Incarnate Art: Garden of the Gods

In my first Incarnate Art piece, I showed you a beautiful fairy tale castle on an island in France. In this installment I’m going to take you to a place carved by the hand of Nature instead of Man: The Garden of the Gods.

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Almost in the very middle of the United States, nestled on the edge of the Colorado Rocky Mountains is a place which looks as though it were frozen in time from Prehistory. With its massive scarlet rock formations, sharply carved out against a cerulean sky, the Garden of the Gods well deserves its ostentatious name.

gardenotgodsThe story of its name is quite amusing and, in my opinion, very American. In 1859, Messieurs M.S. Beach and Rufus Cable set out from the nearby city of Denver to explore the area. While about, they came upon a majestic and awe-inspiring landscape, with mountainous russet rocks and lush, verdant trees. Mr. Beach, in a most hilariously American train of thought, immediately put in what “A capital place for a beer garden!” the place would be. But Mr. Cable indignantly and heartily disagreed. With equally American enthusiasm and extravagance, he replied “Beer Garden! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” And so it was.

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Indian petroglyphs at the park, believed to represent (left to right) the Sun, a deer, a buffalo head, and a tool, or perhaps even the thunderbird

This is one of the few locations you will see on this segment which I have actually had the honor of visiting. I was not joking when I said that it feels prehistoric. I recall my seven year old self walking through the park with my family and easily envisioning a Tyrannosaur or Velociraptor popping out to chase us at any moment (I was rather a fan of Jurassic Park). Indeed, geological study of the area revealed that the formations must have come about in the Pleistocene Ice Age. The area has also been admired for far longer than the times European American settlers discovered it. Many Native American tribes, including the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee and more have stories passed through generations of the beautiful place and the Ute Tribe was still camping there until the 1870’s. Archaeologists still discover petroglyphs and the remains of Indian pottery and tools, evidence of the Native Americans’ ancient connection with the park.

The Garden of the Gods is not an often remembered site when people talk of American tourism, lost in the sea of more famous places like the Grand Canyon or the Redwood Forest. However this place, with its ancient and rustic beauty, is truly worth a visit. It is perfect for walks, hikes, and climbs for just you or the entire family. Perhaps it’s my memories talking, but I can think of almost no place in my homeland where I would rather go to appreciate the majesty of Nature.

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Opera Highlight: Madama Butterfly

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Commemorative statue of Cio-Cio-san and her son in Nagasaki, Japan

One of my all time favorite operas and possibly the most heartbreaking thing one could ever either read, watch or listen to is Giacomo Puccini’s great masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is what could be called a ‘drawing room’ opera. There is no action or adventure. Everything, from the wedding to Butterfly’s death, takes place in and around a beautiful Japanese house on a hill. And yet, nowhere does the opera want for interest.

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The Pledge (誓), by Hirezaki Eiho

The story begins with an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, who has been stationed in Nagasaki for a time. While handsome and charming, he is a scoundrel, and has arranged for a temporary marriage to take place to ‘keep him entertained’ until he ships out again. This marriage is to a delicate and gentle Japanese girl, aptly named Cio-Cio, meaning ‘Butterfly’. Unaware of Pinkerton’s true intentions, she believes he genuinely cares for her and falls desperately in love with him. She renounces her religion and is disowned by her whole family. When Pinkerton is eventually reassigned, he tells her he will return. The poor girl believes him and patiently waits for him for three years. During this time, she bears his child, lives in poverty and rejects all handsome offers of marriage made to her on the grounds that she is already married. One day, Pinkerton does return, but to Butterfly’s horror, it is with a new, “real” American wife. In a sort of twisted attempt at reparation, they are there to take away Butterfly’s child and give him a good life in America. Knowing that she will never be able to properly support him, Butterfly does indeed give up her child. But she decides as her father did, that ‘It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor’. She takes her own life just as Pinkerton, for whom she waited so faithfully, arrives calling out her name.

Written out, the story seems very sad. But listening? I can honestly say that I have never encountered any work of art, visual, literary or musical which so touched my soul as Madama Butterfly. The story is heart-rending, the libretto (script) wonderfully crafted, and the music could draw tears from a stone.

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Giacomo Puccini

This opera is partially the result of the Orientalist movement. This was a popular movement in Europe for a long time, especially during the historically terrible Imperialist Era. The ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ view that the West had of the East was big money in entertainment, and plenty of musicians and artists made a quick buck by giving Europeans a cheap imitation of the East. Our composer Giacomo Puccini, however, stands apart. Rather than give the people their “fix of exoticism”, as it could be called, he strove for an authenticity that most artists of his time never even bothered with. Fascinatingly, his Madama Butterfly is filled with authentic Japanese folk tunes, which he studied in great detail to give a genuine Japanese flavor to his music. Despite limited knowledge and access to knowledge of it, Puccini did his very best to stay true to Japanese culture in his opera. Of course, not living in a very informed era on this subject, he got many things wrong. He did try, however, and many of his mistakes (such as a mildly inaccurate depiction of jigai) are easily corrected by modern productions.

What also sets Madama Butterfly apart is its shocking anti-Imperialist message. Similar to an earlier opera by Délibes, LakméMadama Butterfly tells the story of a wronged and abused woman in a wronged and abused culture. Butterfly seems to represent more than just one woman, but the entire culture of Japan, or even the whole of Asia. The abuse of the West towards its colonized lands is a black mark on Western history and one which found a sharp reproach in a work like Madama Butterfly. Who knows, but perhaps more than one person left the theater after this opera with a very different view on the East than he had when he entered.

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Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-san

Many people take Madama Butterfly in the wrong way, however, deeming it racist and filled with stereotypes. While I acknowledge the presence of the stereotypes, I respectfully disagree that the work is racist. While such a piece composed now would certainly be problematic, one has to consider the time that it came from. In such a time as the early 20th century, Madama Butterfly bordered on a slap in the face to Westerners for their haughty, imperialistic views of different cultures. Much like a butterfly, the important image of the opera, Westerners treated other cultures as nothing more than something you capture, kill and pin to a card as a decoration. This well delivered message is why I am at a loss when people pour hatred on this beautiful opera for racism. It seems to me the equivalent of condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its obvious racial stereotypes while ignoring the anti-slavery themes and the effect it had on society’s conscience. In the end, I believe it comes down to what I said in a previous article; that in many stories, accuracy is not the point. The message is.

Madama Butterfly was not immediately successful. People said that the music was too similar to some of Puccini’s earlier works, especially La Boheme. This is rather bewildering to me, as I have yet to find a single place where the scores are noticeably similar. The fact remained, however, that the opera had to be revised and re-released before it was given the success it deserved. In my opinion, this is fortunate, as the first version contains bits in the libretto which are vastly inferior and, indeed, trite compared to the later (and now standard) 1914 version. Nowadays, Butterfly is one of the most popular and commonly performed operas in the world.

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Yin Huang and Richard Troxell in Scorsese’s beautiful film version

While many operas do not have any really perfect recordings,  Madama Butterfly is fortunate to possess some of the very finest versions in all of recorded opera. Many of the most talented singers and conductors have recorded this opera and there are plenty of versions to choose from. However, my recommendation can only go to the 1974 recording magnificently conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Never will you find a more tender and haunting Butterfly than Mirella Freni, nor a more magnificently voiced and characterized Pinkerton than Luciano Pavarotti. The supporting cast is just as good, and I consider this to be one of the best opera recordings of all time. You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube in Parts I, II and III.

But it is always best to start off by watching an opera before you merely listen to it. And here, Butterfly is in luck again, as Martin Scorsese himself put out a filmed version of the opera in 1995, filmed on location in Japan. This version can also be watched on YouTube, complete with subtitles.

So enjoy! This is an exquisite opera and well worth the watch. If you need to be convinced, however, give a listen to some of the snippets from the opera. They should leave you entranced.

(Featured Image: Peonies and Butterflies, by Ito Jakuchu)

The Description Confectionery: Hound of the Baskervilles

blog-picsTime for another Description Confection! This time, we are going to go to one of the greatest and most famous mystery stories of all time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic The Hound of the BaskervillesThis extract comes from the moment Dr. Watson is coming upon Baskerville Hall, a very old manor in the desolately beautiful northern English moors.

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm.

                                          ~Chapter 6, Baskerville Hall

200px-cover_28hound_of_baskervilles2c_190229First, notice the words Watson uses to describe the land which they left behind; fertile land, threads of gold sunlight, and red earth. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine peeking through the clouds.

But when Watson turns back to the direction in which he and the driver are bound, the description dramatically shifts. The welcoming words such as fertile and glowing are sharply replaced by words like bleak and harsh. Instead of the fertile red earth, there is now a stone cottage, so inhospitable that a vine cannot even cling to its walls. The colors, which before were warm and pleasant ones like red and gold now turn to the tones of russet and olive, both colors having distinctly cool, dreary undertones. Without Sir Arthur even mentioning a change of light, the reader sees the land before Watson as gray, dark and eerie, sapped of color and life. The description is capped off with the addition of storm-gnarled trees, giving the land an unmistakably wicked and spooky atmosphere.

The entirety of this book is filled with marvelous descriptions, but I particularly love this one. It introduces a sinister, foreboding feeling to the reader, perfect for this book which emphasizes the battle of logic and knowledge over the terror of the unknown. This short but masterful paragraph wonderfully sets the tone in only a few sentences. Indeed, one can almost hear the feral baying of the Hound itself, echoing across the land to fill the hearer with a nameless fear.

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Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

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Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

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The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

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Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

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Coloratura Me Beautiful

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Clockwise: Sutherland, Mesplé, Anderson, Dessay, Pons, Moffo, Sills

If you needed to learn one word to begin navigation of the Operatic world, I would submit that the word you needed would be “Coloratura”. It’s not a word that one encounters almost anywhere but in opera, but when you’re talking about opera, you hear it a lot, and if you don’t know what it means, you’re going to be very confused.

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Joan Sutherland, the Queen of Coloratura

So what is Coloratura? Well, it is an Italian word, and literally means ‘coloring’. It is most often used in music, where it refers to vocal ornamentation, usually in sopranos and mezzo sopranos. It is all of that really impressive vocal work that makes the jaw drop, the eyes bulge and the hands applaud frenziedly. When you hear it, you can see how fitting the word ‘coloring’ is to describe it, as the wild, yet sophisticated decorations bring the vocal line vibrant new life. Trills, runs, and spectacular, sparkling high notes. A lot of it hardly sounds possible, and one might not believe it actually was possible if there wasn’t footage of such singing coming from a human body. It’s astonishing stuff, and even people who don’t enjoy opera can at least admire the amazing talent of singers who are masters of this technique. Let’s look at some, shall we?

Of course, you don’t have to watch the entire half-hour video (though it’s worth it), but if you want some highlights, I would suggest going to Lily Pons at 3:14, Anna Moffo at 5:19, and Joan Sutherland at 12:50. These singers really encapsulate the art of Coloratura. They sing the music accurately and beautifully all while making it look and sound positively easy, even though it most certainly is not.

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After you have finished the cadenza, then you have my permission to breathe.

One downside to coloratura is that, often, a singer must sacrifice the Drama in a scene in order to sing it well. This isn’t a problem in comedies, as it is easy to be bright and cheery while whistling out notes. But in tragedies and melodramas the lack of proper feeling can be a bit off-putting for the dramatically inclined. Watching the aforementioned Lily Pons, for example, you would never guess that the character is supposed to be terrified while she is forced to sing by her father. Ms. Pons just looks too… happy. But focusing on the complicated singing and on the acting is really too much for most singers who don’t possess superhuman powers. This is probably the main reason why true coloratura singers are on the decline these days, when there is a definite push towards drama over technique. I myself am more inclined to good acting and emoting than vocal accuracy, but it does pain the heart to see such talent on the decline.

The closest we come to that golden age of Coloratura Singers these days are singers like Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay, who, while excellent, still aren’t quite a Sutherland, Sills or Anderson. But I suspect that the pendulum will swing again at some point, and we will be drowning in melismatic vocals once more.

Hercules, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

blog-picsHercules is probably among the most famous names in Western culture. Everyone knows who he is: The fantastically strong son of Zeus, the Samson of the Greeks! However, these days, a great many people, particularly my fellow Americans, know this information from something other than original Greek myth: the famously inaccurate and yet delightful Walt Disney Pictures.

The 1997 animated film, Hercules is one of the acclaimed movie members of the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance‘, their great comeback era after the 80’s. Possessing charming animation, equally charming characters and all of the bowdlerizing deviations from source material you would expect from a Disney film, Hercules’ tale of self-realization, sacrifice and heroism remains a staple of children’s cinema to this day.

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The Hipster Demon: “You can’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. Everyone likes Bohemian Rhapsody…”

I loved the movie back in the day. Of course I did: I was a kid! But eventually came a new era in my life: I became a Teenager. And with Teenager-ism came the dreaded Demon of Hipsterdom. No longer was I allowed to like the things everyone else liked. I had to be “unique” now and find a reason to dislike everything popular in favor of the obscure.

“Look how Disney ruins the Greek myths!” my Hipster Shoulder-Demon cried out at Hercules. And to an extent, the little Hipster Demon was right. There were many problems great and small. For instance, the irritating decision to use the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Herakles’ when literally every single other name in the movie is in Greek. I mean, come on, really? Another quibble is that the winged horse Pegasus is in the entirely wrong myth. Not to mention, in the kids’ movie, they have the cute pony formed adorably out of puffy little clouds, when the actual story goes that the vicious, killer, flying horse sprung from the blood of Medusa, spilled on the ground after Perseus decapitated her. Less cute, yes, but quite awesome.

hercules-removes-cerberus-from-the-gates-of-hellBut things get far more different than simple name changes and misplaced equines. The original story, as one might expect, is faaar less child friendly than the one coming out of Disney studios. For one thing, Herakles is most certainly not the son of Hera, but the demigod son of Zeus, king of the gods and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Hera is the hero’s mortal enemy, who loathes him for being the result of one of her husband’s many illicit affairs. Always searching for a way to destroy Herakles that she can get away with, Hera sends terrible madness upon him several times, eventually resulting in Herakles unwittingly slaughtering his two children, and in some stories, his wife Megara as well. A decent sort of person in the stories, the stricken Herakles performs his famous Twelve Labors as reparation for the murders, but the suffering doesn’t end there. He ends up being poisoned by his next wife, Deianira, who thought she was giving him a love potion. Unable to die of the poison due to his immense strength, Herakles writhes in agony, burned internally  by the poison until he orders his servants to burn him alive on a pyre to end his suffering. His wife, realizing her horrible mistake, then hangs herself in remorse.

Try wrapping that story up with a catchy musical number.

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Ha ha, I’m eventually supposed to kill you and our children.

 

However, missing all of this less savory stuff means that they missed a lot of the cool stuff too. Numerous movies could be dedicated to Herakles’ Twelve Labors, and many other amazing adventures involving other heroes, monsters, journeys and battles. But instead of telling about how Herakles defeated the Nemean Lion, or how he accompanied the Argonauts or choked Death until he gave back the soul of Alcestis, Disney decided to go a different route; by completely making something up. Sigh.

Being a child of the 90’s, I was first introduced to the story of Herakles and indeed, the entire Greek mythos by Disney. Watching and being fascinated by this movie as a small child planted an interest in my brain that I still have not shaken. Greek mythology became one of my childhood passions. I got every book I could on Greek mythology from the library and read them all until I had to move on to the adult section. As I learned more and more, my Hipster Demon grew strong, and I despised the Disney movie I had once loved, pooh-poohing it for many years as a borderline parody of the original story.

However, as I exposed myself to more and more literature, Greek and otherwise, I began to feel a bit ungrateful to Disney. How could I condemn a work which had functioned as a key for me to the door of Greek stories? If it hadn’t been for this movie, who knows if I would have ever bothered picking up a book of mythology? I watched the movie again for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong. While wildly inaccurate, Disney’s Hercules was still a treasure. In this coming of age story, the title character learns that true heroism is love and sacrifice and becomes a great role model for kids in a way that the womanizing, violent Herakles of the original tale never could be. Who was I to criticize? Who knows how many kids like me went and sought out more myths after watching this movie?

And so, I learned a lesson. I flicked the little Hipster Demon off of my shoulder. I decided that faithfulness to source material, while usually a must, isn’t always the point. It’s the actual story that matters. Is Disney’s Hercules a good representation of Greek mythology? Heck no. But is it a good movie with a good story? Yes, it is. Can you like both original myth and censored Disney classic? You most certainly can.

It still annoys me that they used his Roman name though. I mean, gosh, why?

Incarnate Art: Mont Saint-Michel

Have you ever seen a place so beautiful that it seems more like a painting than physical place? As though it leaped off of its canvas to become reality? Well, welcome to Incarnate Art! In this serial on Mind Vitamins, I will show you and give a brief summary of the World’s most breathtaking places, natural and man-made, which might make you doubt whether this is real life or just fantasy…

blog-picsFirst, we are going to go to a region of France in the North. Conquered and settled by the vikings or ‘Northmen’, it became known as Normandy. It was from here that William the Conqueror and his Norman armies set off for England, to conquer the Saxons in the 11th century. In more recent history, Normandy is mostly agricultural, with cattle, horses, dairy, flax and cider being some examples of industries in the area.  It sounds very simple and rural, but by the coast is a place which could trick you into thinking you had stumbled into a fairy tale; Mont Saint-Michel.
blog-picsFinding its beginnings all the way back in the 8th century AD, Mont Saint-Michel really is like a peek into the past. According to pious legends, it was built on the orders of St.

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Cloister of the Abbey

Michael the Archangel himself, after whom the island is named. The structures you see are primarily a church and monastery, built for Benedictine monks. But lower on the hill is a charming little village which used to host the many pilgrims to the spot in centuries gone by. It is completely surrounded by water, and was built in such a way so that the bridge which led to the island was only usable at low tide, the waters covering the passage at all other times. The Mount, built up over the centuries, has a rich history and has been used for more than just a monastery. It was a fortress in the Hundred Years War and foiled all attempts to conquer it with its strategic placement, use of the natural tides and its newer, clever fortifications. It was also used as a prison from around the time of the Revolution which remained in use all the way to 1863. After literally a millennium of use, it was finally decided that the Mount was a historical and artistic treasure, and protection of the site began officially in 1874. Millions of people now visit and enjoy this beautiful place every year.

Any European readers may no doubt be yawning at this article, as this particular place is already very famous on the east side of the Atlantic Pond. But I and my fellow castle-less Americans can’t help but see such a place as tremendously exciting and borderline magical. Those of us who can’t go can at least enjoy the beautiful pictures and  maybe put a little pin on our maps of places to visit. I know I want to…

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You can read more about Mont Saint-Michel at these great websites!
http://frenchmoments.eu/mont-saint-michel/
http://about-france.com/monuments/mont-saint-michel.htm