Thanks to a few religious holidays in early May that shut down cities and commerce in Alsace, I was able to escape for four days to the northwest of France.
It all started with a brochure that I found in my local church announcing a pilgrimage with young people from all over Europe and from all different faiths. At 140 euros, I knew it wouldn’t be luxury (Strasbourg to Normandy by bus is no picnic and the fact that a sleeping mat was required hinted at the lack of five-star accommodations), but who can say no to a visit to the magnificent Mont St. Michel that I’ve heard about since childhood, and a four-day international experience at a less-than-student price?
We met at a church in Strasbourg at 4am, bleary-eyed but enthusiastic. All of the Strasbourgeois were named grouped leaders, so we were all split up among the 120 or so foreigners hailing from Germany, Austria, Italian, Belgium and Poland. I can understand German okay, simple Italian is understandable thanks to its proximity to French, and the Belgians were from the French-speaking part of their country. Polish? Clueless.
I ended up in a 100% Polish bus except for my French seat buddy. Almost everyone spoke English, but not all. A few spoke French instead of English, so our conversations were either three-way translated or involved a lot of miming. Nevertheless, we arrived in Lisieux in the late afternoon with some great new friends (and as for me, my Polish vocabulary had increased by a whole two words!).
Liseux is the hometown of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century Catholic saint who died in her twenties of tuberculosis after a lifetime of serving the church as a Carmelite nun. She is known for her teachings of the “Little Way” in which she acknowledged her insignificance in this world but insisted that small acts of goodness are more important than being a big hero.
The city has been transformed into a celebration of her life (very touristy but it is, after all, the second most popular pilgrimage destination in France): the Basilica of Lisieux was constructed in her honor, the 12th-century St. Pierre Cathedral where she prayed has been carefully preserved, and her body lies in a magnificent tomb in the chapel of Carmel. We were lucky enough to visit all three. The experience was very touching; seeing the tomb of someone who had lived such a good, kind life and is now adored for it by thousands of visitors who sometimes shed tears as they add a candle to the hundreds already adorning her statue can be appreciated by people of any faith or lack thereof.
Basilica of Lisieux
Basilica of Lisieux
Basilica overlooking the city
St. Therese relic and memorial, Basilica of Lisieux
Dome of Basilica of Lisieux
Interior, Basilica of Lisieux
Crypt of the Basilica of Lisieux
St. Pierre Cathedral
St. Pierre Cathedral and St. Therese
Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral
Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral
Statue above tomb of St. Therese
On Friday morning, we awoke early and left the residence hall in which we were staying (I couldn’t complain about the view from hilltop where it stood overlooking the cute city and its many steeples). We headed by bus to Deauville, a small French town with grand summer homes overlooking the beach and plenty of farms and rolling hills stretching out around it. I couldn’t help but think of Asterix as we made our way through tiny brick streets lined with ancient thatched roof-houses. We made our way along the beach for hours, admiring the view, stopping occasionally for snacks or to gather seashells among the piles that had washed ashore.
Normandy has a reputation for being gray, cold and rainy; and that’s how our walk was minus the rain, thankfully. We had started out in a huge group but as the day wore on, people began breaking down into small groups of four or five… and then pairs… and then we all spread out alone for miles, each lost in their own thoughts and admiration of the surroundings.
Around 7p.m., after a nearly 15-kilometer march, we were greeted by this view of Houlgate:
We then headed to our accommodations, exhausted but quite proud of ourselves. We fell asleep as soon as we curled up in bed but were awoken what felt like seconds later. It was 6 a.m. and time to head to the Mont. St. Michel, the goal of our journey!
We drove to Genêts, a quaint Normandy town just across the bay from the Mont St. Michel. After a small service at Notre Dame, a small, 13th century Roman architecture church, we enjoyed a lunch on a hill overlooking a field of sheep. In the distant fog, the Mont St. Michel stood alone in the expansive bay; I didn’t know at the time that it would actually take a three hours to walk there.
So we started off with our guides, two retirees who spend each day leading groups of tourists across the sticky, wet bay before the tide comes back in the evening and surrounds the island.
“Have people died?” my buddy asked our guide as we took off our shoes on the edge of the bay.
“Of course!” he said cheerfully. “But that’s because they go alone and they don’t know that there’s quicksand and flash floods and…” I covered my ears and watched our group take their first steps into the bay. They sank a foot into the mud, slipping and sliding from left to right at the same time, some laughing their heads off, some screaming and others praying as if the end was near. The guides moved forward as if it was completely normal, telling everyone to do the same so that we wouldn’t completely sink into the gray slime.
What have I gotten myself into? I thought and took my first steps, sinking calf-deep. I pushed forward and even when I did come across a patch of solid ground, it was so slick that my heart dropped during every step. This went on for almost an hour. Finally, we arrived at some tiny streams where people had to lift each other across to avoid the quicksand underneath. Just when I thought about calling a helicopter taxi to come save me (must remember to find and enter helicopter taxi number into phone before my next trip there), we reached a sandy area. Wet, but not perilous.
All throughout the march the guides were sure to remind us of the many ways in which we could lose our lives, the most impending being the tide that was due to arrive in a two and a half hours. I sped up.
At one point, we came to a river of about 100 meters across.
“Yup, that’s the first part of the tide,” our guides announced excitedly and then they left us on the bank to test the waters alone. When they returned, we were cleared to go, on the condition that we form three rows and link arms with those next to us.
“There’s a lot of quicksand,” the woman announced with a broad smile. “So keep moving. Even if you feel that you’re sinking, keep moving.”
After watching a few groups make it safely across, I felt better and the fact that the people next to me ended up lifting me and the other vertically challenged members of our group across the deepest parts of the water made me feel much better. We reached the other side, looked up, and saw that the island was just a few yards away.
Or so it seemed.
It took us another hour to finally reach its mossy banks and collapse onto some rocks, pausing for a few minutes to rest and look out over the enormous expanse of sand we had just crossed, silent with awe and (mostly) exhaustion. We avoided the eyes of puzzled tourists ogling us in fascination—they had arrived by the bridge connecting the island to the mainland on the other side and couldn’t understand why were dripping with gray sand-slime. Then, with feet too muddy to put on our shoes again, we hurried through the city to find a spigot (never, I repeat, never walk on ancient cobblestone streets without shoes…), get clean, and grab a bite to eat. As tired as we were, we wanted to explore the 11th-century edifice that served as a reminder of the sweat (not many tears and fortunately, no blood) that we had shed during our journey towards it. It was well-worth the wait. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies and are familiar with Middle Earth’s cities built into cliffs, you can sort of begin to imagine how the island looks. Every narrow street goes uphill or downhill; there is hardly a square meter of flatness on all of the island. They wind and turn and lead to tiny passageways or small rocks that jut out over the sea. Tourists rush around and the smells of coffee and beignet (French donuts) float through tiny shop windows.
Luckily for us, we were also able to experience a peaceful, quieter version of the island after 9p.m. when the tourists empty out and head to their hotels via the bridge that connects the adjoining village to the island. The city was absolutely silent except for our group; we lit candles and climbed endless stone steps in a procession. We reached the basilica and nightfall and glimpsed an amazing view of the water that now filled the bay we had crossed just a few hours earlier.
The isolation you feel when you look out over the water is the good kind: the kind that makes you feel as though you’re on another planet, cut off from the rush and noise of everyday life. Perfect for the ten or so priests and nuns who live there, I thought, and perfect for the monastic life they lead (although one revealed to me later that they have to leave the island every few months to walk on flat ground, because constantly climbing up and down the mountain is a psychological challenge, not to mention physically bad for one’s knees).
The feeling of being cut off deepened around 10p.m. as we sat in the quiet, dark basilica at the very top of the mountain in complete darkness except the candles we each held as well as a few that were lit around the church. Wind continually and forcefully pounded the centuries-old stone walls and windows, rocking the entire building, but we were nestled among the flicker of our candles, the calming smell of burning incense, and the hum of the priests and nuns as they chanted their prayers: that night was enchanting, bewitching, and I’ll never forget how I felt in that instant that the rest of the outside world had suddenly evaporated and that we had been transported not to another planet but another place and time in the universe.
They say that life is a long, hard road before eternal rest in paradise; they also say that a pilgrimage is a symbol of life. The bay was the road and the night atop the Mont St. Michel was definitely a brief moment of heaven here on Earth.