Between Two Strong Walls

Travel Blog 7: Blogzilla Vs. Mechablogzilla

The tide will come in, eventually. 

You can tell by the soft clay earth separated from the road that leads up to Mont Saint Michel, a fortress and abbey on the northwestern shore of Normandy in France. Sharp, dark stones are brushed with green algae, and a few tidal pools still linger in the far grey expanse of the huge mud flat that surrounds the abbey at low tide. 

Yet there is no sign of the sea, not from ground level, not from the old fortresses’ ramparts and not even from the top windows of the towers. 

And what immense towers they are. The whole thing is a layer cake, with one smaller wall and gate rising to a level or harsh, rough stone at its base intermingling with even more walls that guard the flat edifice of the abbey building. Above, that structure becomes a terrifying structure of stark buttresses and pinnacles. At the top, crowning the abbey is one massive spire adorned with shining bronze statues, as if still newly polished. 

It makes the place seem otherworldly from a distance, as if a real mythical place rising up from impossible landscapes. It’s why the place has become such a popular destination. Before the pandemic, it regularly attracted around 2.4 to 2.8 million yearly visitors. Even in July, 2021, hundreds, or maybe even thousands, walked, biked or rode buses or horse-drawn carriage up the long road to get to the massive edifice. 

Inside, though, the place is Disneyland, and in the worst sense of it. Souvenir shops and eateries line the streets of what were once old medieval-style buildings, boxing-in visitors while trying to entice enough people to spend money on worthless trinkets and cheap weapon replicas. There is only one path through the abbey, and it is up, up the stairs and past the ticket line. There is no time to reflect and ponder, not with the hoards of children scurrying past, not when the people behind you want a selfie in the spot you’re currently occupying. To move through that space is like a school of salmon swimming upriver, moving from cloister to nave to crypt.

Some monks still live there. One I saw at the other end of a closed-off hallway bathed in subtle, warm light. He was dressed in white robes, then a door closed and he was gone. Despite a box in the nave asking visitors for donations towards their order, we thousands who traipse their halls, rest on their pews and pound on their stained glass windows are just ghosts to them. We are the thing they shield themselves from, and wait for it to pass. 

It’s betters to see it as a distance, further from this giant, to walk toward it with hand outstretched to let the long grass kiss your fingertips along the green fields at the edge of the grey. From there, that preeminence of stone seems to have the correct amount of prestige.

I continue to wonder about the place of tourists to such spaces. I came to Nantes a day ago. This was just a day’s stop, though I did want to visit places that weren’t so sought after in a country like France, which still happens to be the number 1 destination for international tourists. There are landmarks here, churches to see and parks to attend. There is plenty of public art, plenty of restaurants, but here feels like a city meant for the people who live here. 

I came on a day where the dark grey skies opened up periodically to spit a gust of cold rain on our shoulders. The streets feel empty compared to even some of the small towns I’ve been through. Unlike many other places I’ve been to in France, there are so many more restaurants that focus on takeout or their version of “fast food,” which just means a 10 minute wait instead of a 30 minute wait. There is construction going on everywhere, it seems. There’s the promise of more towers, more shopping centers, more attractions. The particularly fun and cutesy Machines of the Isle of Nantes promises to create a huge project at an eastern part of the city, establishing a giant artificial tree made from metal and shorn wood by 2025. 

I came to the city mostly because a song by the indie-rock group Beirut, called “Nantes,” has been one of my longtime flavor makers since I first heard it in high school. The lyrics in question go:

“Nobody raise your voices

Just another night in Nantes”

In the Chateau de Nantes, the old castle that sits at the center of the city, there is a garden and path with chairs next to its shallow mote. There are walls to the front and walls to the back, and it seems like the sound of construction and traffic moves like a storm over my head. This is a quiet city, as quiet as they can be. My first thought when I saw it was that it was a flat, dull city, but it’s truly a place that matches a mood. I might come to associate bad weather with places like this. It’s somewhere where the best shelter from the rain is under the trees of the local park, where the tumult all around fails to penetrate the green. There can be calm, and a feeling one is not dominated by such massive structures that man likes to build to remind us how small we are. The world can be closed and open at the same time, as long as it gives you the sky. 

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