Saturday, August 7, 2004

Sur Le Balcon

On the balcony...

This room faces southeast. The afternoon sun has dipped behind our building, although the light of it still illuminates the edges of a Cedar tree towering over our room. To the south, a man in a green jumpsuit waters the pansies by a grave with unhurried care.

A blackbird sings from the peak of an old slate roof. A dove coos from somewhere on the other side. Swallows dive thru the air, sweeping from their hidden homes in the bushes and branches farther up by the abbey.

The sound of children drifts up on the breeze from the hidden alleys between the rooftops below us. Shadows of the clouds march across the dry low-lands of the tidal basin. (It is low tide.) Across the bay, the steeples of Avranche shine in the summer sun.

The day wears on...

The man in the green jumpsuit has now finished. He searches for the key to the weathered wooden door of the clock tower. He holds up a ring and picks thru the keys one by one until he finds the one. It is an old skeleton key. He turns it in the keyhole and pushes the door open and puts his garden tools away.

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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A Room With A View

1. Looking for La Vielle Auberge

The hotel was on the only street in the village, so not having an address seemed natural. All we had to do was walk until we would certainly find it. And that is what we did.

The street in Mont Saint Michel climbs up the island from the gates and has shops and restaurants and hotels packed in close succession on either side. It is a bustling commericial district and has been for centuries.

We kept our eyes peeled for La Vielle Auberge and eventually saw the sign hanging out over the stream of people walking by. When we walked in with our backpacks and suitcases and duffel bag, a woman who seemed to be expecting us said, Bonjour in that characteristic French tone in which the first syllable is stressed and spoken in a high pitch. She had a warm smile on her face, as did the man next to her and a second woman not too far away.

We told her we had reservations and gave her our name. She nodded and said, Oui. Une chambre avec balcon. (She had stressed the balcony of our room several times when I spoke to her on the phone when making the reservations. I was certain that either we were in for a treat, or she was trying to put good spin on something mediocre.)

2. Climbing to the Room

After the formalities were complete, she handed a key to the second woman who asked us to follow her. She stepped out into the street, and we scrambled to follow her thru the crowd. When we caught up with her, she took us uphill a little farther and then made a sharp left turn off the main street, under an archway and up a narrow alley.

The noise of the crowd quickly diminished, and the alley climbed even more steeply than the street. We took a right turn and climbed some steps. Then there were more turns, more alleys, and more steps. All four of us began breathing deeply, and Trudy and Ben and I began to wonder if we would be able to retrace our steps.[*]

Eventually we came to a stop at a door in a stone building. I said to the woman (in what must have been quite awkward French) that she must have strong legs for climbing to the rooms so often. She chuckled and said she only has to do it three times a day. (They take turns, I guess.) Then she used the key to open the door.

Inside it was dark, and there were three more doors off a short, narrow hallway, each of which had a number on it. She walked to the end of the hall and opened the last door on the left.

3. The View

This was our room with a balcony, our room with a view that looked out on the bay from up high on the island. It looked to the east toward Avranche across the bay, where a distant church stood sitting on the ridge of a hill shining brightly in the summer sun. Our train had passed Avranche on our way to Pontorson earlier, and not long after that is when we spotted Mont Saint Michel in the distance as the train wound its way along the coastline. Now we were looking back the other way.

The sky overhead was blue. The tide had gone out, and the bay was a shining plain of brown mud and sand. There was a bell tower nearby rising from a church below. It rose out of the clutter of close-packed buildings, slate rooftops and cobblestone alleys. Behind us, building upon building was perched on top of one another climbing right up to the edges of the abbey. And on top of the abbey spire, golden Saint Michael with his sword held high shined in the sun against the backdrop of a summer blue sky.

This was no mediocre room. Clearly we were in for a treat.

[*] This is one of the advantages of travelling with a teenager. If you don't know how to find your way back, you just tell them to go out (on their own, that's the key enticement, here) and figure it out. Ben turned out to be quite adept at tracing his way thru the narrow alleys of the island, and this enticement seemed quite harmless, since ... how far could he go? [back]

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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Arriving at Mont Saint Michel

We stepped off the train onto the platform in Pontorson without knowing quite where to go. Our destination was Mont Saint Michel, and we only knew we had to take a bus. So we just followed the people in front of us. They all of them seemed to know what they were doing, and they all seemed to be going in the same direction.

Across the tracks and down the street a ways, it became clear where we needed to go. There was a bus waiting in front of a small building that could only be a bus station. And that was where everyone was headed.

Inside the small station at the back of a waiting room, there was a doorway that led to a small office where a man sat with some strange pieces of what looked like mid-twentieth century mechanical equipment that were evidently related to calculating the fares for the bus rides.

I asked for three tickets. He asked if we would be returning. I said we'd be returning tomorrow. He said we just needed one-way fares. He told me the price, which seems mighty cheap but then Mont Saint Michel was barely more than a stone's throw down the road. I paid him.

The bus was almost ready to leave. I asked the driver who stood at the door taking tickets if I could put our bags in the luggage bins underneath. He nodded. Then we showed him our tickets and climbed in.

The bus drove thru the rural countryside from Pontorson to the island. We went past farms and fields and hotels and cottages and then down a long causeway. We passed all the parked cars of the day-visitors directly to the gates to the castle, where we all climbed down from the bus and got our bags out from underneath.

From the bus, it was only a short walk to the gate. We crossed a small wooden boardwalk that took us from the causeway out over the still-wet mud flats and then around to the gate. The big wooden doors were swung open. Just inside was a small plaza filled with people arriving and leaving -- mostly arriving, because it was still early in the day. On the other side of the plaza was another gate with a raised portcullis and a second set of doors that opened onto a narrow cobblestone street that began to climb steeply uphill.

We passed thru the second gate. The crowd pressed in on us. There was barely enough room for us all: the people coming and going, the tourists standing around, fork lifts honking their horns and slowly climbing the steep cobblestone street loaded down with deliveries for the businesses lining the way, and shop owners standing in their doorways, some of them hawking there wares loudly. The sun was high enough in the sky that it threw a sliver of light on this mass of humanity packed in the tiny place.

There were no addresses here -- no need for them, I suppose, since the place is ultimately so small. So we didn't know how far to go to find the hotel. We just kept walking like everyone else. Trudy and Ben pulled their suitcases behind them, making a racket on the cobblestones. I carried my duffel bag over my shoulder and tried not to whack anyone with it as I turned to look back down the street to see how far we had climbed.

And just as I looked around and began to take in the view, the bells of the Abbey began to ring. This was a pealing ringing like the tolling of the bells in Vernon a few days ago. But whereas we sat outside in the grass on a hill across the river from those bells then, this ringing was trapped in the narrow streets. It bounced off the walls and cobblestone. It surrounded us. The whole island seemed to be vibrating.

I turned back around and walked quickly to catch up with Ben and Trudy who had moved far ahead in the stream of the people in the street. Not long after I caught up with them, the bells stopped ringing. And not long after that, we found our hotel.

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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Abbey Across the Bay

Our two-car Basse-Normadie diesel train sped across the green fields of Normandy. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. As we approached the bay, we could sometimes see the water thru breaks in the trees along the railroad tracks.

I looked out the window hopefully, thinking I might spot the island.

It wasn't there... It wasn't there... The trees closed in, and the view of the bay disappeared.

But then we went around a bend and up a hill and the trees broke and we had another view of the water. And there in the distance, far to the west across the bay, small and grey against the flat horizon of water, was a silhouette of the island and the abbey with its spire pointing up to the blue sky.

I gasped. Trudy looked over at me, and I pointed out the window so she and Ben could see. Then the trees closed in again, and that view of our destination was gone.

We would be there soon.

Trip to France - Day 7
Bayeux to Mont St. Michel by train

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