Most tourists coming to France have a few designated landmarks in mind they want to cross off their bucket list. The Eiffel Tower almost always comes first, usually followed by a couple castles like Versailles or Chambord. The Mont Saint-Michel then comes off as a strong contender to complete the podium.
When we moved to Normandy, we figured we would start ticking places off our list too. As it happened, the Mont Saint-Michel was pretty close from home so on a sunny October morning we decided to hit the road.
Standing on the border between the regions of Brittany and Normandy, the Mont Saint-Michel had been claimed by both as their own, each region hoping to benefit from its massive tourism appeal. Normandy had eventually won the prize but one thing was clear in that the Mont shared both regions’ gloomy and moody weather.
Sun was up when we had left our city but the occasional rain showers and threatening clouds had been following us ever since. Luckily, the rain had stopped when we first got a glimpse of the massive fortress in the horizon. All we could see from where we stood was the pointy end of the Abbey’s spire, while the rest of the rock was shrouded in fog. It did look like a remote island far away from civilization, up until we got to the parking lot.
There weren’t too many cars that early in the morning but we certainly weren’t alone. Following a long renovation, the parking lot had been moved far away from the site to allow it to become an island again at high tide. To get there, we could either ride a shuttle bus or get in a horse drawn carriage. Alternatively, we could just walk and enjoy the view all the way to the site.
Walking from the shuttle bus station to the site took us about 40 minutes but it definitely felt like the best way to discover the Mont Saint-Michel bit by bit. We first walked through moors and sand on a dyke section, taking pictures of the medieval fortress looming in the background without a soul by our side. The path eventually led to a walkway bridge standing above the bay, which in turn led to the Dam right in front of the town.
The tide was out and people were exploring the sandy bay in front of the town’s walls, making the most of the occasion before water would come crashing down and the town would become a remote island all over again. They were not the only ones, as a couple sheep were frolicking in the distance, eating the rare grass growing on the land.
Instead of following suit, we chose to enter the Mont Saint-Michel through the western gate. That part of the town was empty, except for bare-foot visitors washing their muddy feet with an abundance of water. We could tell they had been hiking to the site all across the bay, like old pilgrims of yore, as they had their legs covered in mud all the way to the knees, for the bay was famous for its shifting sands. Suddenly, our 40-minute walk on a concrete pathway seemed pretty generic.
The steep walkway leading to the Abbey wasn’t much of a hike either, especially since we stopped every minute to take pictures of the picturesque cobbled streets and medieval houses down below or of the crows standing on ancient chimneys covered in moss. In the background, the bay was stretching far beyond reach and its colours seemed to never stop shifting, just like those of the unstable sky over our heads.
As we reached the entrance of the Abbey, we put the bay behind us for a moment to discover the history of the most remarkable landmark on the island, listed as a Unesco Heritage site. The history of the Mont St Michel began in 708, when Bishop Aubert erected a sanctuary on that baren, inhospitable tidal island on a rock. Monks then settled there during the 10th century and expanded on the monastery to the extent that it became a major place of Christian pilgrimage.
The construction of the monastery then continued until the 19th century, blending different architectural styles throughout the years, from the Norman Gothic architecture of the monk-living area to the neo-Gothic golden spire of Archangel St-Michel built in 1897. In turn, the building was used as a fortification meant to resist the assaults of the English troops during the Hundred Years War, then as a prison, known as the “Bastille by the Sea” in the 16th century and later used to imprison refractory priests during the French Revolution.
The Abbey was then classified as a historical monument in 1874 before it became a community of monks once again in the 1960s. First, it was the Benedictine monks who settled into the Abbey, before they were replaced by monks from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem. We could see some of them attending their daily chores within the abbey church or introducing pilgrims and visitors to the history of the monument.
Before we headed to the so-called Merveille, the monk-living area, we decided to stay a little longer outside the abbey church to enjoy the stunning view on the bay. Perched 80 meters above the sea, we could see yet another group of hikers from afar. From where they stood, this medieval town on a rocky island must have looked like it came out of an eerie dream. To us, embracing the bay and the fortification buildings from above, the Mont Saint-Michel definitely felt magical.
We then walked from the viewing platform to the monk buildings of the Merveille, considered as the architectural masterpiece of the abbey. The construction followed a Gothic pattern and lasted for 17 years, its architecture consisting in 3 layered levels culminating in a height of 35m. Next to the Merveille, we entered the cloister, on top of all abbey buildings. Three of its arches were opened to the outside, feeling like the cloister-garden was suspended in the air.
Our visit of the abbey came to an end and we decided to go down the main street of the town before wrapping out our visit of the Mont Saint-Michel. The so-called Grand Rue was far busier than the other side of the town though. We had to struggle past groups of tourists blocking the way or queuing to get into one of the bazillion overpriced restaurants on each side of the street. As rain started pouring down our heads, we didn’t even pay attention to the infamous Mère Poulard restaurant and went straight for the King’s gate, leading out of the town.
We gave one last look at the island before we pushed our way through the crowd and into a packed shuttle bus. Walking was not an option then. Yet, despite the rain, the Mont Saint-Michel still looked like a town out of a fairy-tale.