The Chemin du Mont Saint-Michel was the route used by Breton and Norman pilgrims but likely also by English pilgrims. There is also a variant (the Plantagenet Way) which goes through Fougères and Angers, finishing up at Saint-Jean-d’Angély, but there is little information on this.
The Route. Leaving Mont Saint-Michel and crossing to the mainland by a 2km causeway (there is no longer a danger for the pilgrim in being swallowed up by incoming tides), the route begins by following the Coueson River. Occasionally interrupted by stretches of country road throughout Brittany and into the Vendée, the path follows alongside canals, particularly the Ille et Villaine, the Ille and Rennes, the Rennes-Nantes to Nantes, and the Sèvres et Nantes. A series of country roads and canal paths through the marshes of the Vendée take one to Surgères and Saint Jean d’Angély, where other northern routes join, and one proceeds south.
Terrain. The route is basically flat, passing through farmland and small towns. While this means that there are no heights with spectacular vistas, there are many agreeable views and canal-side stretches. Along with the GR paths, much is on country roads, but there are also days of walking along canal tow-paths and graded bicycle trails maintained by local authorities.
Waymarking. Much marking is for the GR or for local trails which form part of the Camino. For most of the way, marking is thorough and helpful. It fails dramatically south of Surgères and is also confusing entering into Sens-de-Bretagne, but is generally good.
Weather/When to go. Continental French weather can be changeable, ranging from a very good summer to a very damp and cold autumn. The best time to go is between May and late October; August and late July is likely to be very warm. Drinking water can be obtained at cemetery standpipes.
Accommodation. There is only limited dedicated pilgrim accommodation, and the traveller must rely on commercial accommodation. Rural gîtes, designed for hikers and vacationers, offer the best value, charging between €25-40 a night, and camping sites often have cabins or tents available. B&Bs vary in price and value, but can be delightful and reasonable – but the pilgrim must be prepared to pay between €35-€60, and often evening meals are not included. Major cities can be quite pricy. Local tourism offices proved very helpful and often have staffers who speak English. There is only one dedicated pilgrim hostel, in Antrain, but the mairie is reported to have spaces in Saint Médard and Nieul sur l’Autise, and the tourisme is said to do so in Surgères. As well, the Emmaus community in Saint Michel le Cloucq offers a room with two places and there are youth hostels in Rennes, Redon, and Nantes.
Almost all of France takes its vacation in August and then accommodation can be at a premium. In many rural areas, there are limited facilities and during summer it is advisable to book ahead by a few days, if at all possible. Outside the high season, the pilgrim can enter into a small town and find that everything is closed– hotels take vacations in September and October, and gîtes-owners are off at the seashore– in September I more than once found myself the only traveller in a town of several thousand inhabitants, and in one place the hotel re-opened for me. It is sometimes possible to take a bus or train to accommodation (e.g. a city or town) and the same transport used to resume the route on the following day.
What to see. Some superb ecclesiastical architecture at numerous places; also some remarkable forts and châteaux. Fans of mediæval history will experience the centuries’ long intertwining of French and English history. The provincial capitals of Rennes and Nantes have art galleries with surprising treasures. An idle pilgrim may take the elephant ride at the Machines de l’Île in Nantes and dream of going to Santiago in the giant mechanical elephant.
Guidebooks: Le Chemin du Mont-Saint-Michel à pied du Mont à Saint-Jean-d’Angély produced by the Association bretonne des amis de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, de l’Association Vendéene des Pélerins de Saint Jacques, et Danièlle Boon et de Jean-Pierre Siréjol
Rando éditions, 2005, 2-84182-260-5
This link (www.compostelle17.fr/-Surgeres-Saintes-.html ) will make the poorly-marked stretch between Surgères and Saint-Jean-d’Angély much easier.
Cyclists. This route is highly recommended for bicycle pilgrims, who would be able to avoid some of the pitfalls of limited accommodation in some places by cycling on. Cyclists are heroes in France, and pilgrims en vélo can be assured of a welcome and practical support in the form of associations and repair shops.
What’s it like ? Pilgrims are not unknown, but over three weeks in September, I only met one other. While the route features a rich variety of architecture, culture, and food, it will suit best pilgrims who don’t mind the solitude and/or who speak French. In the summer (especially mid/late July and August) it can be very busy with holidaymakers and tourists. Locals are helpful and very social, and I was frequently given fruit and water. Dogs are not used to hikers, but they tend to be chained or behind fences. Although a detour would be necessary going into Sens de Bretagne, almost all of the route could be done by wheelchair.
In recent years, French villages have been losing their cafés, shops, restaurants and hotels, and the pilgrim will often find themselves in a village where there are no facilities whatsoever. Some planning ahead and consultation with the tourisme or with locals will be very wise.
French. Without a fair grasp of the language you would be missing a lot but English is not unknown along the route, especially in Brittany, which has many UK residents. Rennes and Nantes are tourist-friendly towns, and most tourism offices and some mairies all along the route have English-speaking staff. US pilgrims will be warmly welcomed in many places, owing to this region’s liberation by their country’s troops in World War II.
Websites. With maps and additional material
http://portail.arc.atlantic.free.fr/ – with links to regional pilgrims’ groups– the Breton Association’s site will prove helpful.
Thanks to Austin Cooke, January 2012 (reviewed March 2014)