- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

LE MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, FRANCE

The medieval abbey of Mont Saint Michel — a jewel of France’s architectural heritage — is to become an island once again, with Friday’s start of a massive engineering project designed to reverse centuries of silting.

Built 1,300 years ago on a rock off the northwestern Normandy coast, Mont Saint Michel is France’s main tourist attraction outside Paris. However, the encroachment of surrounding mud flats has spoiled the insular character of the Benedictine abbey, which is only cut off from the mainland at very high tides.

“Historically, the Mont was more than [2[1/2] miles] from the mainland. Today it is only a few dozen [yards] away,” says project director Francois-Xavier de Beaulaincourt.

Experts believe that at the current rate of silting, Mont Saint Michel would be connected permanently to the mainland — even at high tides — by 2040.

Under a $190 million plan, French engineers hope to reverse the work of generations of land reclamation and restore the abbey’s original aspect by encouraging a freer flow of water around the bay.

The dyke linking the monastic community to the mainland will be replaced by a bridge, while a sophisticated new dam on the Couesnon — a tidal river that flows into the bay — will be used to flush mud and silt back out to sea.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin officially started the project, which has been in the pipeline since 2003, during a visit to the abbey Friday. Construction is scheduled to be completed around 2012.

For the 3 million tourists who visit the site every year, the changes eventually will mean they will no longer be able to drive up to the walls of the Mont but will have to use a parking lot 1 miles away and then either walk or take a rail shuttle across the bridge.

Thirty-seven acres of land housing the existing parking lots will be returned to local wildlife, and a new visitors promenade facing Mont Saint Michel will be built atop the dam on the River Couesnon.

Work will begin on the bridge in 2008, when the dam is expected to be completed, while the old dike finally will be destroyed by 2012. The site will remain fully accessible throughout.

The fate of the abbey, classified as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has been a matter of concern for more than 100 years, after it became clear that the dike built in 1879 to allow easier access was only hastening the accumulation of mud and sand.

Author Victor Hugo in 1884 wrote: “The Mont Saint Michel must remain an island. We must save it from mutilation!”

Local farmers prized the pasture created on the reclaimed land for their famous salt marsh (“pre sale” or pre-salted) lamb. However, the process of silting took on alarming proportions when the River Couesnon was forced into a channel and then, 40 years ago, further restricted by a barrage.

Under the engineering plan — dubbed “Re-establishing the maritime character of Mont Saint Michel,” the old barrage will be destroyed and replaced by a new hydraulic system.

The hydraulic dam will allow tidal waters to flow freely up the river but will filter them to limit the amount of sediment being carried upstream. It will hold back seawater as the tide recedes before releasing a pressured stream to flush silt from the delta back out to sea.

Within two years of its completion, project organizers say, the combined effect of the dam and the powerful Normandy tide will clear 50 million cubic feet of mud and sand from the flats surrounding the abbey — half the total target.

By around 2020, the seabed around the abbey will have dropped by 28 inches, although Mr. Beaulaincourt says Mont Saint Michel’s “maritime” aspect will be visible as soon as the works are completed.

Legend has it that the rock, originally known as Mont Tombe, was cut off from the surrounding forest in prehistoric times by a massive tide. The first oratory dedicated to St. Michael was built there in 708, and the abbey seen today was put up in the 11th century.

A small community of monks keeps the monastic tradition alive, and the adjacent village counts about 60 inhabitants, all heavily dependent on the tourist trade.

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