On the coast of Normandy, rising out of the sea, the island of Mont Saint-Michel and its magnificent abbey are among France’s most striking sights. The surrounding Baie de Saint-Michel is famed for having Europe’s highest tidal variations; the difference between low and high tides – only about six hours apart – can reach an impressive 15m. The Mont itself is only entirely surrounded by water for a couple of months per year. Even so, regardless of month or season, the tidal waters rush in at an astonishing rate during certain hours of the day, turning the already magnificent landmark into a fairytale-like structure, sitting atop of a magical and still sea. Known as ‘The Heavenly Jerusalem’, and the ‘Pyramid of the Seas’, Mont Saint-Michel rises an awesome 155 meters above the sea; an architectural masterpiece, and a thing of immense beauty and wonder.
Legend has it that in 708 A.D, the Archbishop Aubert of Avranches founded an abbey here after the Archangel Michael appeared to him in a vision three times, instructing him to build a church on the rocky islet, thus making this an important place of pilgrimage ever since. During medieval times, pilgrims used to brave the tidal shores to get to the abbey, often risking their lives in the process, getting trapped in the quicksand and muddy expanse surround the famous mount.
The Mont Saint-Michel has had various roles over the centuries. It has been a place of worship, prayer, and pilgrimage for many years with Benedictine monks, residing there since 966 A.D attracting the faithful in search of spirituality.
The abbey’s strategic location also made it a target. Thus, as the years went by, extensions made to the abbey, coupled with the ramparts and reinforcement of the island’s defenses made it a strategic fortress of Northern France.
At one point in time, the Mount was actually completely deserted. When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel become the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized. The Mount and its buildings soon fell into disarray, thus resulting in the Monks and Abbots, and any other residents having to leave the isle as it had become too dangerous to live in the collapsing structures within it.
It’s hard to imagine, but this beautiful and peaceful place was then converted into a prison for a number of years, only closing down in 1860, after a number of influential figures, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore this magnificent national treasure.
The worship grounds were restored in 1922 but it was only in 1966, during the abbey’s 1,000 year anniversary, that pilgrimages started coming back into full force.
Today, Mont Saint-Michel is definitely one of France’s most recognizable (and spectacular) landmarks, visited by more than 3 million people each year. Registered as a national historic monument since 1862, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay have also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Featuring impressive architecture, stunning views, and a rich and varied history, this place should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Tips on how and when to visit the Mont:
- Mont Sant-Michel is located about 3.5 hours away from Paris, so unless you’re planning on hiring a car and touring the surrounding areas (highly recommended), you can get a day tour from the capital.
- If you’re driving to the Mont yourself, make sure to slot in enough time to really appreciate your experience there. It’s no use getting to this spectacular location and then only having a couple of hours to explore. The place is small, but there’s so much to see! I would suggest slotting in about four to five hours on location.
- Parking is available on the mainland two-and-a-half kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. A shuttle bus leaves from here on a regular basis, dropping visitors off 400 meters from the entrance gates to Mont Saint-Michel. If you have the time you can walk across the bridge to the Mont instead of riding the over-crowded shuttle bus. This will allow for more photo opportunities, and make the experience much more authentic in my opinion.
- If you are planning on arriving on foot, always make sure to inquire about the tides. This is essential as it is extremely dangerous to venture into the bay when the water is rising.
- Mont Saint-Michel is most accessible between the months of March and October. If you don’t like crowds, visiting during the shoulder months (March, the beginning of April, late September and beginning of October) would be ideal. Peak season takes place during the month of June through to August.
- If you are mobility impaired, unfortunately, Mont Saint-Michel is not the place for you. The pedestrian paths on the island are cobbled and at a heavy ascent, making it very difficult for those with mobility problems to get through the area. There’s also a 350-step staircase to the abbey at the top of the mount. LOTS of visitors also make the mount very crowded; I visited during shoulder season (mid-September), and it was absolutely jam-packed, making it quite difficult to move around in certain areas, having to jostle and shimmy between crowds.
Key Places to Visit at Mont Saint-Michel include:
Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel – the crowning jewel of the island, and also its main attraction. This architectural wonder boasts golden hued courtyards, grand echoing halls, and a beautiful gothic church; even the corridors are impressive here! With a rich and varied history, breathtaking views and stunning interiors, St. Michel’s Abbey is definitely the best to start your exploration of Mont Saint-Michel. It’s a steep ascent up winding, narrow, crowded streets, then another 350 steps to get to the entrance so get walking! The bulk your sight-seeing time will be spent in the abbey so slow down and just take it all in. The abbey is divided into two parts: the church-abbey and the “Merveille”; the monks’ living area. The church abbey is spartan, yet absolutely stunning to behold.
The cloister, which is found within the “Merveille” is also particularly a very ethereal and picturesque site, especially on a warm, sunny afternoon. Within the abbey you can also find a treadwheel crane which served as a windlass, installed during the use of the site as a prison, to bring supplies to the prisoners. Some prisoners would walk inside the wheel to rotate it, like hamsters in a wheel! That must have been a strange sight! Views from just outside the church offer a bird’s eye vista of the entire bay which spans kilometers, as far as the eye can see.
- Eglise Paroissiale Saint-Pierre – halfway up to the abbey lies this small chapel. An ideal break from the crowds, the Eglise Paroissiale St. Pierre offers a more serene, quieter, spiritual oasis. Take your time to roam through the church, taking in the sacred atmosphere and just letting the details soak in.
- La Grand Rue – The island’s only street that runs parallel to the ramparts, this cobblestone pathway takes visitors right through the medieval village of Mont Saint-Michel. Lined with tightly-packed 15th and 16th century stone houses, now being occupied by souvenir shops, cafés, restaurants, and hotels, the street heads all the way up to the Abbey in a steep, cobbled maze. The magical atmosphere of the place is best experienced during the low season when crowds are sparse and the streets quiet. The Grand Rue ends at the Grand Degré, a flight of steps leading up to the entrance of the Saint-Michel Abbey.
- La Mere Poulard – Unfortunately I did not get to see this place, as we were short of time during our visit. The Auberge is a legendary institution of Mont Saint-Michel’s. Set up in 1888 by couple Annette and Victor Poulard, the inn welcomed pilgrims as well as visitors who came to sample Annette’s cooking. She was quite the chef it would seem! She was affectionately given the name La Mère Poulard by locals and visitors alike. The name stuck, and today, the Auberge Mère Poulard complex includes a small hotel, a restaurant, and a more casual café were La Mère Poulard’s culinary specialty: an omelet is served to those who wish to sample the original famous recipe. La Mère Poulard was also well known for her “biscuits” (delicious butter cookies made with only the finest Normandy butter). They’re still produced and sold at the Mère Poulard boutique on the Grand Rue. What a great souvenir to take home to your loved ones!
- Mont Saint-Michel exterior – spending some time outside the island and just taking in the scene is highly recommended. As the day goes by, less and less visitors will start showing up at the base of the mount; the busy morning and afternoons turning into quieter, more peaceful evenings. The latter being the times when the island’s real beauty shines through. Watching the tide come in (from a safe spot of course) is a spectacular sight to see, especially in the twilight hours. If you do have time to experience this, do so. Just take my advice; try not to stray out too far into the tidal pools, even if it’s low tide at the time. My walked out to get a good shot of the Mont and ended up stuck in the quick-sand like mud. Took a lot of time, effort and cussing to get myself back out… I’m not sure St. Michael was pleased by my behavior! My boots definitely weren’t impressed!
Mont Saint-Michel is definitely a place to visit at least once in your lifetime. It offers so much in terms of beautiful scenery and historical significance. It’s just a magical place to be. Glad to have ticked it off my bucket list… Although I think I might just have to revisit to get a taste of La Mere Poulard’s famous omelet!