Sunday, October 01, 2006

Le Mont St. Michel
Sep 26-28

(From where I was sitting, a tree was hiding the bottom of the mount so you don't get to see the massive walls of Mont St. Michel)

The only thing worse then being stuck in the picturesque French country side without a camera is being stuck there with a camera but no lens. At least relatively speaking. I'm sure there are worse things but I can't think of any just now. As other so clearly commented on my previous entry, I had to find a solution.

A Holga is a cheap ($15) plastic camera favored by photographers and photography students for the "artistic" pictures it can create. Artistic here means under or over exposed, out of focus pictures. In fact, the camera is so bad that the first thing you have to do once you buy it is to use some opaque piece of tape to close the light-leaks the camera comes pre-configured with. If you don't, your pictures will have look like that drawing in the museum that's all black and everyone tries to understand what it stands for and why someone paid so much money for it. Except your pictures will be all white.

I don't have a Holga nor a way to process the 120mm film it shoots. But I did come up with the digital equivalent of a Holga. Introducing the Motorola V3 RAZR- the poor man's digital Holga camera, hereby dubbed HLGA. It does not need any leak-closing, no special film but the pictures are still guaranteed to be a bit out of focus, lacking in contrast and generally low resolution.

As the saying goes, it's the photographer, not the camera, right? RIGHT?

I joined a few colleagues at a conference in Le Mont St. Michel (mountain of archangel Michael). The mont is located on the French coast of the British Channel. We approached it by taxi from the train station, an excellent way to come face to face with this great place. I sat up front with my HLGA, hoping to get a good glimpse.

Imagine a plain. All around you are fields or grasslands with nothing rising higher then the trees. As the taxi approaches the nearest town, suddenly a tower looms up behind it. From far away, it just looks like another building or church tower. Then you pass the town and the full mount becomes visible.

Le Mont St. Michel is a rock sticking up out of the plain, right where a river flows into the sea. Archangel Michael showed himself to a local clergy man and told him to build a house for god on that spot. What emerged is a place that could easily fit into the next Lord of the Rings movie - The Other Tower We Forgot In The First 3 Movies. The top of the mount is dominated by the monastery, with a spire going up to heaven. At the top of the spire stands Archangel Michael. The bottom of the mount is covered by inns, hotels and restaurants, originally catering to pilgrims and now to the many tourists that come by. A wall with guard posts and cannons surrounds the mount.

This is the gate. Notice the portcullis that can easily be dropped to close the entrance. Notice also the open drawbridge. What you don't see is the iron gate behind the doorway that can be shut on an advancing army. Seems like a lot of wars were fought around this spot.

To add to the feeling of this medieval place, the tide rushes in twice a day and completely surrounds the mount, except for the higher-built access road. Even the parking lots next to the mount get flooded by the tide and are cleaned by a special road-washing machine.

There are very few horizontal areas on the mount. Since I registered late for the conference, I did not have a room at the conference hotel off the mount and had to stay on it. The entrance to the hotel is at ground level, but then I got my key and was told "go up two floors, make a left and exit the door, then go to the next building over and your room is there".

To translate:
  • "Go up two floors" means 2-3 floors worth of spiraling stairs.
  • "Make a left" means another half a floor up to the door.
  • "go to the next building" means a climb down of a few stairs, but don't worry, you'll pay for that when you get back.
  • "Your room is there" means two floors up in that building.
The view from the room was very nice. It faces back towards land and you can see the buildings of the mount and the road leading out. This is the view through the morning fog.

At night, we went looking for a place to eat. The main road climbs up around the mount and is littered with restaurants and stores. We debated between two restaurants, "the white lamb" and chef something-or-other's seafood bistro. The two stood next to one another, though at a different levels since the road kept climbing. After much debate, we entered the bottom one, the white lamb. We were told to go a floor up to the sitting area, then were told to go across to the other sitting area (at which point we found ourselves at the ground floor of the fish restaurant) and then were told to go one more floor up for the real sitting area. A very nice trick! You have two store fronts, one for meat lovers and one promising great fish. People can debate what they'd like to sit, but then end up in the exact same place. The power of "choice" :)

A lot of the restaurants and at least one hotel on the mount had the name "Poulard" in them. Mrs. Poulard opened a pilgrim's hotel on the mount in 1888 and went on to create a celebrated kitchen and many recipes. Her husband stocked a celebrated wine cellar. One of La Mere Poulard's (the chef Poulard) famous dishes was the Poulard omelet she created for hungry wayferers. While I'm not a fan of eggs, I inspected it when it was served to me in one of the formal dinners there. The omelet is fluffy, having been mixed by hand for a long time until it had a lot of air bubbles in it. I believe the main reason La Mere created this omelet was because she could sell it for more while using less eggs. I'm sure I've offended quite a few French people who worshipped Mrs. Poulard so just like to say that, once again, that's a genius marketing move!

Courtesy of Thierry, here's a better shot of the mont taken with a HLGA II - the swiss army knife of PDAs, the PDA come music player come game console come camera, the Palm Zire.

For more information on the mount, see the Wikipedia entry for Mont St. Michel.

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