Mont St. Michel — Pilgrimage Report

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By Gabrielle. Photos by Ben Blair.

As I mentioned, last week, Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids — Ralph (18), Maude (17), Olive (15) & Oscar (11) — took a pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel. Those of us left behind — Betty (10), June (6) and me — missed them like crazy and distracted ourselves with Paris.

Happily for anyone who is curious, as we drove to the South of France yesterday, I interviewed Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids about their pilgrimage experience, and I’ve typed it all up, ready to share.

First, let’s talk about some basics. Once you know the path, anyone can make a pilgrimage, but it’s common to go with a group. We heard about this particular group from Charles. He’s Ralph’s dear friend and he lived with us in Oakland a couple of years ago. Charles did this pilgrimage with his scout group, and this time around, Charles’ father Eric, came on the hike and helped us make arrangements ahead of time.

This pilgrimage was led by Bertrand, owner of a bar called The Secret Knight, and author of a book called The Mystery of Mont St Michel. Bertrand has gone on the pilgrimage over 50 times! In addition to Bertrand, there were other experienced pilgrims in attendance — about ten of them.

The pilgrimage is free, though it’s customary to offer a donation (approximately 20 euros per day). You bring a rack backpack with clothes, a towel, sleeping bag, tent, hat, etc. But y0u don’t need to pack food. You can bring snacks (of course), but you purchase meals at stops along the way. Which is great because the pilgrimage is long, and you want to pack light.

The total distance is about 75 miles. That’s a lot of walking!

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In this group, there were about 50 people. Ages ranged from 9 to 75 with a fairly even distribution along that age range. Pretty much everyone had heard about it from word of mouth. Some people were hiking with a group or a friend, but many came as individuals and didn’t know anyone else at all. Here are some basic profiles of people in the group:

– A woman who earns her living by singing folk songs to kids.

– A group of Scouts from Lyon (scout is pronounced “scoot” in French, which is surely the most charming thing ever). A mix of girls and boys, age 14 to 17. There are lots of different types of scouts in France. Different form the American version, this organization of scouts doesn’t do merit badges, just adventures. None of these scouts had ever seen Mont St Michel before.

– An older group of couples who had self organized and already done a pilgrimage circle in the middle of France. Now were trying this one.

– A French woman who had lived and worked all over the world, including 4 years in Hells Kitchen (Manhattan), plus South America and Antartica.

– A man who had lived in the same town for 30 years, but had lost his job and found his family in these pilgrimages.

– A Belgian man who feels like he’s done with Belgium and wants to join the Swiss army next. His wife lives in Istanbul with his daughter.

– A man who had a Tarot progression on his staff. (I know almost nothing about Tarot and had to look this up.) Speaking of which, most people brought a staff or walking poles. Some staffs had been found on previous pilgrimages.

– My kids learned that sometimes pilgrims won’t eat during the whole pilgrimage, but only drink water. And sometimes pilgrims do the whole trail in silence. In this group, no one was doing either completely. But there was one woman who didn’t talk during the hikes, only during the breaks.

– Most people in the group were spiritual but not religious. (I note that because this particular pilgrimage is tied to Catholicism.)

– Ben Blair and the kids were the first Americans that Bertrand had ever led.

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Day 1 – Wednesday

The group met at Bertrand’s cafe/bar near Domfront early in the morning. Everyone was pretty much strangers. The leaders went over the schedule and introduced the experienced pilgrims so people would know who to ask for help.

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Over the course of the day, they hiked 19 kilometers. They went through Domfront and stopped at the Roman church there — one of the oldest churches in Normandy.

When they needed water, they would stop at a home along the way and the owner would refill everyone’s canteens. They walked on dirt roads and paved roads, passing crosses and churches, and lots of stone country houses.

The path that day featured beautiful vistas of hedged fields, Norman cows, and the dreamy countryside.

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While in Domfront, hikers bought lunch supplies at a small grocery store, then hiked about 20 minutes up a hill. In a clearing in a forested area, people stopped for an hour and a half for lunch and naps. Ben and the kids laughed to see that every single group had Camembert cheese and baguette as part of their meal.

After the lunch break, there was more hiking with breaks as needed. People were chatting and getting to know each other. Chatting was almost entirely in French, though sometimes people would speak to our kids in English if they wanted to practice. Something funny: At every break, a good portion of the hikers would smoke — which was an incongruous scene to American eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an American backpacker smoking. Hah!

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At the end of the day, the pilgrims ended at Lonlay Abbey. Once at the Abbey, people sought out dinner — there was a cafe nearby. Ben says the group was feeling really connected and accomplished. They had finished their first day! People were sharing food, playing frisbee behind the abbey, playing songs on the guitar, and chatting. That evening, a woman who was among the group of older couples, tried weed for the first time at the urging of her travel companions. Something for the group to laugh about. : ) Late that night, the hikers played Scout games.

The Abbey was totally open, no locked doors anywhere, making it easy to explore. Some people slept in tents outside, others slept in the Abbey on sleeping pads, with sleeping bags. Ralph and Maude slept in the Abbey attic underneath a Joan of Arc statue. There were closets full of old books.

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Day 2 – Thursday

They left the Abbey in the morning and ended up walking 30 kilometers that day. They said it was by far the most scenic day and had the steepest climbs.

They hiked through Fosse d’Arthur — where it’s believed the legend of King Arthur came to be, and that Merlin the Enchanter (enchanter = friendly wizard in French) is trapped in the rocks nearby. Arthur and Guinevere are rumored to be buried along the trail.

There was a stream/pool at Fosse d’Arthur where people swam.

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From the top of a hill near Fosse d’Arthur there was an amazing view, and a cross that looks like it was cut out of a granite mountain.

Again, there was an hour and a half stop for lunch. The hour and a half would start when the last person in the group arrived. So the first hikers would end up getting a longer break. Our kids figured this out, and stayed near the front of the group as they hiked so they could take advantage of the longest breaks.

The group finished the day in Mortain (a town that was captured and recaptured 5 times during WWII). The hike that day ended at the top of a high lookout hill with stunning views of the whole countryside. A loooong way off you could just see the tiny Mont St. Michel.

People slept in tents or under the stars that night. It ended up raining a bit, so in the middle of the night those under the stars had to pitch tents. Some people slept near a waterfall.

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Day 3 – Friday

The 3rd day was the hardest in Ralph’s opinion. He said it was unforgiving because it was like one straight line on a dirt road. No ups and downs. The lack of variation made it seem like no progress was being made. Plus they were tired from the day before.

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They did another 30 kilometers that day. Sometimes, they would see bikers going by, but no motorized vehicles on the road were allowed.

Sometimes the group would be mostly hiking together, other times people would be spread out far along the trail.

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Again, there was an hour and a half break for lunch.

By now members of the group, who had been strangers before, were becoming good friends — though there were so many people that Ben says he was still having first conversations with some of them on the 3rd day. He said, the conversations were long — you would talk for 2 hours or so as you hiked, and you’d really get to know people. What other environments do you just talk with a stranger for several hours?

He also said there was no sense of being in a hurry, no sense of pick up the pace or let’s get going. It was just a simple, steady hike.

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They stopped in towns along the way to buy food. A sample meal: always baguette, always camembert, then porc rillette with cornichons. Breakfast was pain au lait or a croissant or pain au chocolat. Good bread is very important to the French, and it was not unusual to see hikers with baguettes attached to their backpacks.

That night, the group slept in a field next to country house — someone in the group had a connection to the homeowner. Someone in the group had brought house made beer which was passed around, and one woman was celebrating a birthday, so everyone sang Happy Birthday.

There was a big campfire that night. People told jokes around the fire, and as some went off to bed, the remaining people talked philosophy as the embers died down. People were pretty tired by now, but there was still one big challenging day ahead.

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Day 4 – Saturday

This was the day they would reach Mont. St. Michel. They left earlier than usual at 6:00 in the morning (the usual start time was 9:00 AM). They had to go early to beat the tide — remember, Mont. St. Michel is an island, and they were going to approach it by water.

This day was more hilly, but not as dynamic as the 2nd day.

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They hiked through fields with sheep and cows. There was one moment when they were walking along and this horse ran out and stared hard at them. They said it was like a guard horse, there to ensure hikers were worthy to reach Mont St Michel. : )

You couldn’t see the island the whole time (it’s that tiny little bump on the horizon in the photo above), but you’d turn around a bend and it would appear and give you courage to keep going.

Eventually you could see Mont St Michel the whole time, but they said it was so small, it felt like you weren’t getting any closer.

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Just as they were getting discouraged, they reached the water around Mont St Michel. It was about 2:00 PM.

At that point, everyone took off their shoes. They were told shoes are forbidden in those waters. They swam and cooled off, and then the group met a guide who would take them all the way in. The waters around the island are known for quicksand, so the guide would test a path first, then the hikers would follow.

It took about 2 hours once they met the guide, with a couple of breaks built in so that everyone in the group would arrive at the same time.

They arrived at the backside of the island, then made their way around to the front, where they put on their shoes and the celebrating started! Everyone was hugging and cheering. 75 miles done! They said it felt like these former strangers were now bonded for life.

Tradition is that pilgrims sleep over at the Abbey on Mont St. Michel the night they arrive, but since the attack in Nice, that wasn’t an option. So instead of heading home Sunday morning, Ben and the kids explored the island a bit (they’ve been there many times and didn’t need to explore much) and then Eric’s wife picked everyone up. They stopped for dinner at a small country brasserie in Domfront, then, they were dropped off at their car and drove home — about an hour from where we are staying.

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A few other notes:

Ben and the kids said it was the most French thing they’ve ever done, that they LOVED the food, and that now they want to do other pilgrimages. In fact, Ben and Eric are talking about doing the St Jaques du Compostable. A 3 month pilgrimage from France to Spain. The kids also mentioned it didn’t feel competitive at all. The whole group was in this together.

Ben Blair said he thinks it’s the best way to experience Normandy. If you’d like to try it, Bertrand’s tours go twice per month.

Okay. That was a long report. Now I’m curious: Does a trek like this sound appealing to you at all? Walking a path that others have walked for thousands of years? And if you went, would you want to bring a buddy, or would you be fine joining the group on your own? Any thoughts on doing a pilgrimage in silence?

 P.S. — Now that they’ve done the complete pilgrimage there are a few shots of our Olive Us video — Pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel, that they wish they could add, but mostly they feel like they got it right.

43 thoughts on “Mont St. Michel — Pilgrimage Report”

  1. I have never done anything like this in my life. But I am inspired! My husband was a foreign exchange student for 1 month in Paris when he was 9 years old. He wants to go back so badly and bring our three boys too! Thank you for posting this!

  2. I had no idea when you mentioned Pilgrimage that it was the real deal, walking for days & camping type of thing. I’m not sure what I imagined but I think people overuse that word today (maybe just in the US?) and it brings to mind just travelling (by car or otherwide) to a destination maybe in a day. “I made a pilgrimage to Target” is something I imagine people saying in jest.

  3. How magical. It reminds me of Camino de Santiago (as seen in the movie The Way with Martin Sheen). I had wanted to do this years ago but it got pushed to the back burner as things do. I like the French option as Mont St. Michele is a special place for our family and the walk can be done within a reasonable amount of time. How wonderful to experience the countryside, sleeping in abbeys, French food, and arrive at the ocean to this strange wonderful island, as thousands have done for centuries.

  4. Thank you for posting about this. This sounds like an incredible experience. I’ve already sent an email to a friend who lives in Europe about signing up for one of these next year.

    1. I imagine security is much tighter at many French monuments with the recent series of terror attacks in France (including the murder of a priest in Normandy).

  5. Wow, that really sounds magical! I have been to Mont St. Michel (back when I studied abroad in Nantes for a semester) and I can’t believe the mileage they covered! I just got back from doing 55 miles of the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada– a more nature-y pilgrimage, of sorts :) I love the idea that they were able to have real meals and rest time amidst that long journey!

  6. I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with my husband in 2001 and it was incredible. We want to go back and do it again as soon as our kids are old enough. Maybe when the youngest is 12?

  7. Wow – so fascinating! I really had no idea what a pilgrimage entailed, but I assumed it was a very religious experience. I am now really intrigued and am definitely going to look into the tour link. Thank you so much for sharing!!

  8. This sounds so amazing and peaceful and good for all people, even non-religious people. I personally would love to do one but would love to work on my fitness first as I wouldn’t want to hold up the group. Sounds like everybody was encouraging though, which is very nice. You all are giving your children amazing, amazing experiences and I imagine they are probably very grateful. I would love to do some of these things. Glad you and your girls had fun. On a different note, thank you for being so open about your struggles with depression. I hope you find what works best for you in regards to your care but I appreciate you helping to normalize what can feel like a very isolating illness.

  9. We are planning a family year abroad (thanks partially to your family’s adventures) and, praying for the safety of Europe, we want to do many such pilgrimages, including the 100 km version of the Camino de Santiago to see the relics of St. James the Apostle. I’ve added Mont St. Michel to our list. Thanks!

  10. This sounds wonderful, what a great experience. How does your family think it would be for someone who doesn’t speak French to participate?

  11. I would love to do something like this. It sounds incredible. I would have to ask my family if they would be into doing something like this. I’m guessing the reaction to be lukewarm. My first choice would be to do it with them, 2nd would be with a best friend, third by myself! I loved the horse story!

  12. Sounds wonderful! My then 19 year old son was on a pilgrimage which is held annually, last year from St. Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square in London to Canterbury Cathedral – about 80 miles in 4 days. It was a fantastic experience for him.
    Also several friends and family members have done the “Jakobsweg” as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is known in German – most of them just in small parts.

  13. I hope you family does the Santiago walk! My dad always wanted to go but he passed away last year. Once our babies are a little older, we will be doing the walk in his honor! Thank you for sharing.

  14. Just since you ask about the silence (Catholic here), there kind of has to be some prayerful or sacrificial component, such as fasting or silence or special prayers at the destination, or what you’re doing is really just a backpacking trip along a route traditionally used by pilgrims, not a pilgimage. Still cool, no doubt, but a pilgrimage is a devotional act, not just a hike.

    In the middle ages, people would make a pilgrimage as an act of thanksgiving or penance, or to ask a special favor from God, and they might swear to observe a certain sacrifice on the way, such as silence or walking barefoot or whatever.

  15. This looks awesome! I’ve always assumed a “pilgrimage” was just for religious people, but now that I know it’s not (at least in Western Europe, I imagine), I’m very interested. I love walks/hikes, so this would be right up my alley!

    Also, I thought of you when I heard about the attack in Normandy recently. So scary and sad!

  16. Loved this post. My husband and I spent the night at the Abby years ago and it was so powerful to hear the monks chanting at devotions. So sad that changes in the world made it impossible to stay overnight this time. I would love such a pilgrimage, but doing 10-20 miles in one day would require me to rest with my legs in an ice bucket the next. These old legs ain’t what they used to be.

  17. I loved reading this, and I’m off to research now but was curious if you know of any pilgrimages in England that would also be welcoming to american teens? We’re moving to the UK in a couple weeks (with our six kids, you’ve been such a resource and inspiration during this process) and I want to take my older kids on a pilgrimage after reading this.

    1. The West Highland Way is a fantastic hike/pilgrimage (?) in Scotland- you can do the whole thing or just part of it! It’s a really fantastic experience and a chance to see the beautiful wilds of Scotland.

  18. My two oldest children would absolutely love this! Thanks for sharing, I never heard of this kind of journey and its sound s so cool!

  19. Wow, it really is amazing!
    I’d love to do the Saint Jacques de Compostelle one; but you know, not many people have 3 months ahead of them to do it, so here’s what most people do: they do stretches of the path every year. Sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, sometimes in a group… 20 years ago, my sister and I drove from Bordeaux to Portugal via Saint Jacques and drove by many pilgrims, all different types. Now, this pilgrimage is more spiritual than religious (although you’ll see catholic people carry a cross all the way) and a lot of people go there for a mystic experience, being alone with their thoughts, dealing with mourning or some hardship etc.
    The place where my parents live is called Saintes, and it was a big milestone for pilgrims on their way to Saint-Jacques.
    Also, I really think that the two words “pilgrimage” and “competition” or “competitive” really don’t go together. (being competitive is not really a French concept:); rillettes and camembert, more so!!!)
    Cheers

  20. Are Ben and your oldest 4 really in shape? Did they do extra fitness before the trip to be physically prepared?

  21. Bravo Gabrielle !
    It sounds like you were walking with us, really amazing …
    I am a compagnon of this walk with Bertrand and others, i’m the guy who played guitar, lost his job, find his family on this pilgrimage …
    Happy to see how your family received this adventure, they understood a lot of things.
    You are really talented to tell stories, i lived it again reading you.
    Thanksss you !

  22. Hallelujah! What a thrilling experience. I can imagine the excitement and wonder when the pilgrims first spotted the cathedral’s towers. Success! joy! fulfillment! wonder! Did they learn new “Pilgrim” hymns? A Pilgrimage is so beautifully symbolic of so much—all of which is inspiring. Proud of you all!

  23. I loved reading about this experience! I don’t know own how I missed the olive us episode about Mount St. Michel, but it was absolutely lovely.

  24. This trip sounds absolutely amazing. Your kids are such troopers, and you’re such great examples of just living life with kids and not letting it hold you back. My husband and I are terrified of just road tripping with the kids for 16 hours to see my parents…. so as you imagine this would give us great anxiety, but it sounds so amazing!
    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  25. Kate The Great

    I’ve done two treks like this in the past– one was the Sesquicentennial Pioneer Trek in 1997, and twice I’ve done the hike down to Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon. They’re not pilgrimages, but definitely treks.

  26. I’ve done the Chartres pilgrimage twice (from Notre Dame in Paris to Notre Dame in Chartres). It’s about 100 k covered over 3 days, during Pentecost weekend each year. It is arduous, yet an amazing experience. We take time for prayer along the way, but there is also lots of chatting and singing to help us along the way. I’ve also done the pilgrimages associated with the vigils for World Youth Day in Rome in 2000 and Toronto in 2002, about 15 miles in a day.

    There is something very powerful and special about trekking many miles with a prayerful spirit with fellow compatriots on this earth. The meeting of the physical and spiritual worlds is so palpable.

    I have visited Mont St Michel twice, but never on pilgrimage. Would love to do this someday!

  27. This sounds so great!! Thanks for sharing. I am finding that the competitiveness we are accustomed to in the states just doesn’t really exist here in France. I really like that– it’s rather nice. Pilgrimage sounds really cool– never heard of it before, I know my kids would love to do something like that. I am also going to look up scouts out here. Thank you for being such a wonderful resource!

  28. Carl Youngblood

    Thanks so much for sharing. I too am wondering how important it would be to be able to speak French for a trip like this.

    In light of Anna’s comments, I think merely the act of sharing a long trek on foot with one’s fellow “passengers to the grave” (as Dickens so aptly put it) becomes a holy experience, and that this alone is sufficient to render this a “pilgrimage.” Rather than see presumption in those who call it that, I see presumption in those who would seek to control the religious narrative too tightly.

  29. This trip sounds so wonderful! I have always wanted to go to Mont St Michel since I was a kid and I love the pilgrims’ progress (if you will). There’s something very right about approaching barefoot, and I’m not even religious. You’ve definitely added an item to my goals.

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