Silhouettes don’t come much more dramatic than the triangular outline of Mont Saint-Michel which rises from the sea off Normandy’s west coast. Most visited French monument outside the capital, the hilltop abbey is visible from miles around across the salt marshes and shallow water of the bay.
But I’m about to set off for a very different view, accompanied by a qualified guide from Chemins de la Baie, one of the largest operators of guided-walks across this unique and ever-mobile landscape. We’ll be walking across the seabed at low tide, an experience that no active visitor should miss, but one that no sensible visitor should undertake alone.
It’s not a particularly taxing trip – after all, pilgrims and armoured invaders have crossed the bay on foot for centuries – but the hazards can quickly catch the unwary. Quite apart from patches of treacherous quicksand, the tide can race in alarmingly fast, leaving unaccompanied walkers disorientated in the vast vista of merging sea and sky. But sign up with an expert guide and you’re in for a real treat. Whatever the weather.
Walks depart daily around the year, departure times varying with the tide. Some days there could be six or more guided excursions; on others, just two or three. The first time I made the crossing some years ago, it was late April beneath patches of blue sky and some spring sunshine. This time it’s early May and raining. Hard. But the bay walk is an excursion that really can’t be spoiled by the weather. Only by bad clothing. It’s simply a different atmosphere.
You need to dress with as many layers – warm or waterpoof – as appropriate. First-time walkers are usually surprised by the changes in surface beneath your feet – everything from dry sand to soft mud, firm sandbanks to shallow water channels. From spring through autumn, you walk in bare feet, wearing shorts or crop trousers, but in winter, Chemins de la Baie can provide neoprene shoes (reserve ahead). Then just put your normal shoes, extra layers, and personal effects in a backpack, and you’re ready to go. Oh and don’t forget the sun cream, sun glasses and hat– the light can be searingly bright even on dull days.
I’ve booked ahead online and I’m instructed to meet the group by a side gateway to the Mount, some 50 metres from the main entrance. They’re not hard to spot. A dozen or so holidaymakers plus a man with bare feet and a clipboard who introduces himself as Patrick, our guide.
Chemins de la Baie offer a wide range of bay walk experiences, some of which include time on the Mount itself. The longest lasts 6h 15m and covers 16km but most first-timers go for the 2h30 ‘Promenade en Baie’, which heads out from the main entrance to the Mount towards the smaller, uninhabited island of Tomberlaine, and loops back. With a distance of around 3k, it’s particularly popular with families. Children are welcome but must be big enough to walk unaided or small enough to travel in a baby carrier. (Adults, €9; children 6-14, €5; under 6, free).
Today, in the wet, we are a small band of hardy adults, and nobody seems put off by the weather. We spot other groups, similarly clad in brightly coloured waterproofs, some even with umbrellas, a splash of colour in this otherwise silver-grey scene. And you soon appreciate why no-one should do this alone. Yes, you can always see Mont St Michel and Tombelaine, their reflections glistening on the wet sand, but there are no other landmarks to provide your bearings.
Most of the time we are walking on sand of one variety or another, but occasionally we wade through a water channel, Patrick always checking the depth and current before he tells us to follow. And quicksand can soon catch the unwary. Telling us to stay put for a few moments, Patrick wanders around on a broad sandbank between two channels, eyes on the ground and stamping his foot occasionally like a horse about to sink down and roll.
Then he calls us over. Huddle together and jump up and down, he tells us. We must look slightly demented to any onlookers, but the closest group of walkers are just coloured blobs in the distance. And suddenly, as we watch our pounding feet, the sand becomes shiny and springy like a trampoline, and the more we bounce, the more our feet begin to sink. The seemingly solid sand has become saturated with water, a potential death trap for novice bay walkers.
But we’re perfectly safe, only submerged to ankle depth. Patrick however has sunk himself right up to the knees and graphically illustrates how tugging frantically achieves the opposite to the desired effect, just sinking you further in. The trick is to spiral one leg and gradually withdraw it like a corkscrew. Once it gloops free, you try to rest it on firm sand and repeat the process with the other leg. It’s a dramatic demonstration, but I sincerely hope I never have to test his escape method for real!
Walking the Bay of Mont Saint Michel is one of the most magical walks you will ever do and the experience will be different every time you do it, according to the sky, the sea, and the texture of the sand. I can only imagine the spine-tingling magic of the sunrise departure or the excursion at dusk.
Leave time of course to visit the Mount itself, winding your way up the steep main street to the impressive hilltop abbey. It’s well worth the climb, though go early or late in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds. Look out from the spacious terrace at low tide and you’ll see groups of walkers snaking across the sand. If you’ve already done it yourself, I guarantee you’ll want to do it again. If not, then sign up for a walk you will remember the rest of your days.
For luxury B&B accommodation with a distant view of Mont St Michel, stay at the sumptuous Chateau de Chantore (English spoken). And for a fascinating insight into both monks and manuscripts, visit the Scriptorial in Avranches. Tourist information from www.manche-tourism.com.