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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.