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Pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel

01/26/2016 10:11am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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In the distance, a silhouette floats like a mirage on the horizon. Circled by ocean waters, an ancient abbey, founded in the eighth century, sits on a rocky island just off shore. A gilded statue of the Archangel Michael stands atop the church spire, surveying the dramatic solitude. For medieval pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), that first view of Mont Saint-Michel sent their spirits soaring.

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Mont Saint-Michel lies one kilometer out to sea off the Normandy coast of northern France, at the mouth of the Couesnon River, on the border of Brittany. The island has fewer than fifty full-time inhabitants. At Mont Saint-Michel, contemplation and worship are directed not by the clock, a bell, or any man-made, linear concept of time, but by the natural world's circular rhythms.

Twice a day the tide rises, as much as 15 meters or more, creating a defensible, physical boundary between the island and the coast. For early pilgrims, high tide also created a demarcation between the everyday and spiritual worlds. At low tide, a vast offers hikers a treacherous passage between these two spheres. Today, a bridge over the tidal causeway allows travelers to reach the island at almost any time but adventurers still risk their lives crossing the precarious, silty flats. Whether you are a pilgrim, traveler, wanderer, or simple sightseer, a visit to Mont Saint-Michel will put you sur les chemins des pèlerins d'antan ("on the paths of the pilgrims of yesteryear").

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On a pilgrimage, you unearth something about yourself by discovering a new place or culture. A pilgrimage is a personal journey, focusing on reflection and serendipity rather than guidebooks and photographs. It might be a trek to a traditional sacred site or a jaunt out in the countryside. Every pilgrim infuses the voyage with their own mix of spiritual nourishment, personal growth, introspection, inspiration, wonder, and curiosity.

The challenge is to see beneath the surface of the journey: to feel it, taste it, immerse yourself in it. A pilgrimage is a chance to seek what is most meaningful to you. Authorities can offer advice, but a genuine pilgrimage blossoms from the seeker's personal intentions and longings.

The Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) has been the foremost European pilgrimage route since the 9th century. It is now as popular as ever, with over 200,000 pilgrims having completed the journey in 2014. For most pilgrims from Ireland and the United Kingdom the first stage of the Camino in France is Mont Saint-Michel.

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At Mont Saint-Michel, the main challenge for today's pilgrims will be to look beyond the tourist crowds and the resulting high prices. In summer, the little coastal town becomes a human traffic jam by mid-day. Re-immerse yourself in history by remembering that, even in the Middle Ages, this was a tourist trap, filled with candles, medallions, and other souvenirs, as well as fast food like the traditional puffy omelet. Pilgrims often had to eat in haste in order to get to the abbey before the dangerous tides rolled in.

Today, most travelers reach the island by crossing the new bridge but you can still choose to traverse the treacherous mudflats at low tide. During the tide cycle, the ocean recedes eight miles from the coast, then aggressively rolls in at twelve miles per hour, about seventeen feet per second. In just a few minutes the ocean can surround an unwary hiker, with fog and quicksand increasing the danger. The tides are so treacherous that the island was nicknamed "Saint Michael in Peril of the Sea" by medieval pilgrims making their way across the tidal causeway.

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Back on dry land, you'll find that rich soil, moderate temperatures, heavy rain, and the ineffable French sensibility make Normandy a cradle for fine food. The region is known for its delicious cheeses, egg dishes, creamy sauces, and arguably the best lamb in the world. Fresh onions and garlic accent every savory dish, and the local apples are pressed into especially tasty cider. Add in the vast selection of seafood and Normandy becomes the ultimate destination for the culinary pilgrim.

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2016-01-21-1453404276-4637076-Armoiries_de_SaintJames225.jpg My personal pilgrimage was to discover the origins of my surname, Saint James, and it was soon clear that I had reached my destination. The village or commune of Saint-James is twenty kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel, and was founded as a fortified stronghold in 1067, the year after the conquest of England, by William the Conqueror. My ancestors left this French village for England, then Ireland, before taking a boat to New York during the potato famine in the mid-19th century.

The need for warm sea-faring clothing and an abundance of fine sheep have made the region where Normandy and Brittany meet a natural home to wool-makers and master weavers since the Middle Ages. My serendipitous surprise was the discovery of a historic wool and nautical-clothing manufacturer named Saint James that helped originate the now-fashionable Breton striped shirt or sweater, which was first worn by sailors in the French navy in the 19th century. The Breton sweater was so tightly woven, and resistant to wind, cold, and water, that sailors referred to it as a "second skin." The secret was a unique knitting technique passed down from mother to daughter for centuries.

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I learned that Saint James has supplied authentic nautical Breton shirts and uniform sweaters to the French Navy since 1858. It now supplies the entire world through boutiques in the USA, Japan, and Russia, as well as France, and a web site, www.saintjamesboutique.com. Saint James formally established itself as a fashion brand in 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower debuted at the Universal Exposition in Paris.

The iconic sweater was also the distinctive apparel of the marchands d'ail ("garlic merchants") who braved the Channel to sell their goods in the United Kingdom. A shortened version of this phrase, chandail, became the garment's nickname. In 1917, Coco Chanel introduced the classic design into high fashion. It was later popularized by Brigitte Bardot, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn. Kirk Douglas wore one in his role as a French sailor throughout the hit Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Warmed by my blue-striped chandail, and inspired by the synchronicity of its "Saint James" label, I began the most magical leg of my pilgrimage, the risky journey across the infamous tidal flats. I took my first hesitant steps, eyes wide with enthusiasm, toes sinking into the muddy, black sand.

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In that moment, clocks stopped and history came alive. I was trekking with my ancestors, across this treacherous causeway, sur les chemins des pèlerins d'antan ("on the paths of the pilgrims of yesteryear"). Looking around, it seemed everyone was a pilgrim, each on their own sacred search to discover themselves--even the young tourist taking a selfie with her cellphone.

Mont Saint-Michel is mysterious and always changing, like life itself. If you approach this ancient destination with the spirit of a pilgrim, you may discover a new world--and perhaps a new you...or at least a new sweater!