It’s one of France’s most iconic images: a monastery with slender spires stout ramparts and rocky slopes seemingly rising from the depth of the sea. Said by Celtic mythology to be a sea tomb to which souls of the dead were sent, Mont Saint Michel is rich in legend and history.
Mont Saint Michel – a masterpiece of religious and military architecture – is situated in the heart of an immense bay in Normandy that has Europe’s highest tidal variations. Annually, it welcomes over 2.5 million visitors and is counted as France’s most popular attraction outside Paris.
A Brief History
The first construction at the summit of the island dates back to the year 708, following the vision of Bishop Aubert of Avranches. In his vision, Archangel Michael – commander-in-chief of the celestial militia – requests him to “build here and build high”. Aubert repeatedly ignored the Archangel’s request until Saint Michael burnt a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger. From then on, a church was built on the island known as Mont Tomb and the mountain where the church is located has been known as Mont Saint Michel.
In the following centuries, Mont Saint Michel was turned into a center of learning under the Benedictines. During the Hundred Years War, it developed into an unbreakable fortress that successfully defended against the English assault. In fact, the Mont was the only place in Northern France that withstood, and thus it has become a symbol of French national identity. However, after the French Revolution, this place was once again repurposed as a high-security prison. In 1966, the abbey was returned to the Benedictines. In 1979, UNESCO declared Mont Saint Michel and the surrounding bay as a World Heritage Site.
After going through the Boulevard Gate and then the King’s Gate fortified with its portcullis, you will find yourself at the Grande Rue (Main Street) filled with restaurants, shops, and a small parish church dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Blended in with the stonework all around, the church is dedicated to Saint Pierre – the patron saint of fishermen.
Continued walking along this street will bring you to the Grande Degre (Grand Stair Case) whose majesty is a prelude to La Marveille – the Gothic cloître with double rows of delicately carved arches. Here you will also have the chance to explore the rooms of the abbey and catch a glimpse of the golden statue of the winged Michael crowning the tip of the abbey’s spire. After admiring the abbey, you can enjoy the stunning view over the bay when going down the rampart path.
Travel from Paris to Mont Saint Michel
- The nearest SNCF station is Pontorson (about 10km from Mont Saint Michel). Train from Paris takes around 3.5 to 4.5 hours, and you usually have to change to Caen or Dol de Bretagne.
- Bus 1 (every hour or two) links Pontorson and La Caserne. The bus is timed to coincide with the trains to/from Caen and Rennes. Price: 3€.
- The shuttle bus from La Caserne to the Mont runs frequently and free of cost. If you are energetic, you can walk from La Caserne and enjoy a superb view. Duration: 30-45 mins.
Tips for visiting Mont Saint Michel
- Explore the surrounding bay with caution. Even when the tide is out, only do it with a guide. Do not underestimate the danger of the tide and the surrounding area.
- Be prepared for lots of steps if you want to explore the abbey. Price: 10€, but free for 26-year-old and younger.
- Aside from the architectural wonder, Mont Saint Michel is also known for its lamb. In fact, it was the best lamb dish that I have ever tasted. Other specialties include seafood, apple cider, and the Breton galette – a pancake made with buckwheat flour usually with a savory filling.