A Visit to France's Magnificent Mont Saint-Michel
While France is home to its share of magnificent monuments, historic sites, museums, and famous chateaux, there is one destination that really captured my imagination when I first learned of it. Sitting majestically just off the coast of Lower Normandy in the Gulf of Saint-Malo is one of the world’s most breathtaking and memorable sites, Mont Saint-Michel. If a photo of this Gothic island-fortress-village-abbey does not stir your sense of imagination and adventure then it’s time to see your doctor. All it took was one photo of Mont Saint-Michel that I happened upon years ago and it quickly found itself a spot on my bucket list. If I was going to visit France, then I would find a way to get to Mont Saint-Michel.
And so in the fall of 2014, with my wife and two other couples who have traveled extensively with us and share our common sense of adventure, we headed off to discover Mont Saint-Michel. This Romanesque and Gothic shrine that legend says was inspired by a visit from the Archangel Michael is now a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site having been added in 1979. It receives upwards of three million visitors each year, which dwarfs its current population of just fifty residents.
How it All Began
In October of 709 AD a small church was built on this rocky island by Saint Aubert, then the Bishop of Avranches. Legend holds that supposedly the Archangel Michel appeared to him in a vision and requested that he build a church on the island. In the 11th century, the Benedictine monastery was constructed and over the next few centuries the abbey expanded and a small village at the base of the rocky island slowly took hold.
Although home to just fifty residents the village has always had a commercial calling to it and visitors have flocked to the island for centuries. During its long history the island has served a number of different purposes including being used as a fortress during the Hundred Years War and as a prison during the French Revolution. It has certainly withstood the test of time and the fact that the “rock” is pure granite has helped it to survive the harsh elements of the Normandy Coast for centuries.
Abbey: A church or other building that is or was at one time part of a convent or monastery.
As you approach the community of Avranches on the mainland and the mouth of the Couesnon River you begin to get your first glimpse of Mont Saint-Michel, which is certainly an exciting moment. It sits one kilometer off the coast and at times the tide turns it into a true island. Rising majestically to over 300 feet above the sea the Mont is visible for miles in all directions. Resembling the medieval fortress that it once was, today Mont Saint-Michel is a curious mix of touristy shops and cafes that rises quickly and steeply up to the Abbey with its statue of Archangel Michael sitting prominently atop the spire.
There was a time when you could park on the causeway that takes visitors to Mont Saint-Michel and simply meander over to the island. A new project, which was completed in 2014 has added a pedestrian footbridge and an elevated causeway for shuttle buses and service vehicles. The old causeway, which will be removed, interrupted the flow of water around the island during high tides and resulted in a buildup of silt from the river. The new causeway will allow for the natural flow of water around the island.
Along with the new causeway came the construction of a new visitor center and car park, which is located about 2.5 kilometers from the island. Here you can park for the day and take a shuttle bus to the island, or you can walk if you choose. We opted for the shuttle bus and in short order we found ourselves at the base of Mont Saint-Michel looking upward and thinking, wow, that’s going to be one heck of a climb. But, as we are always up for a challenge we crossed the drawbridge, straight out of medieval times, and headed through the Porte Du Boulevard into the heart of the Mont.
The lower levels on the island are an interesting mix of souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants, museums, small hotels and other ancient-looking buildings that are still a curiosity and a mystery to me. I presume that some of them are actually homes for the residents who live here. You really do get the impression that you are walking through a medieval village as you enter the fortified walls.
As we intended to visit the abbey atop the island we followed what seemed like the only direction one could travel in and slowly headed upward along the Grande Rue (Main Street). Eventually, you will arrive at the Grande Degre, or the Grand Staircase that takes you to the Abbey. Don’t rush to get to the Abbey, the climb is steep and there are scenic lookouts along the way that provide a rest stop with the most amazing views in every direction. The higher you go the more spectacular the views get. Along the way, you will pass the four museums on the island and the Church of St. Pierre, which was constructed in the 15th century.
If you are visiting during low tide be sure to keep a lookout for groups out in the mudflats. This looked tempting but with a limited time schedule, we decided to keep our shoes on and continued the climb to the abbey.
Should you decide to venture out into the mudflats you might be well advised to do so with a tour guide. At the very least please check the local tides as this area is subject to some of the highest and quickest tides throughout continental Europe. You do not want to have your feet stuck in the mud when the tide comes in and more than one tragedy has occurred here.
Out on the Mud Flats
Have you visited Mont Saint-Michel?
If not would you be interested in visiting someday?
The Abbey is open every day except January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th.
From May 2nd - Aug 31st, the hours are 9am to 7pm with last admission at 6pm.
From Sept 1st - April 30th, the hours are 9:30am to 6pm with last admission at 5pm.
- The entry fee is 9 euros for individuals age 25 and older.
- The rate is 7 euros for individuals age 18 to 25.
- Under age 18 is free.
- Under age 26 and citizen of European Union Country is free also.
Mass is celebrated at 12:15pm from Tuesday to Saturday and on Sunday’s at 11:30am. Other masses are conducted at 7am during the week and at 8am on weekends.
Your tour of the Abbey will take you through a maze of Gothic rooms and chambers and at times you may feel quite lost. But this is the sense of adventure and anticipation that makes it so appealing. Most of the Abbey is barren, which gives it that medieval, creepy feeling and the large rooms and fireplaces certainly stir the imagination.
After touring the Abbey you will have a chance to spend some time on the terrace and visit the Abbey Church, which was constructed in the11th century. From the terrace, you get a magnificent view of the French countryside and the bay, which stretches from the coast of Brittany to Normandy. It really is one of the most spectacular scenes that I have ever witnessed.
From the terrace, your journey will lead you to a quiet garden courtyard and cloister that is the perfect place to take a quick break. Most monasteries contain a cloister and this area is usually set aside for the monk's to meditate and reflect. It's hard to believe that there's actually a garden growing on top of this rocky island.
And if you’re wondering how on earth they managed to construct the Abbey atop this hunk of granite your tour will take you by the giant human-powered wheel where six humans, presumably prisoners, would hamster-like turn the treaded wheel to haul material up to the top of the mount. It’s quite impressive.
Interesting facts on Mont Saint-Michel
- During the 100 Years War, England captured all of Normandy except for Mont Saint-Michel.
- The Statue of Archangel Saint Michael atop the Abbey spire also acts as a lightning rod to protect the island from electrical storms.
- Mont Saint-Michel was the first site in France to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Stage 11 of the 2013 Tour de France ended at Mont Saint-Michel.
There are a number of museums on Mont Saint-Michel and although we did not have time to visit it appears that we did not miss much. My research tells me that all of the museums are in French only and the reviews on them are so-so at best.
There are four museums: Archeoscope, Museum of History, Maritime and Ecology Museum and Tiphaine’s House. The price for a single museum visit is 9 euros but you can visit all four of 18 euros. While this seems like a bargain make sure you have the time and interest to do this. The real highlight of a visit to Mont Saint-Michel is the Abbey itself and the views.
If you are visiting Normandy as part of a trip to France you would do well to include a stop at Mont Saint-Michel. This historical monument is worth the effort and trust me when I tell you that you will never forget your visit to this incredible one of a kind destination. Whether you are there early in the day, during a tidal event, or at night when it’s all lite up this place will be ingrained in your memory forever. Just be sure to travel light when visiting as you will have to climb the rock to fully appreciate its monumental beauty. I hope you enjoyed this visit to one of the world’s most sacred and treasured sites, Mont Saint-Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel at dusk
On March 21, 2015 thousands gathered to watch a super tide at Mont Saint-Michel.
© 2015 Bill De Giulio