You can hear the rain pounding on the window and if you’re anything like me, your next thought is: when do I get to see the sun again? I could tell you to jet-off to Hawaii for the weekend, it would spare me a post but eyyy… maybe next year.
I was born in Normandy, and many years after having left the homeland for overseas pastures, it’s easy to forget how beautiful it all is. I enjoyed re-discovering the magical Mont St Michel, and sharing the experience.
Fun facts and history
The Mont is first and foremost known for its sacred and religious aspect, and the spectacular Abbey crowning it. As history puts it, in 709 the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop and ordered him to build a sanctuary on the Mont.
With a thousand years of history, many legends, stories and poems have been writen about the Mont. Here is one, written by my absolute favourite Normand author, Guy de Maupassant; his legend of the quarrel between the devil and St Michel, is a delight:
Saint Michael watches over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious, the conqueror of Satan.
But this is how the Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.
I saw a lot of journalist and blogs getting this wrong: the Mont St Michel is in Normandy, and it’s always been. When the Archangel alledgedly appeared in 709, under Charlemagne, the Mont was already belonging to the diocese of Avranche, Normandy. And more importantly, the Abbey was consequently built by Normand Benedictine monks in 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, and has been run by them ever since!
A couple more for the pub quiz:
– In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.
– Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century.
– During the French revolution in 1792, when the church properties got seized, the Abbey was transformed into a prison.
– the Mont currently counts 43 inhabitants, mostly monks!
Do’s and don’ts
The best season to travel there is surely late spring or summer, but even then, the weather can be very variable throughout the day so do dress in layers and pack a trench or waterproof rain coat.
you’ll walk a lot and climb many stairs, that being said, it’s all on roads / path, so flats or light trainers are a safe choice
The car park is a bit of a tourist trap and I had been well advised to avoid it, that’s how we stayed in a modest and lovely b&b where we could park (for free) and walk over to the Mont in 10min. This one next door also looked just as good, maybe more suited for longer stays.
Remember that hotels on the Mont are expensive and don’t actually enjoy the view…
Nothing has changed much since Victor Hugo was there either: I would still recommend to go for a nice meal on the mainland for the island is rather touristy and you might find “rotten fish in the middle of the sea” as he described.
be aware that restaurants will close early in the evening (last order 9.30pm in most places). We stayed until sunset and pretty much had to skip dinner…
do cross the bay, walking or on horseback…it’s recommended to do it with a guide as it can get dangerous
do visit the Abbey, for the first time I had the chance to follow the evening path, lit for the summer…around 8/9pm is ideal as the sunset falls on the cloister…magical. Info here and there
For the foodies…
The Mont sits at the border between Brittany and Normandy and as a result you will find a lot of regional delicacies from both sides of the river.
I have previously confessed on this blog my love for cider(the sparkling alcoholic apple based beverage), and this time I even brought back home some Pommeau(aperitif based on cider and Calvados liquor). Enjoyed best with a caramel crêpe….yum
But the true local delicacy is the salt march lamb, called in French “agneau de pré-salés”. Because the area enjoys some of the strongest tides in the world, pastures sometimes get covered and soaked in sea water. The little lambs therefore graze in high salt content environment, giving the meat a distinctive (but not salty) flavour. It is a very refined dish that you may only find in high end restaurants, and normally only from end of June until Christmas.
Dramatic sunset over the bay
La Porte du Roy
the shadow of the Mont in the water
it’s rare to see cloisters having such a breath-taking sea view
inside the Abbey
Mandatory stop at the Mere Poulard Inn (since 1888): crepes with caramel and Pommeau, yum
Victor Hugo to his daughter Adele:
“J’étais hier au Mont-Saint-Michel. Ici, il faudrait entasser les superlatifs d’admiration, comme les hommes ont entassé les édifices sur les rochers et comme la nature a entassé les rochers sur les édifices. Mais j’aime mieux commencer platement par te dire, mon Adèle, que j’y ai fait un affreux déjeuner. Une vieille aubergiste bistre a trouvé moyen de me faire manger du poisson pourri au milieu de la mer. Et puis, comme on est sur la lisière de la Bretagne et de la Normandie, la malpropreté y est horrible, composée qu’elle est de la crasse normande et de la saleté bretonne qui se superposent à ce précieux point d’intersection.”
Around and away
We came from London via the ferry boat and my friend drafted the following itinerary for us with her favourite beaches and areas on the coast. Feel free to use it:
Another way to do it would be to start from Caen (accessible by train from Paris or by ferry boat) and combine your visit with the D-Day beaches and the WW2 memorial museum. For convenience I do recommend to rent a car from Caen or Cherbourg onward.
Note that FlyBe has also opened a London Southend / Caen line a few months ago.
As a touristy destination, Morocco almost has it all: sun pretty much all year round, surf, mountains, cultural cities, fantastic food, stable political background, cheap access from Europe and no jet lag, no need for a visa…..la douceur de vivre in a bloody disorganised Mediterranean atmosphere. Oh well…we love it.
Taghazout is a fishermen village nested on the Atlantic coast near Agadir, a good couple of hours by car from Marrakech where one can get easier flight connections. The drive from Agadir foretells a wide upcoming change in the area. Currently, it is touristy, but still at human scale, for how much longer? Mohammed VI & the government put in place a development plan in 2010 and decided to boost the country’s tourism capacity and infrastructures by 2020. The industry currently represents over 7% of the country’s GDP and is the 2nd biggest sector for job creations. Tourist flows are mostly coming from France and the rest of Europe. The little village of Taghazout, can only get busier.
The village is a large main dusty street fitted with small grocery shops and restaurants, vagabond cats, and goats eating off the rubbish. My hosts recommend going eating outside of town, driving to Agadir as we’ll find “nothing suitable here”. Well that wasn’t quite right. We we able to find welcoming quirky little places with fresh quality products, and in particular, Dar Josephine, on the main street, close the the pharmacy.
** And how about the surfing?
the winter swell is (really) big, it’s cheap and convenient to come from Europe and makes Anchor Point one of the most attractive winter spot in the region; together with its Spanish neighbour, 170km offshore, the Canaries Islands, roughly oriented the same way, exposed to the N-NW swells that churn the North Atlantic from October to March. But if the quality of surfing instruction in Lanzarote (when I say that I mean Surf School Lanzarote) was outstanding, however the standards are not quite the same in Morocco, and not better value either.
We had been warned, it’s big waves, for big independent guys, not improvers. We did find nice little schools run by Brits, but we struggled to find a real ISA recognised school. And indeed, the safety talk is mostly reduced to “Inch’Allah”, there are obviously no life guards in sight, and the coaching is rather limited to showing you a few pop-up on the sand….not exactly my definition of coaching!!
If you are just looking to have a blast and meet people, any of Surf Maroc or Surf Berbere camps will probably be exactly that; everyone is really chilled and laid back, in a very backpacking-y sort of atmosphere reminiscent of the hippy days of Tanghazout. Most schools will also offer day trips and after-surf yoga classes during the sunset hours (amazing….).
Yoga class with a view
Breakfast is just magical, freshly pressed local oranges, local honey and home made yoghurt…delicious
wrought iron gates and beautiful azulejos
Camels, donkey, goats, nothing distracts out group away from their cheery mood
** A good book for the plane….
I asked quite a few friends, what should I be reading in the plane? I love exchanging good books recommendations with friends, it’s normally a great way to scratch a little bit beyond the surface; as invariably, people start with food recommendations when they talk about their country). Those 2 are standing out:
– Partir (Leaving Tangier) – by Tahar Ben Jelloun, written in French
– For Bread alone – Mohamed Choukri, written in Arabic and translated to American English by Paul Bowles, and to French by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
** Travelling in my kitchen
2 dishes that I stole from Josephine, who’s been kind enough to show me her wonderful sauce and chit chat about flavours and smells. Lots of garlic, cumin and the fabulous local aromatic oil are some of their secret ingredients.
– 2 ts orange blossom water
– 2 ts orange juice
– press half a lemon (2ts)- 1/2 ts paprika
– 1/2 ts cumin seeds or ground
– 1/2 ts cinnamon
– a pinch of salt
dice the beetroot (after cooking and peeling if required) and peel and grate the carrots, macerate with the vinaigrette and serve fresh, maybe with a mint leaf or a couple of pomegranate seeds as a decoration.
The 2nd one will be the Kefta & egg tajine; but I have to confess here, I have been rather lazy. The dish itself should be soaked in water overnight before use and I keep procrastinating this bit.
I came back with an over-packed suitcase in which I managed to cram non only a berber tajine but also some of the missing items in my pamper-pantry, and in particular, some argan- enriched black soap and ghassoul.
Black soap comes in a sort of jelly mushy dark brown paste. This one is enriched with Argan oil so a little bit lighter. Ideally in a hot steam room (or in my case, after an essential oil enriched bath) spread it on your body, warning, the smell isn’t exactly pleasant but be reassured, it doesnt stay as after a few minute you’ll scrub
** Other Inspirations:
– Films: Laïla Marrakhi’s first and controversial film “Marok” is a fresh high school romance but not only. I can’t wait to watch her most recent one “Rock the Casbah” (I’m waiting until the dvd as I doubt we’ll get to see it at the cinema in London…)
my next time in Morocco? The more I read about it, the more I’m burning to discover Fes, the desert; I’d also like to spend a little bit more time in Marrakech and get to see Yves St Laurent’s gardens….and last but not least I”ll DEFINITELY carry more hand sanitiser in my hand bag.
Can’t get bored of London but knowing that I can spend a weekend on a white sand beach less than 2h away from it is also rather appealing!
if kite surfing was invented by the French (apparently in the 80’s and on water skis!!)…Camber Sands is definitely a beautiful English south coast kite surfing spot, a short ride from home.
What’s the weather like? check the winds and weather conditions here. Anything below 10/15 knots won’t be enough.
I don’t have my equipment / I’m a beginner, what do I do? several options to hire and take classes but those guys are the only one with a base on the beach. Personally, I found the best value in the private tuition shared in 2 people.
How do I get there? from London, it’s either a 1.30h train and cab ride; or more social, rent a car with a few friends for about £20/person.
I don’t care about kiteboarding, is it worth the trip? yes if you’re bored of Brighton and want to wrest with a sea gull for a fish & chips at the cute (but not exceptionally affable) Mermaid Inn or closer to the beach we also found very fresh fish at the beach bistro
Just booked two week in Tuscany in June! after a time-consuming benchmarking exercise comparing different language schools in Firenze, Milano, Roma etc etc, I finally opted for Viareggio. For the past few years, I have enjoyed participating in the LSE summer language classes, it’s a nice way to meet people and to get a serious kick-start to a new language. But this year, after having followed the Italian Cultural Institute weekend courses, I felt like I deserved a treat: a new language yes, but while enjoying the sun, beach-runs, & local wines….that’s about as good as language-acquisition gets!
I have a love & hate relationship with languages, as a teenager, the first holidays I worked the whole summer to finance was a full time Spanish immersion in Barcelona; when I arrived in London, I signed up straight away for speech improvement classes; and generally, the more I travel and work surrounded by people coming from various horizons, the more I want to learn to speak to them in their native speech. But speaking languages is at the same time extremely gratifying and unbearably frustrating. As fluent as one will become, it’s a never-ending process, what’s worse: one has to constantly fight against their own memory, which is – perversely – trying to off-load and forget as much as it can…
a friend recently told me his 10 years-retired mum, despite her career as an English teacher, couldn’t speak to his American wife, for she has forgotten most of it! Can’t blame the Brits for hating languages….
PS: for Italian-as-a-second-language speakers, any easy good audio-books to recommend? (pls not Harry Potter)
On stressful days like this, I dream of being able to take a coffee break on Famara beach, Canarias.
It’s the end of the world. Don’t go to party, not point. We were alone, watching the sun rise and falling asleep right after the sun had set (and the bottle of local vino), exhausted and ocean-washed. Alone to the point when we wondered : where are the locals gone!?
We asked the (many) Brits we found, why they had decided to live in Canarias: the answer was invariably, “because it’s sunny, and we benefit from steady surf conditions all year round”. It would be a good enough reason; but the volcano-island in the Atlantic ocean, has much more to offer; great wine, cheese, sun, and above all : peace.
Go get your surf board, it’s one of the best spot in the world
The first things that surprised us was that the island is small, but you’ll definitely need a car, no public transport there. Also, that the weather is ever changing. The land is swept by the wind, for the greatest pleasure of surfers, but making the shining sun turn into a bone soaking shower in 3min.
but for more experienced surfers (or for those who, like us, will enjoy watching some serious action live), go to La Santa. It’s 10min driving from Famara, and the most famous surf spot of the island.