Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

Mont Saint Michel and Cancale

For an overnight foray from Paris, strike eastward to the sea. A four-hour drive delivers you to the Norman coast, and the sight of one of medieval Europe's most exquisite jewels, the UNESCO World Heritage site Mont Saint Michel. The Gothic-style Benedictine abbey is perched on a rocky outcrop that rises from shining tidal flats on a vast bay between the Cotentin peninsula and Brittany, appearing, as Victor Hugo wrote, "a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid."

Within the structure's fortifications, medieval structures line a steep ascent to the Mont. St. Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, built the Mont's first church in 709, reputedly at St. Michael's suggestion (the archangel having burned a hole in the Bishop's skull with his finger for initially ignoring the instruction). The Mont had a star part in the next millennium: a magnet for pilgrims, backer of William of Normandy's claim to the English throne (it appears in the majestic Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the conquest), unvanquished bastion in the Hundred Years' War; and, in the Revolution, a prison for the republican regime's clerical and political opponents.

The 400-km drive from Paris is mostly on motorways, so take plenty of cash for tolls, which are frequent and steep. The Mont's crowds are as prodigious as its beauty (three million people visit each year), but thin in the late afternoon. A leisurely start from Paris will have you reach the abbey in time to see the afternoon light stream through its stained glass windows, and the sunset from its high terraces. You needn't worry about tides — a causeway connects the Mont's islet to the mainland (the causeway is due soon to be replaced with a light bridge). Leave the squeeze of hotels on the Mont and find one in nearby Brittany — like the captivating Chateau de La Ballue at Bazouges-la-Pérouse.

Devote the next day to Brittany (or Breizh in Breton). Fiercely Celtic, the peninsula is a place of pirate coves and salt-bitten seafarers — with their striped sweaters, the very image of sailors. It's also the home of the crêpe, a good many apple orchards and a glut of seafood. For the ultimate lunch, head to the village of Cancale. World famous for its oysters — some deem it Europe's oyster capital — it has some 7 sq km of oyster beds, fed by tidal flows. Pacific oysters (or Creuses) predominate — a translucent, briny variety that tastes like a sliver of ocean. Procure a bottle of wine and fresh baguette, pass the strip of restaurants and continue along rue de Parcs to the main jetty, where you can buy a dozen local beauties — shucked on the spot by a practiced Cancalaise hand, and served on a platter with cut lemon — for a paltry €5. Dine there on the shore, tossing the shells to your feet and gazing across to the Mont's faint shape.