A visit to Mont Saint-Michel always raises our spirits and our heart rates as we clamber up so, so many steps. The paved plateau by Chapelle Notre-Dame-sous-Terre is about the highest place visitors can explore, with a view well worth the gasping and being elbowed aside by power walking retirees.
This plateau is usually the aim of our visit; to see the vast bay gleaming in sunshine under a blue sky or to watch the drama of storm clouds and a turbulent sea – even rain looks good from up here.
But niggling reviews online about tourist treats tucked away in the twisting streets and alleys of the Mont led us away from our usual path, to visit one of the four museums on the island. We chose the Musée Historique because of an old postcard we found while researching our story about the Marquis de Tombelaine.
After paying around €20 for two, this is what we found.
Cabinets of the mildly curious
First down a narrow staircase lined with cardboard and into a long room lined with an old fashioned cabinets of curiosities. Hundreds of watch parts are displayed in neat rows, like the spoils of a tidy minded pickpocket.
Unremarkable pictures of the Abbey, locally found fossils and an armoury belonging to a long forgotten battalion of soldiers fill the rest of the room.
Past the dried rat is a small lobby and a group of statues, one the figure of a man sinking in quicksand (created by Paul Capellani in 1909). Then out into a small unkempt garden.
Some gardens are romantically overgrown, some are just unloved and messy. This is not a romantic garden. A rather battered statue fights for air against weeds and a few flowers fail to distract from the muddle.
At one end a shed houses the periscope (or is it a camera obscura?). It was not working and looked as though it had not done so for some time.
Not wild about wax
Then through a small door we edged down steps (always steps on the Mont) into a dark space. Around us spotlights flashed on and off highlighting wax figures dressed as people from history. A theatrical disembodied voice (in French) gave a speedy description of the Mont through time. There are no alternative language handouts or explanations despite Mont Saint-Michel attracting tourists from across the world.
After an unsettling few minutes (some of the wax figures are horrifically lifelike) it all stops. We could not see our feet in the darkness so fumbled cautiously along the path into the dungeons.
A brief visit to the dungeons
Mont Saint-Michel was for many years a prison housing up to 600 inmates in horrible conditions. This is represented by tableau of wax figures briefly explained in a few languages. Two very smart wax gentlemen illustrate ‘workshops of the prison’.
A French statesmen, Armand Barbès, leans against the cold rock walls of his cell contemplating his failed rebellion. Armand would later exile himself in Holland, no doubt utterly fed up with steps.
Cavities along the route house dying prisoners and a heap of rather too realistic human bones lurk unpleasantly behind a grate.
Truly terrifying – the monks
Then we saw the monks. Possibly some of the most terrifying wax figures we have ever seen, and we’ve been to the London Dungeon and Le musée Grévin in Paris.
The batteries in our camera had run out at this point (note to visitors: take extra batteries to the Mont) these are phone photos.
No grand finale
The next and final room says it contains ‘fragments of furniture’. An an accurate description.
The exit was via an empty shop. Our entire visit took around 15 minutes.
Musée Historique lets Mont Saint-Michel down. It’s shabby, gives little historic information about the Mont and is filled with low quality oddities. If you are a fan of bad paintings, repellent wax figures and random bits of watches, this is the museum for you. Otherwise it is a rather expensive joke.