After breakfast (we introduced Dan to the standard European hotel breakfast of fresh breads, rolls, croissants, pain au chocolate, butter, jams, meats, cheeses, muesli, yoghurt, boiled eggs, juice, coffee, tea, and milk ) we checked out of the Bayeux Novotel about 8:15, then drove into town. The timing was Reaching toward heaven excellent, as the cathedral opened at 8:30 and we walked through the lovely cathedral and the crypt. Not much interior splendor is left after the devastating Battle of Normandy, but the gothic architecture is still breathtaking. Somehow these cathedrals seem to reach towards heaven.
We went immediately to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Before viewing the actual tapestry, where the lines can get pretty crowded, and have to move along, the visitor is encouraged to study a lengthy exhibit of a copy of the tapestry, with lots of explanations in English and French of each of the panels. For uninitiated students like us, this part of the museum is most rewarding, because it got our brain cells working.
The Bayeux tapestry itself, 20 inches high yet over 200 feet in length, was made in England, shortly after the events portrayed -- in the eleventh century. Later the embroidery was mounted on a linen background, possibly for display in the cathedral at Bayeux on festival days. In any event, it gives one version of the story of the Norman Conquest. Did it have a political purpose? Scholars are uncertain. The fifty-eight-scene tapestry, inscribed in Latin, pictures Harold's visit to Normandy shortly before the death of Edward the Confessor of England. Harold meets William, is treated royally, accompanies William on a campaign against Brittany, is knighted by William, perhaps becomes his vassal, but most importantly swears an oath (so says the Wreckage in Normandy tapestry) to support William's claim to the English throne after the death of Edward. The Tapestry goes on to describe Harold's immediately having himself crowned after Edward's death, his trip to York to repel the Vikings, meanwhile William's preparation and landing, followed by the battle of Hastings, Harold's death, William's accession to the throne of England, and his solidification of the conquest.
The real tapestry is in a darker room, mounted in long cases at eye level. Many visitors stopped to listen to audiotape explanations while viewing the tapestry. We marvelled at the art work, made nearly a thousand years ago, and were delighted to know how much social history was being extracted from the view of hundreds of men and horses, along with dozens of ships and buildings. The educational value is enormous.
Our next stop was the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. This large museum in Bayeux probably had the best coverage of the invasion before the building of the Caen Memorial in 1989. It is still superior to the Caen Memorial in quantity of military equipment and uniforms on display, along with old newspapers and broadsides, which give a reasonable representation of the progress of Operation Overlord. By now Dan could recognize the major players from their pictures.
Leaving Bayeux we drove south, stopping twice for a snack. The first snack was at a rest stop where the highway sign said, merely, FRITES. One could in fact accompany those fries with hot dogs or hamburgers. The second snack was a candy bar where the paper tape ran out in the cashier's till, and Mont St. Michel three successively more senior employees worked on installing the new roll before the transaction could be concluded.
Like every other tourist seeing it for the first time, we were awestruck at our first views of Mont St Michel. The sight is breathtaking because the 80 meter high rock, surmounted by another 40 meters of abbey, arises from an enormous tidal flat; the contrast between horizontal and vertical is breathtaking.
Our hotel was perhaps five minutes away, on the kind of tourist approach road that wouldn't be out of place near Disneyland. After checking in we drove to the Mont St. Michel parking lot and walked up the long approach road. Ascending the mount we were immediately put off by the multitude of souvenir shops and tourist traps in the town of Mont St. Michel, all along the cobblestone street that twisted steeply up the hill, filled with hundreds of tourists on their way to or from the Abbey itself. We were also put off by the dozens of tour buses, several noisy school groups, and tour guides waving flags and lecturing their charges. But to our great relief and pleasure, our self-guided walk through the abbey was sheer pleasure.
We took an uncountable number of pictures, and enjoyed the huge building which covers the mountain top like a hand wraps around a ball. The church is on the top level, and other abbey rooms are on lower levels, out to the sides of the solid stone mountain. The building stones seem to grow out of the High, but still looking up rock of the mountain. The entire structure is so compellingly photogenic that we couldn't stop snapping pictures. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour, loved the complexity of the architecture, not to mention its beauty, and the lovely gilded statue of St. Michael which had been lowered into place on top of the spire by a helicopter.
We returned after dinner to the parking lot to see the abbey at sunset, almost 11 p.m. on June 18. We watched the colors slowly fade from the sky, and gradually we saw the warm orange lights of the evening illuminations.
As the evening progressed, the tide came in, filling the shallow depressions all along the sand, creating and dissolving low island. Not so many years ago, the Mount could only be visited at certain times of day, and with special attention to tide tables, but in recent times the estuary has filled up with silt, the roads have been raised, and the only remaining warnings are for the cars in the parking lot, which is low and occasionally flooded. Earlier in the day at low tide we had watched visitors walking out on the flats perhaps a mile to a nearby island; they played in the sandy water like children.
As they say in France, today was incroyable.