Mont Saint-Michel is a formidable-looking island made of granite, jutting out of the North Atlantic, about half a mile off France’s Northwestern Normandy coastline. The island encompasses 247 acres. It’s 3,150 feet around and 302 feet above sea level.
It’s famous for its 11th century Romanesque Abbey Church perched atop the Mont, along with monastery buildings, cloisters, and a refectory that were added during the following 2 centuries.
It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Sight in 1979, recognized for its historical and cultural significance. Each year, over 3 million tourists and pilgrims visit this landmark.
When you see Mont-Saint Michel in the distance for the first time, it can, at once, stir up feelings of awe and thoughts of,
“Why on Earth would anyone want to build anything on such an inhospitable piece of granite, constantly at the mercy of the wind and waves of the North Atlantic Ocean!?”
Well, apparently, legend has it and believers believe the Archangel Michel appeared to St. Aubert in 708 telling him to build a church on Mont Saint-Michel, which was then called Mont Tombe. It appears St. Aubert didn’t take the request too seriously until St. Michel returned a second time and burned a hole in St. Aubert’s skull with his finger. Yikes! That lit a metaphorical fire under St. Aubert! He wasted no time! A church was built and opened on Mont Tombe on Oct. 16, 709.
What you see today on Mont Saint-Michel was built between the 11th-16th centuries. It began when Richard II (pause as I honor my supposed Royal ancestor) hired an Italian architect, who designed the abbey with the 4 way crossing (typically near the altar, where the main aisle ends) to be at the top of the Mont! Numerous chapels and crypts are under the abbey, used to brace the upward-rising structure.
Did you know? Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
Of course, visitors come to admire the architecture of the Abbey and its church, cloisters, and grand chamber! It’s hard to miss the imposing church spire reaching toward the clouds. The main street leads you directly to the Abbey stairs! But, go beyond what meets the eye and discover 4 interesting reasons to make you love Mont Saint-Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel is steeped in history (haha..couldn’t resist that pun!). There have been numerous attempts to conquer the Mont and use it for its strategic position. The Bayeaux Tapestries, which tell the story of the Norman conquest in 1066, shows 2 Norman knights being rescued from the quicksand surrounding Mont Saint-Michel. During the Hundreds Years War, the English failed at multiple attempts to conquer the Mont.
The Mont’s fortifications were used in reverse during the French Revolution, when Mont St-Michel was transformed into a prison. There was no escaping for the political and clerical dissidents being held! At the end of the 19th century, the Abbey had to be restored and was declared a historical landmark.
2. Medieval City
In the 15th and 16th centuries, a medieval city gradually formed along the southeastern side of the rock, appearing to just barely cling to the lower outcroppings of the island. Today, visitors still enter in through the walled city gates and pass under the portcullis.
The 15th and 16th century buildings line the spiraling main street, leading to the steep steps up to Abbey. When you walk through the city’s narrow streets, you can’t help but feel you’ve been transported back in time!
Did you know? La Mere Poulard is well-known restaurant in the walled city, founded by Annette Poulard around 1879. Its claim to fame are gigantic omelettes, which are made in copper bowls and cooked over open fire. There’s also an autograph wall showing famous people, like Earnest Hemingway, who have dined at the restaurant.
Truth be told, though, this restaurant is overpriced, with declining food reviews. You’re better off eating elsewhere. If you do decide to visit La Mere Poulard, be sure to make reservations. It books well in-advance.
Today, just 50 people live on Mont Saint-Michel, including a small population of monks and nuns. The shops no longer house candle makers, apothecaries, and vendors selling cooked meats. Instead, they’re filled with souvenir bric-a-brac for the daily tourist visitors.
TIP: Buy some “Les Gallettes.” These local butter cookies are delicious!
3. The Tides!
From the main street, take one of the smaller pathways leading to the ramparts for panoramic views of the water. The Bay of Mont Saint-Michel boasts Europe’s highest and lowest tides. There can be up to a 50 foot difference between high and low tides!
The highest tides happen within a day or 2 of a full or new moon. Low tide can go out up to 9 miles and according to Victor Hugo come in, “as swiftly as a galloping horse!”
The tidal causeway leading from the mainland to the Mont would flood at times of high tide. There also used to be 2 parking lots within feet of Mont Saint-Michel’s entrance. These would flood during high tide. Signs posted warned drivers to make note of the high tide times, or else!
A new light bridge replaced the tidal causeway as part of a damn project in the area. The new parking lots are 1.5 miles away, with regular shuttles bringing visitors across the bridge.
Water flows underneath the bridge, except on super tides!
4. Local Cuisine
At the end of the day, be sure to experience some (or all!) of the region’s specialties. When the tide goes out, the area’s salt marshes become grazing pastures for local sheep. Their meat, Agneau de pré-salé, is a local specialty because the sheep have been pre-flavored, so-to-speak, from their salty grazing pastures.
Lamb not your thing? With the vast coastline, local seafood is at its best! Shellfish, like oysters, scallops, clams and lobster will be served at restaurants throughout the region and paired with creme sauces and rich cheeses like Camembert. I had the best scallops of my life at a small restaurant in Normandy!
Complete your culinary feast with some apple tart or sip on some Calvados, an apple liquor, perfect for cleansing your palette and digesting all the deliciousness of the night’s meal.
Planning A Trip to Mont Saint-Michel
Pete and I planned a couple day excursion to Normandy from Paris. We went in the off-season (December) so the weather was chillier, but there were no crowds. We used Bayeux as a base to explore the area. We booked a guide through Normandy Sightseeing Tours, who transported us to Mont Saint-Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel is open every day, except January 1st and December 25th. Hours vary slightly by season. Entrance to the Abbey is 9 Euros for adults. Children under 18 are free.
Driving is the best option, saving both time and money. There are no direct public transportation options. Trains from Paris Gare Montparnesse connect in Rennes to a bus to bring you to the Mont’s entrance.
Walking is the only way to get around while on the Mont.
Where to Stay:
Mont Saint-Michel can be seen in a day. But, if you wanted to stay nearby or experience the Mont in the evening with fewer tourists the official website has information about a variety of lodging options.
Where to eat:
Mainland options will be less expensive than restaurants on Mont Saint-Michel. There is information about restaurants on the Mont and on the mainland on the official website.
What do you love about Mont St. Michel? Share in the comments below!
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