Updated: Aug 4, 2022
This stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly a sight to behold. Steeped in a rich history and cultural heritage, it's also a feat of ingenuity for its time. Mont Saint Michel the stuff of Medieval legend, as if it had magically burst through the landscape. You will pinch yourself when you see it with your own eyes. You can clearly see why the Normans and the Brettons still to this day bicker about what region she rightfully belongs to, sitting in the Baie du Mont Saint Michel between the two historical regions. In this post we will be looking at the history of Mont St Michel and tips to bear in mind if you do decide to come - although I shouldn't think you will need much convincing.
The Mont-Saint-Michel is the name of the tidal island home to the Abbey of Saint-Michel and the surrounding settlement. Originally settled by Benedictine monks in the 10th century, the island was a site of pilgrimage for a few hundred years before the Abbey we see today was constructed. Legend has it that the Bishop of Avranches, a nearby Norman town, had a vision of the Archangel Michael, so he erected a small chapel on the island. As the centuries passed, the importance of this site grew. The Mont-Saint-Michel attracted more attention from the Christian world as it became a centre for culture and manuscripts; as well as being a strategic location during the 100 years war, hence its fortified walls to protect the settlement from invading ships. During this time even more pilgrims would visit, including kings of England and France. The Mont-Saint-Michel was built over the centuries, it wasn't completed in one single construction phase. This is reflected in the architecture, mainly using granite, combining the powerful characteristics of a military fortress and the refined simplicity of a religious building of the era. The exterior walls of the splendid Gothic monastery La Merveille were built by 1228, however the Abbey was completed in 1523. During the reformation, the Abbey was converted into a prison in 1791 to house clergical opponents to the new Republican regime. However, after remaining a prison for over fifty years, the monastery was restored and the site was classified as a historical monument in 1874. The Spire and tower were added around this time as was the statue of Saint Michael, the angel that can be seen at the very top of the structure, the original inspiration for the creation of Mont-Saint-Michel. Interestingly, there is a counterpart to the site in Cornwall called Saint Michael's Mount, owing to the Norman conquest of England, although it is markedly smaller.
The bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, which experiences some of the biggest tides in Europe, is almost completely exposed during the low tide meaning that you can walk across the flats barefoot in the wet sand. It feels great on the feet! When the tide rises however, the island town becomes surrounded by the sea and cut off from the mainland, meaning it can only be accessed by the bridge. During the high tides, you can expect to see plenty of waterfowl such as the great crested grebe, spoonbills and cormorants; the salt marshes around the bay are a great habitat for nesting sea birds. There is a bridge connecting the island to the mainland meaning that you can either walk across and make the most of the stunning view or save time by catching one of the shuttle buses.
The surrounding structures of the village of Mont-Saint-Michel date from back to the 15th century. Many of these houses have since been converted into quaint shops, restaurants and hotels, however the island remains home to around 36 people (as of 2014). In contrast, Mont-Saint-Michel receives over 2,5 million visitors annually. That is roughly double the entire population of Lower Normandy. In order to avoid the crowds, I recommend visiting outside the months of July and August to make the most of the charming narrow streets, reduce waiting times in the local facilities and ease parking. Walking around the Mont-Saint-Michel is an authentic experience that feels like you have gone back in time, if it wasn't for the tourists that is. Despite this, you are still aware that you are on this historical masterpiece that's forged from granite and that rose up out of the sea, where you can sit and enjoy some moules-frites and a nice glass of wine after exploring the beautiful monastery. I particularly enjoyed the courtyard garden, with its symmetrical archways and trimmed greenery, it was like standing inside Hogwarts. Not to mention the church itself with the stunning windows and high ceilings. In the shops you can buy plenty of delicious local produce such as the delicious local biscuits (or cookies to our American audience), cider, Bretton caramel, cheese and souvenirs to bring home such as art work of a local artist.
Something I will mention to keep in mind however, is this: it can take up a fair chunk of time getting from the parking area to the Abbey during the busy period. It is definitely worth considering buying your tickets in advance. Expect to do a fair amount of walking as well, bringing comfortable walking shoes is a must for navigating the steep steps and cobbled streets. Due to the high numbers of foot traffic there are some restaurants that could be considered tourist traps, although there are still some good options to dine at - equally there are some nice restaurants on the main land in Mont-Saint-Michel commune. Like when visiting anywhere, it is good sense to consult the reviews of the local eateries so as to not leave feeling disappointed. Mont-Saint-Michel gets more crowded during the middle of the day, so try to visit during the mornings or late afternoons. You can expect good weather from as early as April and May to September; where the number of tourists isn't so high yet the weather conditions are pleasant and sunny. Although it would be perfectly enjoyable in the winter months as well if you don't mind risking having to brave a shower. In fact I think it has a certan nautical charm to it when the weather is overcast, especially during the high tides with the waves crashing against the base of the fortification - not to mention it is the prime season for mussels. If you visit during the low tide and want to explore the vast flats of the bay, I recommend going in the sunnier months, with a guide, since the tide can come back in rather rapidly and catch you off guard. A guided tour can be obtained in a range of languages for as little as 5€. There is no admission fee to explore the village although tickets to enter the Abbey is around 11€ which goes towards the upkeep of this monumental landmark, although it is free for children and there is a reduced fee for young adults (18 to 25). If you are staying in Paris, don't expect to be able to get the train straight to Mont-Saint-Michel. The nearest station is Pontorson, which you can arrive at from Paris directly, from which run shuttle buses on regular intervals. I would personally recommend driving to Mont-Saint-Michel. Since it is around 4 hours drive from Paris, perhaps consider staying in one of the nearby, stunning coastal towns such as Saint Malo or Cancale, or maybe a beautiful cottage in the countryside. Which will offer a nice change of pace from the capital. It would also be worth tying it in with a visit to the D-Day landing beaches which are on the Northern coasts of Lower-Normandy, so you could do both the same day.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a truly unique place, one that will stay in your memory for decades to come. This is one of the must see sites in France and a treasure of this beautiful country. Be sure to bring an umbrella just in case, since this is Normandy/Brittany, depending on who you ask! So keeping these tips in mind, all that's left now is to go and see it for yourself!
-Written by Thomas Cayzer, you can find me at: https://tcayzer.wixsite.com/thomascayzerwrites