Thursday, July 27, 2023

Walking in Montparnasse


Notre-Dame des Champs Church

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, I was heading to Amsterdam. However, I had to travel through Paris, and my train back to Paris arrived late in the evening. I decided to give myself a day to rest. I chose to stay near the Gare Montparnasse, which is where the train from Normandy arrived.

I spent two nights at the Hotel Villa Modigliani which is part of the Vacances Bleues chain. This hotel is right in the heart of the Montparnasse neighborhood (14th arr.). It is a very nice 3-star hotel that was built in 1997, and it offers a great home base for a stay in Paris.

Marguerite Boucicaut, By Unknown author - Fonds Boucicaut,Via Wikicommons

On my “day of rest” I decided to explore some of Montparnasse. I started my walk at the Square Boucicaut, This small park, adjacent to Sévres-Babylon Metro station, is named for Baroness Marguerite Boucicaut (1816-1887). Marguerite, and her husband Aristide, were founders of Le Bon Marché, which is next to the square.  Le Bon Marché was the first department store in Paris. The Boucicauts brought a very progressive view to running their business. In addition to creating a pension fund for their workers, they included staff in a profit-sharing scheme. Upon her death, Marguerite’s fortune went to fund public works, scientists including Louis Pasteur, and the construction of a hospital.

Le Bon Marché

Marguerite Bouciaut and Clara de Hirsh by Paul Moreau-Vauthier

Near the park is the Chapel of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. This shrine was built in 1813 under a decree from King Louis XVIII. Its name comes from the alleged appearance of The Virgin Mary in 1830 and her request for the creation of the medal of the “immaculate conception.”

Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

About 2.0 km (1.2 mi) from Square Boucicaut is the Montparnasse Cemetery. The second largest cemetery in Paris, it holds 35,000 gravesites, and has an impressive list well known people buried there. These include Jacque Chirac, Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Becket and Susan Sontag. The problem is, with 35,000 graves in 47 acres of space, it is very crowded, and it can be hard to find the sites for people who are not buried along to paths.

Montparnasse is a neighborhood that offers many beautiful buildings and interesting architecture, art, theaters, and wide range of places to see and great food to enjoy. I had a wonderful day to collect myself before moving on to my next destination - Amsterdam.



Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, France

The nave and Choir of the church


Sitting at the top of the island of Mont Saint-Michel is the reason for all the crowds - The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel au Péril de la Mar (Mount Saint Michael at the peril of the Sea). With a history that spans over 1400 years, this church draws visitors from around the world.

Waiting to enter the abbey

According to legend, the Catholic Church established a series of oratories on the island of Mont Saint-Michel as far back as the early 8th century. While not consecrated churches, there were places of contemplation and prayer. During the 9th century, Charlemagne chose Mont Saint-Michel as a protector of his empire and had the first idea of building a church here. The transcript crossing was originally constructed in 1066 at the top of the island, 80 m (265 ft) above the bay. Constructing a church in this spot was not easy. The area was not large enough for a full church, so other buildings had to be built to support the structure of the nave and choir. The first attempt collapsed on 1103. In fact, the church, and its attendant buildings were not completed until 1543.

Mont Saint-Michel served as a Benedictine monastery until 1791, when it was closed by the republican government of the French Revolution. It served as a prison until 1863, when a group of prominent citizens petitioned emperor Napoleon III to close it and designate the the structure as a national treasure. The abbey remained unoccupied until 1966, when some Benedictine monks remained after a celebration of the millennial anniversary of its founding. Today there are approximately 25 members of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem that live there full time.

Preparing for midday service

A visit to the abbey takes some planning, but it is well worth it. I highly recommend buying timed entry tickets in advance. You can do this on-line, or at the Tourism Office on the island. They will arrange for you to participate in a tour in English or French. The line for “day-of” tickets can be very long, and having a timed entry allows you to bypass the line, although you will still have to check-in for your tour in the ticket office. The abbey sits at the top of the island, and so there is a lot of climbing of hills and stairs to get there. You will also have to go up and down several stairways during your tour, which starts at the top, and then wends its way through the support buildings working back down to the ticket office/souvenir shop.

You will begin your tour at the main church. First, enjoy the view from platforms outside the building. There are great views of the bay and the surrounding land. You will also find some very friendly seagulls hanging out, looking for food.

The nave of the church is built on the island’s core rock, but the choir is not. It is supported by buildings underneath, along with around 2 dozen columns that reach down around 60 feet.

Leaving the church, you enter the cloister, a place of contemplation, although with today’s crowds, that is not so easy. The ceiling around the open space is decorated with friezes, each one unique.

The outside of the cloister wall

The cloister sits on top of the support buildings along the north side of the abbey. Leaving the cloister you enter the monk’s refectory. They would eat their meals here, while one member of the brotherhood would sit and read from the Bible.

Inside the Refectory

The reader's seat

Your tour will take you back and forth below the church, traveling between the buildings. You will visit the dining room for visiting nobility, the one for their servants, a small chapel, an herb garden, and the room used both in the past and present to transport supplies up to abbey.

Fireplace in the Noble's dining room

The Noble's Dining Room

The Archangel Michael

Herb Garden

Dining room for those not of nobility

Passage from one side of the hill to the other

The tour ends up at the souvenir shop (of course), and from there you exit into the Bois de l’Abbaye, and make your way back to the main street of the island.

When you finish your tour of the abbey, find a place for lunch, and then enjoy one of the other museums, or a day wandering the back paths of Mont Saint-Michel. 


Thursday, July 13, 2023

Mont Saint-Michel, France


I have dreamt about visiting Mont Saint-Michel for over thirty years. In 1990 the movie “Mindwalk” was released. Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, and John Heard spend almost two hours discussing science, philosophy, and the meaning of life. As they do, they walk around the Mont Saint-Michel. I fell in love with the island immediately.

Mont Saint-Michel is a tidal island that sits approximately one kilometer off the coast of Normandy. A tidal island is one that is accessible by walking at low tide, but not at high tide. It covers 4 sq Km (1.5 sq mi) and climbs up to 80 m in height. There are about 25 permanent residents on the island, and 60 buildings. The main structure on Mont Saint-Michel is the Abbey, which was originally constructed in the 9th century, but more on that next week.

The ability to defend Mont Saint-Michel made it an important stronghold over the centuries. Its limited access, height, and the ability to construct ramparts for protection made it a safe haven. The abbey played important roles in the Norman conquest of England and in the Hundred Years War.

Mont Saint-Michel was always a place that could be difficult to visit. It was cut off to everything but boats during high tides, which average 15m (46 ft). In the 1800’s a causeway was built, which gave an easier pathway during low tide, but still would be covered at high tide, and was a collecting area for silt and mud. In 2014, a bridge was built that offers complete access at all times. A large parking area about 5 km (3 mi) away, with an attached Visitor’s Center.  There is also a free shuttle service from the visitor’s center that runs from 7:30 AM until Midnight.

Today Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited cultural sites in France. Over three million people visit the island every year. Most of them are day-trippers, which gives the area a similar feel to popular cruise ports. It gets very crowded during the middle of the day, but empties out by dinner time.

On Mont Saint-Michel there is one main street - Grande Rue, that climbs from the entry gate, uphill to the Abbey. In fact “uphill” is a key term, because a visit here involves climbing hills and steps whichever path you take. Grand Rue is where almost all of the restaurants and tourist shops are located. During the day, it is very crowded, and the restaurants fill up quickly at lunch time, so patience and planning is needed, as you will almost certainly have to wait for a table. I enjoyed lunch at Le Chapeau Rouge, a small restaurant that serves excellent mussels. I also enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Auberge Saint Pierre. If the weather cooperates, there are several places that sell sandwiches and drinks that you can buy and eat along the ramparts.

In my opinion, the best way to see the island is to stay overnight at one of the hotels. The crowds leave in the late afternoon. Grand Rue and the ramparts on the edge of the island empty out, and you can get a good feeling for how Mont Saint-Michel was in the past.

Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places that seems to be “out of time.” Even with the crowds, a walk around the island, especially down the smaller walkways, can take you back centuries.