Prior to the curious incident of the sick child who was allergic to her antibiotics, we manged (yet another) visit to the Mont Saint Michel. (Quick aside–Has anyone else read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon? It’s absolutely brilliant, if you haven’t.) We live close to the Mont so it is a popular day trip for us especially when we have family or friends visiting. It never fails to impress! It is also, along with Versailles and Monet’s home in Giverny, one of the most popular day trips from Paris for Japanese tourists. That said, the Mont Saint Michel has been attracting visitors, pilgrims and tourists for centuries now. The stores and hotels that now sell souvenirs or house visitors once catered to pilgrims and offered relics to take home!
According to legend, in 708, the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop of Avranches Aubert in a dream and commanded him to build a church on the Mont Tombe at that time a barren island. Aubert did not believe his first dream and the Archangel was forced to appear to him again, this time touching his skull to drive the point home. Work started immediately this time! Aubert’s skull with the hole made by the Archangel became a relic and is still on display at Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches today. The Mont quickly became a site of religious pilgrimage (particularly linked to the cult of Archangel Michael) and a strategic political and military location. A statue of the Archangel tops the spire of the church and is the highest point on the island.
This might sound obvious but the Mont is built on a hill! Over 3 million people visit the Mont each year. I actually read that two-thirds of the tourists who visit the island every year do not visit the Abby at the top. I have to admit that I don’t understand what the point of going to the Mont is if you’re not going to visit the Abbey. You do have to walk to get to the top. The medieval streets that take you to the top are all cobblestone. It’s very picturesque, it is not stroller friendly! We have now gone several times with small children and I can tell you without any hesitation–do not take a stroller! You will end up carrying it and your child. Cobblestones and stairs (another frequent feature on your way up and inside the abbey itself) will destroy your stroller. If you have a baby-backpack or a frontal carrier, you’re in luck. Otherwise, coax your child to walk and when they get tired, play pass the toddler! We’re lucky in that both of our girls are fairly good walkers at this point.
Since we’re close by, I’ve only gone to the Mont outside of the high season. I’ve seen the streets practically empty in winter and I’ve seen them a bit more crowded but manageable in the fall and spring. I would not recommend going in summer if you can help it. The roads are medieval so they’re not very wide and there is one main road that winds it way to the top which most people follow. Put simply, they were not designed for mass tourism. There are signs warning of pickpockets in several different places along your way. I’ve never had any problems but I can see how you could easily “lose” your wallet when the streets are crowded. If you go up the stairs almost immediately upon entering (you can see them a little in the photo), you can walk the ramparts. They offer great views of the Bay and a bit of breathing room for part of the way up. Otherwise, they make a nice walk in and of themselves. Most people come by car or bus. If you come with a bus, you will be dropped off at the foot of the Mont and you can immediately begin exploring. For those coming by car, you drive down the access road and park in one of the designated lots. The fee was 4€ per car and exact change is appreciated. Eventually, the parking lot and access road will be destroyed and replaced by an elevated bridge with a tram that will connect the Mont to the mainland. This will allow the Mont to again become an island based on the tides and I can’t wait to see the result.
The Mont Saint Michel and its Bay are home to the largest tidal variations in all of Europe! The tides are most impressive around the full moon or at the Equinox but remain something to see even outside of these periods. Victor Hugo described the tides speed as “à la vitesse d’un cheval au galop” or “as swiftly as a galloping horse.” The Mont was never conquered by the British during the Hundred Years War in part thanks to its natural defenses. You can take guided walking tours of the Bay from several local tour operators. Approaching the Mont on foot, you can only begin to imagine what centuries worth of pilgrims must have felt upon seeing it! Once you enter the village and start your way up to the Abbey, you can even see the shells marking the Mont as a stop on the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle (a famous pilgrimage route)! If you plan to eat on this island when you arrive, be forwarned–the restaurants are overpriced and the food is mediocre especially when you consider what you paid for it! We always try to picnic or eat before or after our visit.
Admission to the Mont includes a one-hour guided visit. (Good news for families–children under 18 are free!) Tours are given at regular intervals and are well worth taking. While you can visit with just a brochure (available in a multitude of languages), the guides do bring the place alive in a way that the brochure can’t and are a significantly better source of information. French and English-speaking tours are offered year round while additional languages are available during the summer period. For an additional fee, you can rent an audio-guide. Walking around with headphones listening to taped commentary has never been my thing so I can’t recommend it one way or another. For French speakers, there is a periodic special 2-hour in-depth tour that takes you to parts of the Abbey otherwise closed to visitors. Due to its length and more specialized bent, it is not for children.
Your visit begins outside the Abbey. The courtyard in front of it offers amazing views of the entire Bay. The Mont started as simple church/abbey but it quickly grew and each century up to the French Revolution brought it new buildings, fortifications, and riches. Granite was brought by barge from the Chausey Islands to help build the Abbey. With space at a premium, the monks built up! Can you imagine moving all that granite up the hill with the technology (or rather lack thereof) at the time? As stonemasons were paid based on the number of stones they cut and laid, each artisan had his own mark or symbol which he carved into his rocks (see photo). Our guide suggested reading, the fictional, Pillars of the Earth, to get a better feel for the age of cathedrals. One proof of the Mont’s early importance, it appears in the Bayeux Tapestry–an embroidered version of the 1066 Conquest of England by William the Conqueror. The monastery supported William and was rewarded with additional land and properties further enriching the Abbey. The Romanesque church is beautiful and the guides do an excellent job of bringing the stone to life. For most of its religious existence, the Mont Saint Michel was a Benedictine abbey. Mass is still celebrated in the Church assuring a continued religious dimension to the site today but by a different order of monks. You can tour the cloisters, the scriptorium and the other sites where the Benedictine monks worked, meditated and received their visitors/pilgrims. Today, there is a huge glass window cut into the wall where the cloisters are. While the window is not original (the monks sought a life turned away from the outside world), it offers amazing views of the bay to today’s visitors.
The French Revolution was not kind to the Abbey. The Mont ceased to be a religious building (monasticism was banned) and instead became a prison. Its first prisoners were actually priests who refused to renounce their vows. Eventually it would house a variety of”enemies” of the new regime and then become a general prison with the passage of time. One relic of the Mont’s prison-period that seems to wow the small-set is the giant “hamster wheel” that prisoners used to bring food and supplies into the Abbey. It took six prisoners working together to get the wheel turning and hoist provisions into the abbey/prison. Prisoners often volunteered for the task–extra food rations were given to those working the wheel!
The Mont remained a prison until the mid-19th century. At that time, work began to “save” the Mont Saint Michel as a historical and architectural French monument. In 1874, it was officially declared a “Historical Monument” and the first of many restoration projects was launched. The Mont survived both World Wars intact. In 1979, the Mont Saint Michel and its Bay also figure on the UNESCO List of World Heritage. No matter how many times I’ve gone there, not only do I always learn something new but I never get tired of seeing the Mont Saint Michel–it’s silhouette and Abby only seem to be getting more beautiful with time!