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A French Reverie

written by: himali

The image of Mont St. Michel had been etched in my mind since the first time I came upon it during a random internet search. The lost wonders of the world...the by-line claimed. Maybe it was the mystery hidden in that line that clinched it. Or, the photograph that followed. The smooth brown walls of the abbey, the endless steeples extending into a cloudless sky, exuding a quiet old-world charm. The place beckoned like none had before. I knew I would go there some day. It was just a matter of time.

Finally, last summer my dream came true. Little did I realize then that this would be a journey not a trip. My first solo trip. The first of many to follow.

I lodged in St. Malo, a sleepy seaside town about an hour's bus ride from Mont St. Michel. The salty sea breeze hit me as soon as I stepped onto the station. The youth hostel, 'Centre Patrick-Varangot' was a 15 minute bus-ride from the station and soon I was bumping along in the bus through the narrow streets. The bus dropped me just outside the youth hostel. Games were in progress in the tennis court and basketball court along the driveway and the occasional cheers of the spectators pierced the otherwise serene setting. The courtyard was strewn with picnic tables, groups clustered around their supper. A tall stone building, walls thick with ivy housed the reception. One of the attendants showed me to the dorm I would be sharing with three other girls. A basic 4-bed dorm with pastel green walls and a large white window which opened into the courtyard. I dumped my rucksack on one of the bunk-beds to mark your territory.

Next morning, I set off for Mont St. Michel. The bus ride to Mont St. Michel was a pleasant one hour journey winding through the Normandy countryside dotted with picturesque villages. Mont St. Michel has been named as a world heritage site by the UNESCO and attracts almost three million visitors every year. It is built on an islet surrounded by sandy shores on all sides. During high tide it is difficult to access the mont as the sea water surrounds it from all sides sometimes submerging even the road leading to it.

Almost an hour into the journey the bus stopped on a small bridge and the driver motioned us out. Across the fields stood the mont, proud, rising almost beacon-like. All tour buses to Mont St. Michel stop here for the perfect picture before proceeding further. The clear blue sky and the ocean in the distance provided the perfect backdrop, almost as if they had been placed there to showcase the mont! The image that had been imprinted in my mind for so many years was finally in front of me. And in a matter of minutes we were there.

Beyond the gate to the mont there is a cobble-stoned path, the 'Grand Rue', leading to the abbey church at the top. Spring being the peak tourist season; visitors throng the museums, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants along the path. These buildings in the past used to be residences and they are so well- preserved in their authenticity that one can easily imagine people living there going about their day-to-day lives. It's an uphill climb of about forty-five minutes to the top but the magnificent Abbey church and the panoramic view of the bay makes the effort worthwhile! The steeples of the church pierce high into the sky and the carvings in the stone wall tell stories of the eras gone by. I spent about an hour walking around the abbey church and imagining the time when the church would have been full of people and the sounds of the choir and the organs would be filling the air. I took the more circuitous route on my way down so that I could enjoy the view of the vast countryside on one side and the endless ocean on the other. The climb down was much easier and in no time I was back in the bus and we were on our way back to St. Malo.

The following day I set out to explore the walled city of St. Malo. Centuries ago, when the city came into existence it was contained within a fortified area which jutted out into the sea. It was connected to the mainland by a strip of road just a few kilometres wide. Over the years, as the city grew, the inhabitants started moving into the mainland. The old walled city is still pretty much intact and attracts tourists by the flocks. The entire length of the beach is lined by a promenade and at the far end of the promenade is the fortified town. It was a 3-4 kilometre walk but the lapping of the waves on one side of the promenade and the charming houses and inns on the other side kept me going. The magnificent blue of the sea merged almost seamlessly with the white of the sand and created an almost picture perfect setting. The serenity of the early morning added to the magic.

Once at the walled city, one can either explore it on foot or take a guided tour on the mini train, I opted for the latter first. The walled city today is a mix of the old and the new. Though the original stone buildings still exist, they now house everything from fast-food restaurants to village cafes, international brand shops to charming boutiques selling local ware. Though it may not appeal to a purist, I found this odd blend charming. Some of the buildings have been converted to holiday homes that visitors can rent out; the prices though are quite exorbitant as compared to the hotels in the city. There are various street performances at every nook and corner and these jugglers, singers, dancers and acrobats add to the festive atmosphere. Artists and caricaturist line some streets luring the visitors to pose for a portrait. After the guided tour, I set out to explore the walled city on foot. One of the most impressive buildings here is the cathedral towering way above the rest of the buildings and its rose window is regarded as one of the most beautiful ones of the cathedrals in Europe.

After lunch, I strolled out to the ramparts built at the top of the wall. These ramparts provide several vantage view-points of the vicinity. From the ramparts, I could see two islets just a few metres into the sea, off the St. Malo coast. One of the islets is the tomb of author Francois Rene de Chateaubriand and the other is called the National Fort and is made of granite. At low-tide, one can simply walk across the sandy beaches to the islets. It was evening by the time I made my way back along the beach to the youth hostel. The beach was now crowded with some people lying on their towels enjoying the last rays of the summer sun while others engaged in beach games.

The next day was my last day in St. Malo and I wanted to make the most of it. I hoisted my rucksack on my back and took a bus to the Solidor tower. The tower houses a small castle and a fortress which still holds remains of stonework from the Gallo-Roman era. After a short tour of the tower, I walked down to a park at the edge of the marina and settled down on one of the benches to reflect on my short trip. I could see the steeple of the cathedral of the walled city in the distance and the islets off the coast. Finally, it was time to bid adieu to this beautiful French town and head back to the station.

I had set out on this trip to realize my dream of Mont St. Michel. Along the way I also discovered another charming French gem. But, most of all I discovered the pleasure of traveling alone. Rambling on my own accord; writing and rewriting my itinerary in sand. Aah! I was already itching to happen upon my next dream destination.


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