As a kid, my favourite TV show was The Mickey Mouse Club, total rapture, and I fell in love with Annette Funicello like all young boys, and preferred the episodes with Fantasyland over the other three “lands,” especially the Sleeping Beauty Castle. But Fantasyland is not it.
It was about 20 years later that I first went to Disneyland in California, and since then have been to most of them around the world. It is such an iconic experience that whenever I have visitors who have never been, I take them there. Each trip includes a ride on Space Mountain and a tour through the Sleeping Beauty Castle which is as exciting as it was for me watching it as a kid on TV, but Disneyland and the Fantasyland Castle are not it.
My travels since then have taken me to some of the most exciting, most historical, most romantic places on earth. Niagara Falls, Cannes film festival, Big Sur, Aegean Sea, the Pyramids, Hong Kong, Uluru, hundreds more, but they are not it.
Spending a lot of time in Asia with the Buddhist temples, the Hindu monuments, the Arabic mosques; and in America with financial edifices like the World Trade Centre or the Chrysler Building; (a friend from the country once ducked when exiting the subway in New York in a narrow street, cowering to the hovering skyscrapers all around), and in Europe with their castles and churches on every corner, it is easy to become immune to the beauty, the architecture, the cultural significance, and while the initial impression is undeniable and yet they are not it.
This one place I have visited surpasses all other places, which is something to say for a global traveller. In fact, it is a place I eventually visited several times because I took every guest who came to stay with me kicking and screaming to see it. It is in France and no it is not the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or Cannes, as good as these are.
The most amazing place I ever saw was a Gothic abbey for real on an island in the British Channel, spellbindingly spectacular for miles before you reach it. In my mind, Fantasyland pales into insignificance against the real thing. The most amazing place I ever saw was Le Mont-Saint-Michel on the Normandy coast of France.
It is easy to see that le Mont-Saint-Michel could have been the inspiration for the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland. And with no history of royal families, historical castles and Gothic churches, it is easy to see why Disneyland became such a fascination with Americans.
So what is Le Mont-Saint-Michel? Firstly it is an island, a rocky “mount” walking distance off the coast of France at the junction of Normandy and Brittany.
In fact, the river Couesnon which starts at the island is the border between Brittany and Normandy and sometimes used to vary east or west around the island, making the island at times part of Normandy and other times part of Brittany. Now it is settled and the island is definitely claimed by Normandy.
It is even depicted in the famous thousand-year-old Bayeux Tapestry, which is displayed nearby in the town of Bayeux. Another reason to visit the area. In fact, if you continue to Caen you will see William the Conqueror’s actual castle and at La Falaise, the castle where “William the Bastard” was born when his father seduced a beautiful washerwoman he saw at the stream from his window.
The abbey is impressive, an example of a cathedral constructed during the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architectural technology. Most people think of Gothic as dark and mysterious, but in reality, it was a revolution in building design that saw massive structures opened up to the light for the first time. Previous churches stood up from thick walls with minimal openings for windows so that the walls did not become weakened, and stone braces against the walls to hold them up. Otherwise, the weight made the buildings collapse. The braces evolved to the amazing and ornate flying buttresses that are characteristic of churches like Notre Dame in Paris. And they strengthened the walls so much that large windows with light and colour were possible for the first time. Constructed over several centuries from the 700’s, both the old bulky buttresses and the later flying buttresses can be seen in the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey. One time I was even admitted to the secluded room that is the first part build and the rocky at the top was, therefore, me to see.
But the island is more than the abbey. It has restaurants, hotels, walks, parks, residents (50 in all), tours, lessons and souvenir shops.
It is situated in a bay that has one of the fastest moving tides and highest tides on the planet. 14 feet at times and faster than a galloping horse At times helicopters and rescuers go out to warn or to save tourists trapped in the encroaching tides.
All of Normandy is historical, named after the Norse who conquered and settled from the Viking era, and eventually the home of the conquerors of England, and the reason we have so much language in common with French even though English is a Germanic language.
The cities of Caen already mentioned is a technology hub and St Malo with its old city enclosed in the city walls to protect from pirates and invaders are all an hour or two drive. More recently are the commemorations of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy at the ending of World War II; the remains of the largest port at the time, man-made for the landings.
Go and visit the most amazing place I have ever seen and spend a week or so exploring the unlimited sites and scenes of Normandy. (Pics La Falaise castle, Caen Castle, Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy beach, D-Day landing.)