Home > Essays > At Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres
Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
At Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

One hundred years ago, Henry Adams said in the preface to his privately printed Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres that he had written the book for nieces. “For convenience of travel in France,” he explained, “where hotels, in out-of-the-way places, are sometimes wanting in space as well as luxury, the nieces shall count as one only. As many more may come as like, but one niece is enough for the uncle to talk to, and one niece is much more likely than two to listen.” He ended the preface, “The uncle talks: —”

He was writing for tourists like himself—and me—who prefer to journey in the belief that “[t]o overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and the passion of every second-rate scholar. Tourists want as few dates as possible; what they want is poetry.” Thus his opening sentence, “The Archangel loved heights,” is a proclamation to infuse the winged warrior statue of Saint Michael, Satan’s conqueror, with a contemporary burst of daredevilry: “His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him here.” And in this spirit I too will willingly climb to the platform from whose edge “the eye plunges down, two hundred and thirty-five feet, to the wide sands or the wider ocean, as the tides recede or advance, under an infinite sky, over a restless sea, which even we tourists can understand and feel without books or guides.” In such a place there can be no such thing as overwriting.

In his masterpiece memoir The Education of Henry Adams (famously written in the third person in 1907, not long after our guidebook) we are given a young man of twenty as he sets off for the continent in 1858. “From the first he had avoided Paris, and had wanted no French influence on his education. He disapproved of France . . . disliked the Empire and the Emperor particularly . . . disliked most the French mind.” Once there, of course, “Life was amusing. Paris rapidly became familiar. In a month or six weeks he forgot even to disapprove of it;” and concluded that “perhaps, after all, the three months passed there might serve better purpose than the twenty-one months passed elsewhere; but he did not intend it—did not think it—and looked at it as a momentary and frivolous vacation before going home to fit himself for life.” Claiming that nothing had been further from his mind than to become a tourist, he provided a fine definition of wanderlust with his larger discovery that “[t]he habit of expression leads to the search for something to express.”

My own passion for travel was born almost an exact century after his, when at fifteen it was the transformative privilege of my life to go abroad with my best friend and her parents. On our Very Grand Tour we witnessed the glories of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Byzantium, and the Middle Ages before proceeding to the relatively present-day marvels of the Renaissance. Without at that point any “habit of expression” of my own—that first travel journal is a shamelessly flirty chronicle of cute boys and such vagaries as “went back to Uffizzi (I just love that place—it fascinates me)”—I am nevertheless certain that this was when my own desire for expression was conceived. Upon docking back in New York at the end of that summer of 1959 I wrote that I “would give anything for a chance to go back to Europe!” and, one day later, that “home doesn’t even compare to it—at least not yet!!”

This “not yet” feeling was so enduring that, at the close of an explicitly Francophobe year in America, when a presidential candidate with actual Breton ancestry lost out to a First Empire Chauvin look-alike, it was our compensatory impulse to go abroad. The Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel had once before been our destination, where, practically alone in it at noon on a memorably damp winter day, we’d seen a monk swept off his feet as he rang the Angelus by pulling on the rope that seemed to drop from the exact center of the sky. We’d feasted on the spécialtiés de la région and stayed that night in a small room at the base of the Mount, while the locomotive tide receded and advanced. Now, our family having evolved onto a quartet, we decided upon Mont-Saint-Michel on the basis of that travelers’ luck.

“At the Mount,” wrote Adams, “the eleventh-century work was antiquated before it was finished.” But with the fortress Abbaye completed in 1135, and with La Cathédrale Nôtre-Dame de Chartres to soon exemplify the feminine parallel, “It is the famous period of Transition, the glory of the twelfth century, the object of our pilgrimage.” In these two marvelous buildings we knew we too could appreciate that “[w]hat the Roman could not express flowered into the Gothic; what the masculine mind could not idealize in the warrior, it idealized in the woman; no architecture that ever grew on earth, except the Gothic, gave this effect of flinging its passion against the sky.”


Our journey begins with a three-hour delay, so before take-off we already know that whatever train we might be able to catch instead of our TGV from Paris, it will not allow us to approach the Mount at picturesque dusk as Adams did. Worse—picture us and our jet lag in a rented Europcar at the first rond-point (talk about VOUS N’AVEZ PAS LA PRIORITE!)—we can’t even seem to figure out how to leave the town of Rennes behind. Of course we stop to ask for directions, but how there can be signs for both All Directions and Other Directions is the underlying mystery. For me, though, this is like being brought back into a decade’s worth of French seminars, where each thesis has its arguable antithesis and when, hélas, there is simply no one true way to get anywhere. We manage to get there nevertheless, and from some distance our first impression is, “It glows!”

When we arrive in the town of Pontorson, it appears to be an authentic medieval village until we notice the giant lizard on the billboard for the reptile house, which is next to the bus-tour shop selling madeleine-like cakes stamped with the Abbey’s image. But we laugh that off as, under the spotlight of a near-full moon, we cross the causeway to the Mount that lies a mile out to sea. Getting as close as we can to the entrance gate, we park—temporarily, between tides—to unload our luggage onto a sidewalk slick with seawater. Up close, the Mount looks abandoned, despite a discreet oval sign—Joyeux Noël in artful white lights—hanging on the lowermost wall. More to the point, there is still someone awake at the inn.

Needless to say, “Madame Poulard’s famous hotel within the Gate of the Mount” is where Henry Adams and his party also stopped a century ago, and though I am fully expecting to find his autographed photo in the immediate stairwell gallery of illustrious visitors, I have to make do with Bernard Buffet’s 1956 signed drawing of an omelet skillet. Our own little rooms are now at last a mere four steep staircases away, where we will discover that one of our window’s slender, awesome views runs directly up the spire to the gilded copper wings of the Archangel. As Adams informs us, our patron saint has “stood for centuries on his Mount in Peril of the Sea, watching across the tremor of the immense ocean—immensi tremor oceani—as Louis XI, inspired for once to poetry, inscribed on the Order of Saint Michael which he created. So soldiers, nobles, and monarchs went on pilgrimages to his shrine; so the common people followed, and still follow, like ourselves.” In such a state, who can sleep? But we can.

For the long holiday weekend we stay in this small, overpriced hotel, where we feast on the Mère Poulard eggs, each stamped with the day’s date, that are percussively beaten in trademark copper bowls—the sound is like tap-dancing—into a thick omelet batter set to cook in the open fireplace in photogenic long-handled skillets. Then in the evening we enjoy the sea’s offering of tiny tender mussels à la marinière along with the “pre-salted” lamb that is a specialty of this land, the tan sheep grazing the deep tidal salt marshes all along the circular coast. We see the place for ourselves, certainly, but we also experience the candlelit midnight mass in the Abbey the next night as though through Adams’s viewfinder, as later in the week we will trace the circular labyrinth in the nave at Chartres which, since the year 1200, has been daily washed with the blue-tinted daylight—he calls it “the radiating power of blue”—of the cathedral’s interior. With Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Adams’s contribution to travel writing was to license even the most casual tourist to hyperbole.


There is a litany of luminaries who for centuries now have stopped chez Mère Poulard for an omelet or an overnight. At first glance those autographed photos lining the hotel corridors impress, and impress as authentic. We see Baron Rothschild in 1928 alongside dynasties of Rockefellers and Mellons; Ernest Hemingway in uniform in 1944; the Japanese Emperor’s brother and sister-in-law, Prince and Princess Takematsu, in 1931; Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Lindbergh in April, 1936; and, on horseback, Her Majesty Ranavallo, Queen of Madagascar (though deposed) from 1908. I never do find Henry Adams—only an F. G. Adams who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army in 1945—but in my scrutinizing I gradually become aware of certain duplications, and then notice the “artistic license” that twice superimposes, for instance, Alan Shepard and a movie ad for The Right Stuff (L’Etoffe des Héros) onto the same picture of Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Lindbergh. With their movie-star looks, Yves Saint-Laurent (1990) and Robert Capa (1944) are repeatedly shown off to dramatic effect, and since Woody Allen apparently visited here in 1987, his plaid-shirted picture has its own place of prominence on the main staircase. Nearby, too, in what could only be a composite, Mrs. Thatcher greets Monsieur Mitterand with a glad handshake. And, off in a corner, the very same image of…Woody Allen! In on the joke now, we claim the leather bucket chairs in the piano bar that are grouped around William Boyd, Jr. (1908-58) dressed as Hopalong Cassidy.

In email communications with the hotel we’ve been informed that the Christmas Eve dinner is “compulsory,” and once there we learn that the Réveillon de Noël means a perfectly proportioned eight-course parade of the region’s specialties: variations on the theme of la foie gras, a sweet scallop in lobster coral, apple ice melted by a splash of hot Calvados; the pre-salted lamb; a warm truffled Camembert; Desserts Gourmands and sweet little delicacies on into the night. We are fortunate in needing only to rouse ourselves to the top of the Mount for the 11:30 Illumination of the Choir that concludes the Vigil and initiates the celebration of the Nativity. As we step out into the narrow, cobbled street to join the mass-goers not already assembled in the Abbey, the air is both bracing and festive.

Teenaged boys disappear into slices of space that are doubtless shortcuts to the summit, but we stick with the mainstream pilgrims to climb the less steeply graded steps, serenaded by a generic and muted “Ave Maria” coming from camouflaged speakers tucked under the eaves of the snug Norman style buildings lining the route. At the top we see that the Abbey’s grand interior staircase has not been lit for our convenience. From a carton by the great door into the dark church itself we take a candle and a program, knowing that, according to the liturgy, we will “see a great light” by which to read it. There is a genial milling-about—except for those boys again, darting around like boys anywhere—and then, exactly on schedule, one candle lights another and the pair multiplies until each of us—a thousand of us?—holds a slender white taper, the flame shielded from breezes by inverted white paper bonnets with scalloped edges. One of the athletic young monks pulls on the thick rope from the bell tower, and though he himself doesn’t literally rise off his feet in the process, the congregation is tangibly uplifted.

On a homier note, following the service, the monks and nuns are serving hot chocolate in the splendor of the great vault-ceilinged Refectory beneath the Abbey, where long tables are set with platters of bright clementines and golden sponge-cakes to sweeten the dense and slightly bitter cocoa. In another hour this community of worshippers again divides into the busses and cars that brought them here, their streaming red tail lights vanishing across the causeway to the mainland.


Although our fortress was never breached during the Hundred Years War, the surrounding shoreline reaches around Normandy to include Omaha Beach. The museums chronicling the D-Day landings are closed for the winter, but on the morning of December 26th we set out with our tourist map. I’d been in this neighborhood once before, at age eighteen, and retained a vivid fragment of conversation with a policeman only a few years older who had kept the traffic flowing while describing to me a night from his early childhood, when a panicked German parachutist landed by mistake in his family’s walled garden. In my memory’s version the soldier was captured, not killed, but what struck me in the telling, more than the fate of the parachutist, was the fact that as a small boy he’d had this experience, compared to my own secure life far from the front, in a ruffled bassinet at my grandmother’s house in small town Pennsylvania.

In the American Cemetery on this bleak morning there are no more than a dozen visitors—and none American, besides us—making their way among the nearly ten thousand white posts topped either with a star or crosspiece, to the natural balcony overlooking the famous beach. In this region there are 96,791 documented graves altogether, but it’s startling to total up the numbers given in our brochure and discover that while the combined Allied deaths reached 38,479, there are yet twenty thousand more Germans buried in this same land. Thanks to countless graphic cinematic re-enactments it’s not hard to supply those tens of thousands of dead bodies, despite the fact that on this cold clear morning the greenish sea merely meets the golden sand. The phrase inscribed on the memorial rotunda—“They Endured All”—has an ominous power of its own, heightened by the dramatic and heartbreaking juxtaposition of this peaceful setting and that wartime carnage.

In The Education, Henry Adams claims, “Not one man in America wanted the Civil War, or expected or intended it.” And he called that war “an education that was to cost a million lives and ten thousand million dollars, more or less, North and South, before the country could recover its balance and movement.” The Adams family was “anti-slavery by birth,” but his father’s posting as Lincoln’s Minister to England (providing Henry the opportunity to become his private secretary) coincided with the “official announcement that England recognized the belligerency of the Confederacy.” All at once Henry “had to learn—the sooner the better—that his ideas were the reverse of truth; that in May, 1861, no one in England—literally no one—doubted that Jefferson Davis had made or would make a nation, and nearly all were glad of it, though not often saying so.”

Reading Adams in the context of the current Anglo-American alliance behind today’s Iraq War, I find unsavory parallels to brood upon. It remains a troubling feeling with no outlet until some hours later, when we learn that as we were remembering the dead, a tsunami struck the other side of the world, killing more than twice as many as died here.


On the fast train the next morning we fly out from under the militant wings of the Archangel to the City of Light, which always provides, if not warmth, at least a monumental illumination. In anticipation of the New Year the Eiffel Tower is bedecked with pulsing diamonds, and the island in the Seine becomes our refuge, from which the next day we venture not to the Nôtre Dame at hand, but to the earlier, and superior, Chartres Cathedral.

We can see it from the suburban train line, approaching, and so I turn back to Uncle Henry for his commentary: “Flying buttresses were not a necessity. . . . they were probably cheap; and they were graceful. Whatever expression they gave to a church, at least it was not that of a fortress.” Of an even more prominent element he writes, “The spire is the simplest part of Romanesque or Gothic architecture, and needs least study in order to be felt. It is a bit of sentiment almost pure of practical purpose. It tells the whole of its story at a glance, and its story is the best that architecture had to tell, for it typified the aspirations of man at the moment when man’s aspirations were highest. Yet nine persons out of ten—perhaps ninety-nine in a hundred—who come within sight of the two spires of Chartres will think it a jest if they are told that the smaller of the two, the simpler, the one that impresses them the least, is the one they are expected to recognize as the most perfect piece of architecture in the world.”

Then at the main door Adams falls under the spell of the Virgin, and his voice again becomes exultant. “The Empress Mary is receiving you at her portal,” he exclaims, “and whether you are an impertinent child, or a foolish old peasant-woman, or an insolent prince, or a more insolent tourist, she receives you with the same dignity; in fact, she probably sees very little difference between you.” He sees that “The Queen Mother was as majestic as you like . . . but she was still a woman, who loved grace, beauty, ornament,—her toilette, robes, jewels;—who considered the arrangements of her palace with attention, and liked both light and colour. . . . She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship.”

Once inside, allowing our eyes to adjust to what seems at first like darkness, we’re told, “You must try first to rid your mind of the traditional idea that the Gothic is an intentional expression of religious gloom. The necessity for light was the motive of the Gothic architects. They needed light and always more light, until they sacrificed safety and common sense in trying to get it. They converted their walls into windows . . . .”

Visitors sit on the tightly packed wooden chairs and crane their necks to study them. As a tourist, Adams took his own instruction from his contemporary, the French architect and writer Viollet-le-Duc, who taught “the law that blue is light” and, more specifically, that “[a] strong red; a strong and a weak yellow; a strong and a weak purple; a strong and a weak green, are all to be tied together, given their values, and held in their places by blue.” Adams paraphrases Viollet-le-Duc’s “professional language” as he explains how “Chartres differs from all the other great cathedrals by being built not for its nave or even for its choir, but for its apse; it was planned not for the people or for the court, but for the Queen; not a church but a shrine; and the shrine is the apse where the Queen arranged her light to please herself and not her architect, who had already been sacrificed at the western portal and who had a free hand only in the nave and transepts where the Queen never went, and which, from her own apartment, she did not even see.”

I’m sitting now where she can’t see me, where the wooden chairs are more loosely arranged than up front, and where, to rest my neck, I shift my focus to the floor. It was only in the seventeenth century that chairs were introduced into this cathedral, so I visualize their absence and remember to notice that these paving stones are arranged in concentric circles, forming a labyrinth. Now I need a more prosaic guide than Adams, whose rapture resides within the Queen’s own parameters, in order to learn that these stones date from 1200 and form the only surviving authentic medieval example of a labyrinth—and the largest of its time. There are eleven rings to penetrate on this “Road to Jerusalem” and, chairs absent, it’s possible to imagine those who made the pilgrimage on their knees. The labyrinth’s “Journey through Life,” enter at birth, exit at death, was once symbolized by the figures of Theseus and the Minotaur, but during the Napoleonic Wars, according to an eyewitness, the copper plate at the labyrinth’s center was removed, along with the cathedral bells, and melted down for canons.

The maze has a tranquilizing effect upon me, in whose overstimulated view its convolutions look like the brain in cross-section, that ultimate architectural enigma. But now there is also the necessary acknowledgement that simply to mark the end of a calendar year is to experience a radical imbalance, notwithstanding Adams’s assurance that the Mount “expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe.” If Mont-Saint-Michel manifests “an evident, obvious, sacred harmony,” we can feel instead, here, that “[n]othing is sadder than the catastrophe of Gothic art, religion, and hope.”

At the start of the new millennium, our world looks less like Mont-Saint-Michel than Chartres. Here “[t]he equilibrium is visibly delicate beyond the line of safety; danger lurks in every stone. The peril of the heavy tower, of the restless vault, of the vagrant buttress, the uncertainty of logic, the inequalities of the syllogism, the irregularities of the mental mirror” all represent the precarious imbalance of a world where “[t]he delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt is buried in the earth as its last secret.”

It is here that Henry Adams abruptly ends his book, telling his phantom niece, “You can read out of it whatever else pleases your youth and confidence; to me, this is all.” For him it seems to go without saying that, as he himself has grown beyond the confines of youth and confidence, so too will she. Unless, on this journey, she already has.

Alexandra Marshall is the author of five novels and a nonfiction book prepared in conjunction with the PBS “Nova” film series. Other published work has included feature stories, film criticism, opinion pieces, and other essays. (updated 6/2010)

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