Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is one of France’s most iconic attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site which receives more than 3 million visitors a year – it’s also a commune in Normandy with a very small population.
It is famously located on a rocky tidal island – meaning it’s only an island at high tide, at low tide you could walk across the sands.
Alongside Rome and Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Mont Saint-Michel was a revered spiritual and intellectual centre and one of the most important places of pilgrimage in medieval time providing a “path to paradise” for the pilgrims who flocked there over a period of a thousand years.
The history of Le Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel has a colourful and ancient history, used as a small military strong hold more than fifteen hundred years ago it achieved religious status in 709 when a small church was built there by the Bishop of Avranches, St Aubert. Before the island was known as Mont Saint-Michel, according to legend the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop and ordered him to build a church but the Bishop ignored the angel’s instructions – until he had a hole burned in his skull by the angel’s finger and thanks to the Archangel’s visit the island got its name Mont Saint-Michel.
Things quietened down on the island for a while until the mid 1000s when it appears Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King Harold of England, apparently rescued two Norman knights from the quicksand there as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry in a battle scene. The year after Duke William of Normandy’s successful victory over England in 1066, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel threw its support behind his claim to the England throne and in reward William granted the Benedictine monks who lived there, land and property on English soil including an island off of the coast of Cornwall known as St Michael’s Mount (the English for Mont Saint-Michel).
In the 1400s thanks to the generosity of the King of France Philip Augustus a Gothic church was started at Mont Saint-Michel and the island became a pilgrimage destination and centre of religious study; life was fairly settled and quiet for the inhabitants apart from a period during the Hundred Years War when fortifications were added which enabled the island to wait out a 30 year siege.
Then the French Revolution happened and Mont Saint-Michel was forced into service as a prison for a while as well as a garrison quarters. High profile supporters like Victor Hugo campaigned for the island to achieve the status of national treasure and eventually the prison was closed and in the 1870s the island was declared a historic monument and was saved for future generations. These days it acts as a tourist magnet and having visited twice, it must be said that it is a most magnificent site with its ancient steep and winding roads, medieval shop signs, ancient buildings and at the top of a very steep climb the amazing monastery with its views over the bay.
What to see at Mont Saint-Michel
I’d recommend you allow a whole day for your visit, there is a lot to see and a lot of walking to do. Fortunately there are plenty of seating areas and lots of restaurants and bars of varying price and style but all set in ancient buildings.
Entrance to the medieval town of Mont Saint-Michel is through a huge fortified gate known as the King’s Gate and it is an impressive site. There is a tourist office at the entrance which is in the old Guardroom.
Once through the King’s Gate you’re into Grand Rue – the principal street of Mont Saint-Michel and as far as the eye can see, wrapping round and round the island in a giant helter skelter arrangement is a road with ancient buildings which are now shops, museums, restaurants and houses from the 1400s and 1500s predominantly.
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel
At the very top of the Mont Saint-Michel is the Abbey, there is a manned first aid post to help those who might be overcome by the steep climb – it is not for the faint hearted but if you make it you’ll be rewarded with stunning views and can tour the beautiful abbey buildings (there is a guided tour available). There are some 900 steps on the Escalier de Dentelle (the Lace Staircase) to the gallery which circles the roof of the Abbey church – as I say not for those with faint – or weak hearts.
There is also a narrow staircase called the Grand Degré, which leads to the abbey entrance. Once there another set of stone steps goes up to the Terrace overlooking the bay and from which a prisoner was said to have jumped to his death – the Saut Gautier Terrace is named after him.
You can very easily spend a couple of hours enjoying the views, wandering around the many rooms, admiring the cloisters and refectory and going up and down staircases and marvelling at the vaulted ceilings.
The buildings at the top were created in several stages over several centuries: a pre-Romanesque church in the year 999. The 11th Century saw the construction of a Romanesque abbey church built over crypts and the first monastery buildings were erected. In the 12th century, the Romanesque monastery buildings were extended and in the 13th century, the King of France, Philip Augustus gave money to the monks in thanks for his conquest of Normandy which meant that the Gothic church could be started consisting of two three-storey buildings and an additional cloister and refectory. In the 14th century, military fortifications were added to protect the islanders during the Hundred Years War and in the 15th century the Romanesque chancel of the Abbey church was replaced by a Gothic Flamboyant chancel.
Attending Mass at Mont Saint-Michel
It is possible to attend Mass on the island – it is still a place of pilgrimage and on the occasion of the monastery’s 1000th anniversary in 1966, a religious community moved back to the island and Friars and Sisters from “Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem” have for the last few years provided a spiritual presence at Mont Saint-Michel.
The Monastic Fraternity of Abbaye Mont Saint-Michel website has details of times of services and Mass.
Mass is celebrated in the Parish church. During the week, Mass is at 7.00am (08.00am on Saturday and Sunday) and 6.30pm. You have to be 10 minutes before at the entrance of the abbey. There is no mass on Sunday afternoon and on Monday.
The museums at Mont St-Michel
There are several museums and you can buy tickets at the entrances to them
Archeoscope – all about the construction of the Monument and its sacred history
Museum of History – collection of paintings, sculptures and weapons and also a presentation about the time when the island acted as a prison.
Maritime and Ecology Museum – learn more about the amazing tides of Mont Saint-Michel and the project that is underway to return the island to its splendid maritime state.
Tiphaine’s House – the former home of Tiphaine and Bertrand Duguesclin – it was built in 1365 and is now a museum with period furniture, paintings and tapestries.
The Mont St Michel website has details of opening times.
The Tides at Mont Saint-Michel
Victor Hugo, a visitor to Mont Saint-Michel described the tides as “swiftly as a galloping horse” with good reason. The tides can rise to 14 metres from their low water mark and in days of old it was known locally as St Michel in peril of the sea” because of the danger to the pilgrims who came from far and wide and could be caught out if unaware. It is still a peril so don’t be tempted to try to walk across the sands and the tides can come in at around a metre a second.
An operation is underway at Mont St Michel to return it to its original splendid maritime character and restore the majestic views of the island as you approach it. Over the years the land around the island has become silted up and the tidal flows decreased. This has enabled a causeway and car park to be constructed a short walk from the monument which has over the years diminished the view to and from Mont St Michel hence the authority’s project to return the island to its former glory with full tides. The clean-up work is due to complete in 2015 but from the end of April 2012 a new vehicle reception area will be set up and those arriving by car will find that there are different ways to get to the Mont. If you decide to walk it’s about 45 minutes from the car park; there will be shuttle buses to and from the monument (price included in car park cost) or you can travel by horse and cart as the pilgrims did in days of old (starting at €4.50 for a single journey for an adult) which takes about 15 minutes.
Getting to Mont Saint-Michel
From Paris: A11 Auto route towards Chartres-Le Mans. Exit Fougeres towards Mont Saint-Michel.
From Brittany: A13 Auto route to Rouen and Caen and then use A84 to Le Mont Saint-Michel.
From Paris take the TGV from Montparnasse to Rennes or Dol de Bretagne and then coach to Le Mont Saint-Michel.
Or From Rennes take connecting train to SNCF station Pontorson Mont St- Michel which is around 9km from Le Mont Saint-Michel and from where you can take a taxi or bus.