Perched on a rocky tidal islet some one kilometer (0.6 mile) off the North Atlantic coast of France, in the vast bay that separates Normandy and Britany, the lofty Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel looms on the horizon like the mythical city of a Celtic legend.
The long history of the abbey and the village that developed within its mighty fortifications began in 708, when Aubert, bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, built the first sanctuary on the granite outcrop then known as Mont-Tombe. As legend has it, the archangel Saint Michael began appearing to Aubert, requesting that a sanctuary be built in his name atop the island. On his third visit, he drove the point home by poking a flaming finger into the Bishop’s head. N.B. Should you require evidence of the veracity of the event, the skull of the bishop, who subsequently became known as Saint Aubert, can still be seen at the Cathedral of Avranches, with the tell-tale hole burned right though the bone.
From Abbey to Bastion
Nothing remains of Aubert’s original sanctuary, but early records suggest it to have been a circular structure built on a ledge close to the summit of the windswept mount. By the end if the millennium, with its popularity growing, the site was expanded with several new buildings to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims. The Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre (the Underground Church of our Lady) was build at that time on the site of the sanctuary. The small church, approximately 11 by 13 meters (36 by 42 feet) is divided into two naves by a central arcade. Conserved under the nave of the current church, it is now the oldest part of the monument, and may occasionally be visited as part of a guided tour.
By then, the creation of the Duchy of Normandy in 911 was also conferring a strategic importance to the abbey. In 966, Duke Richard I established a community of Benedictine monks here. For the next eight centuries, the Dukes of Normandy and later the French Kings, after the duchy was integrated into the Kingdom of France in 1204, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on the mount. Magnificent monastic buildings were added throughout the Middle Ages. The abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the great scholars and manuscript illuminators of the time, and acquiring the moniker of La Cité des Livres (The City of Books).
The Evolution of a Medieval Masterpiece
Constructed between the 11th and 16th centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel is one of the great achievement of medieval architecture, having had to adapt not only to the challenges posed by its unique natural site but also to the evolving political demands.
The Fortifications — From the 14th century onwards, the successive conflicts of the Hundred Years War between France and England led to the transformation of the entire mount into a fortress. In addition to the existing inner wall and gatehouse that protected the abbey – a passageway that visitors still use today, the village that had sprouted below it was now surrounded by massive ramparts flanked by defensive towers. In spite of repeated assaults and sieges by the English armies, this strategic stronghold was never taken.
The Church — Over the centuries that followed, collapses and fires resulted in a number of major reconstructions. In 1421, the Romanesque chancel of the church collapsed and was rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style. Sitting on the summit of the mount, on a platform resting on three crypts hewn into the granite islet, this new church, which mesmerizes us to this day, rises 80 meters (262 feet) above sea level. The site offers a dazzling harmony of its various periods and styles. But the ultimate technical and artistic feat of the Mont Saint-Michel remains La Merveille (The Marvel).
The Marvel — Built on the northern side of the rock over a period of 17 years in the early 13th century, La Merveille is a breathtaking illustration of the Gothic architecture that flourished throughout Western Europe at the time. Its bold design consists of three layered levels, culminating at a height of 35 meters (115 feet), supported by 16 colossal buttresses.
Each floor is organized according to intended functions, either public or monastic, with the chaplaincy for welcoming pilgrims and the food storage cellar on the bottom floor. The middle floor houses the dining hall with its two grand fireplaces, reserved for special guests, and the scriptorium, or “knights’ room” also used for reading and studying. The top level holds the monks’ refectory and the magnificent double-columned cloister with northern views of the sea and the coast.
The Mont Saint-Michel Experience
Many guidebooks and tour operators promote a visit to Mont Saint-Michel as a day trip from Paris (which is a minimum of 4 hour ride). Logistically, it is doable – but it is a long and exhausting journey. I suggest it only if your objective is merely to tick it off your list of great sites to see in your lifetime.
Walk across the new 750-meter (2500-foot) pedestrian and shuttle bridge leading from the coastline to the island and take in the awe-inspiring sight of the Mont rising against the sky. Inaugurated in 2014 La Passerelle (the Gateway) replaces the causeway that first connected it to the mainland some 140 years ago – and caused a serious build-up of silt over time. It has now been demolished and the sea can once again flow freely across the estuary, returning the Mont back to its original island state.
The entrance to the the island is protected by three successive gates and a drawbridge. You are now on the Grande Rue, the narrow cobbled main street of the village that meanders steeply up toward the Grand Degré, the grand staircase (some 350 steps of it) leading to the Abbey. The climb is steep but there are scenic lookouts along the way that provide rest stops with the most amazing views. The higher you go, the more spectacular the views get. Then you can wander the Abbey at your leisure and make your way back down along the ramparts. Mission accomplished.
The Magic of Tides and Light
But to truly appreciate the mystical atmosphere of this mesmerizing gothic masterpiece, consider at the very least an overnight stay in the area. The Mont Saint-Michel bay is reputed for experiencing some of the highest tides in continental Europe. There can be a variation of up to 15 meters (50 feet) between low and high tide, and both deliver their own unique experience. During high tide, the Mont appears surreal, as though it were hovering above the water, and in the right light, it can also creates a mirror reflection. Low tide is just as fascinating, with the site then surrounded by shimmering sandbanks to the horizon.
And the ever-changing, unpredictable coastal light makes for a kaleidoscope of experiences when approaching the Mont. My first “Mont sighting” was at dusk, from a beach across the bay. It materialized as a mysterious black shape against an improbably red sky. Later that evening, when I finally approached it, it was glowing in the night light, its magical pull getting stronger with every step. The throngs of day-trippers were gone by then, and the medieval village was imbued with an eerie out-of-time feel.
When I returned early the next morning, the abbey was shrouded in fog, which slowly lifted during my visit, adding to the mystery of the experience. I stopped by the following morning, for one last look before continuing on along the coast of Britany, I was rewarded by a crystalline morning light that turned the entire site into a silvery Camelot.
The Bayeux Tapestry
My leisurely schedule on this trip allowed for a short detour toward Normandy town of Bayeux and a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry. Estimated to have been made around 1070, the 50-centimeter high by 70-meter long ( 20 inches by 230 feet ) tapestry commemorates a struggle for the throne of England between Guillaume, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex. The year was 1066, when Guillaume (or William in English) invaded and successfully conquered England, becoming its first Norman King (who became known as William the Conqueror).
The Bayeux Tapestry consists of 58 scenes with Latin inscriptions depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest and culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Two of the scenes -16 and 17 – place Guillaume and Harold at the Mont Saint-Michel with Harold rescuing knights from quicksand. N.B, Although it is called the Bayeux Tapestry, this important commemorative work is not a true tapestry as the images are not woven into the cloth; instead, the imagery and inscriptions are embroidered using wool yarn sewn onto linen cloth.
Good to Know
- Getting there — By Road: It’s a 400 kilometer (250 mile), four-hour drive from Paris to the Mont Saint-Michel via highway A13, and a 65-kilometer (40 mile), one-hour drive via local road D175 from Rennes, the capital of Britany. By train: Although it is possible to reach the area by train from Paris, there is no direct itinerary. Once on site, there is ample designated parking approximately 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the Mont. It’s either on foot or via shuttle from from there on – the shuttle runs every 10 minutes approximately from 7:30 am to midnight,
- Getting around — The walk from the parking lot across the new footbridge is an easy 30 minutes, frequent photo stops included. It’s the way to go for fabulous views. Once on the island, it’s a serious hike on steep narrow cobbled streets and stairways. Unfortunately, there is no possibility to accolade wheelchairs or strollers.
- Visiting — Visit of the island is free, but there is a 10 euros charge (at the time of this writing) to visit the abbey, which is a must. To avoid the long line at the abbey, purchase tickets online in advance from the official website of the Mont Saint Michel. NOTE-After being closed for several months due to the Covid19 health emergency, all monuments and museums in France (Mont Saint-Michel included) are due to re-open gradually starting on May 19th (2021). Check the website for possible new visiting schedules and conditions.
- Eating there — The island is a major tourist destination, so expect eateries to be crowded, mediocre and startlingly overpriced. If the weather looks promising, pick up provisions at an off-island supermarket and have a picnic on the ramparts, and enjoy stupendous views of the bay.
- Bayeux Tapestry —The Tapestry Museum is located at 13 bis rue Nesmond, 14400 Bayeux. Tel: +33 (0)2 31 51 25 50. Exit 36 from A13.