The telephone rang. “He proposed. We’re coming to Paris for our honeymoon. Wow, the most romantic place on earth! I’m counting on you to send me a list of all the wonderful places we can go see,” whispered my friend over the phone. Her betrothed must have been in the next room and she didn’t want him to hear what she was saying.
“Forget about Paris,” I said. She asked what I meant: weren’t I feeling well? Did I not love Paris anymore? “Mount Saint Michel,” I said. “I’ll book you a hotel on Mount Saint Michel and you’ll thank me!”
I’d first seen a picture of Mount Saint Michel when I was a child and growing up in South Africa, but I’d never forgotten it. “One day I’ll go there!” I promised myself. As such things happen, I didn’t get to see Mount Saint Michael until five years ago, even though I’ve been living in Paris for much longer. Now that I’ve seen it, I return there once a year: it beckons me back again and again, and I’m certain that should I live to the age of 500 I will never grow tired of it. I have now seen it at the height of summer, in the depth of winter, on a balmy spring afternoon and on a fall night when an icy spray from a stormy sea lashed the windows of my hotel room. It is pure magic; pure romance.
For a thousand years the mount – an islet rock, or scientifically-speaking a “tidal island”, 650 feet (200 metres) off the coast of Lower Normandy and thrusting 300 feet (92 metres) skywards - has beguiled those who saw it.
Saint-Michel is 220 miles (354 kms) from Paris. I always go there by train - the luxurious TGV express train (train à grande vitesse). I take the 10 a.m. from Montparnasse railroad station (Gare Montparnasse) in Paris’ 14th Arrondissement. The train heads for the town of Rennes, 216 miles (348 km) from the capital. At Rennes I leave the main station to catch a coach from the annex – a three-minute walk. The coach fare is included in the SNCF (French railroad) first-class return ticket of €120 Euro ($162; ₤82). The half hour drive is pure delight. In summer corn grows to the height of a man; in winter I sit back and watch smoke pour from the chimneys of the small, stone dwellings and inns we pass.
Twice now the driver of my coach pulled in at a gas station so that an elderly passenger could use the bathroom.
But what makes the drive from Rennes to Mont St-Michel most memorable is the moment I first get a glimpse of the mount on the approaching horizon. I will, and know that you will as well, think that an Impressionist artiste peintre (a painter) had suddenly stepped in front of the coach and that he had unrolled one of his canvases. It’s that kind of view. There is the corn, the sky, and then the mount: it shimmers on the horizon like a ship that has surfaced from the bottom of the ocean.