By Richard Varr
It protrudes majestically above the sea; the spire of its abbey the pinnacle of this near perfectly-rounded island that has lured pilgrims since the Middle Ages. I’m walking along a causeway leading to one of France’s most enchanting castles – Mont Saint Michel, its distant silhouette against a hazy sky seemingly more imposing with my every step.
My journey is only a few miles from the parking area. But I am imagining how medieval worshippers would traverse dangerous mountainous terrain on pilgrimages covering hundreds of miles to come here for reassurance of going to heaven. The Benedictine monastery is dedicated to the cult of St. Michael, the dragon-slaying archangel who fought for good over evil. “St. Michael raises souls. And if you committed a crime in medieval times, you would be scared of burning in hell,” says my tour guide. “So people would go on a pilgrimage to renovate their souls.”
“They would be very lucky to arrive on the coast of Normandy on a day like today,” he continues, “where on the horizon they would see Mont St. Michel – celestial Jerusalem, paradise on Earth.” But challenges remained to actually get to the island. Pilgrims perished in bogs of quicksand at low tide, trying to cross the deceiving sandy landscape. Others drowned as the tide rolled in at the rate of 200 feet per minute, or as legend has it, at the speed of a galloping horse.
As if I hadn’t walked enough already, I now start my ascent to the stone-walled abbey. A spiraling narrow street through a crush of trinket shops and eateries leads me up to steps – 300 or so – to finally reach the abbey, the top level of the three-floored monastery. Along the way, I walk through the vast monks’ refectory, a grassy cloister and a crypt of enormous pillars on the lower level supporting the medieval structure.
“Mont Saint Michel has always attracted people because of its spirituality and the beauty of the bay,” says my tour guide. “It’s so beautiful, so empty and so alive at the same time.”
I walk within craters – nearly 70-year-old bomb holes now overgrown with grass – along the shores of Normandy. I maneuver around cracked concrete slabs and rocky ledges, and step down into bunkers with rounded concrete gun turrets – some still intact – looking out over the beaches below.
“It was a key coastal battery because it was positioned between Utah and Omaha beaches,” explains my tour guide about Pointe du Hoc, a strategic German outpost atop a bluff. “It could have created havoc against the fleets going to Utah and Omaha beaches, and so it was really important to the allies that this battery be silenced on the morning of D-Day.”
Omaha Beach is the next stop on my tour of France’s D-Day sights. Now a peaceful and scenic stretch of sand with homes across the road, it’s hard to imagine that one of World War II’s most pivotal battles took place here when the Allies landed on June 6, 1944. Back then, the Germans had planted 82 machine gun nests and 16 battery posts in the hills above the beach.
“What’s hardest to comprehend today is the noise and the smell of the battle – smoke, powder and blood,” says the guide. “I think it’s impossible for us today to realize what it was like at the time.”
My half-day, D-Day beaches tour also includes a stop at the American Cemetery where 9,387 soldiers are buried beneath perfectly lined rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. We also visit the massive four-gun German battery at Longues-sur-Mer, now opposite a field of beautiful wild flowers. Our last stop is where I see the remnants of an extended artificial harbor along the shoreline at Arromanches-les-Bains, where Allied forces could unload 6,000 tons of equipment and 1,200 vehicles daily.
Next year is the 70 anniversary of D-Day. Another important stop should be at the Caen Memorial, a colossal museum in the nearby city of Caen focusing on D-Day and World War II.
Thought I would mention Rail Europe, which I used for part of my travel in France. I must say it’s a gem when commuting between cities not only in France, but all over Europe! According to the train service, “Rail Europe combines the maps, schedules and fares of over 50 different train companies across Europe, creating a one stop shop for the North American traveler to plan and book European rail travel.” http://www.raileurope.com