and Normandy, we arrived late in Beauvoir, France, literally at the doorstep of Mont-Saint-Michel.
Beauvoir is something of a gated community, and we really weren’t expecting that. We booked our stay at the Hotel Mercure and had to provide the gate guards with our reservation details before we could enter the property.
Although the outlying regions are quite provincial, the area around Mont-Saint-Michel itself is wholeheartedly touristy, with busloads of travel groups being shipped in daily from the regional hotels and nearby towns. Admittedly, we were counted among those tourist types, but we paid a premium price to stay just down the road from the main attraction.
There is, in fact, a hierarchy when it comes to tourism. And, for once and at my insistence, we were willing to sacrifice the budget in favor of the experience.
If you decide to visit Mont-Saint-Michel, I would recommend that you do the same. Book your stay at one of the hotels inside the gate, not necessarily for the great service or food, but for the opportunity to visit the iconic UNESCO World Heritage site at dawn, and again at dusk.
For it is during these times of twilight that the place lives up to its hype.
I walked from our hotel to the abbey in the early morning and truly felt like I had the place to myself. There were a few locals jogging along the causeway, but they were in their world, and I was in mine.
No tour groups. No chatter. Just the sound of sea birds and the wind.
And the profile of the abbey, changing by the minute with the changing light. Medieval and magic, like the home of a wizard.
We visited the abbey again during the midday rush hour, and it was a terrible disappointment. The magic was missing.
Tourist-trap souvenir shops, over-priced restaurants, and the crush of visitors queuing up to buy the same worthless trinkets. Like any world-famous place, it had unfortunately become a caricature of itself during the daytime hours.
But, the magic returned again at night when the place emptied out. With the last of the sunlight bouncing off the receding bay waters and the night lights winking on in the castle, I learned another lesson from this trip.
But sometimes, it’s about the complete absence of people. Where the shy and ancient soul of a place can only appear in the silence of the twilight.