It rises like a mirage on the horizon. Thirteen hundred years of history…..of faith…of contemplation and prayer. An act of faith and obedience.
Mont St. Michel began as a modest church in the year 708, after St. Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches in a dream, and instructed him to build a church on top of the rock. In 966, the Duke of Normandy gifted the island to the Benedictines, who expanded the Abbey over the centuries . Today, the entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll see St. Michael in gold, atop the tallest spire, slaying a dragon…to symbolize the constant struggle between good and evil.
Mont St. Michel is the most visited attraction in France outside of Paris, attracting over 3 million visitors per year. Most are day trippers who make their way across the causeway, up the narrow steep street, past the gauntlet of tacky souvenir shops and astronomically priced omelets. We would have loved to stop at Mere Poulards for the incredibly fluffy omelet, but no way we could justify 100 euros for scrambled eggs. Keep going past, and a thousand steps up…up…further up.
Once inside the Abbey, marvel at the beautiful stonework, the columns and arches, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Tour the abbey, the monastery, and the beautiful cloistered courtyard. The view from the top is stunning.
Another (better) way to visit MSM is to stay overnight in one of the many inns just outside the village. Check in to your room, then make your way up in the early evening. The hordes of day-trippers will be gone, and you’ll have a much more intimate experience, as well as this jaw-dropping view.
Remember in summer, it stays light until nearly 10:00pm, and there are often evening concerts and special evening tours. Check the official Mont St. Michel website for events schedule and touring information.
The current causeway was constructed 100 years ago to help the throngs of tourists and pilgrims reach the Abbey easily, and not have to rely on the vagaries of the swift tides. Today, you drive right up to the base of the Mont and park in a “charming” car park with the convoy of tour buses.
But over the years, the bay silted up because the water could no longer circulate freely around the rocky outcropping, and now the entire island is in danger of becoming landlocked. Residents, government officials, engineers and historians have been debating for years how to return the glorious Mont back to the sea. After much debate, a plan was voted upon and construction has begun on a series of locks and dams to redirect the water, which will, over time, carry the silt back out to sea. The causeway will be torn down, & replaced by a footbridge. Visitors to the Mont in the future will approach the same way as pilgrims did centuries ago….by crossing the water…… either by ferry boat or by a new footbridge.
It’s been said that a pilgrimage is as much about the journey itself, as it is about the final destination. And there is no doubt that when the new footbridge is constructed, and the Mont is returned to the sea, the approach to the Abbey will be spectacular. Construction is due to be completed in 2014, you can read all about the project and track progress at this site. The Abbey remains open for touring during the reconstruction, but check the official website above for details before your visit, as plans can change.
MSM can be tricky to get to. A car is very handy in this region as there is no direct train service. You can take a train from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Rennes, and connect by bus to MSM. Wiki Travel has details here on the train/bus option. But I recommend renting a car and spending several days exploring the region. Base yourself in Bayeaux for 2-3 nights, visit the picturesque harbor at Rouen and the wooden church of St. Catherine’s, the WWII beaches at Normandy, and Bayeaux with its famous tapestry commemorating the Norman Conquest. Then make your way over to MSM, and stay the night. You don’t want to miss this glorious site at night. And while in Normandy, be sure to sample the crepes, both sweet and savory, as well as the many apple products, like cider and Calvados. Camembert cheese also comes from this pastoral region…..you will be well fed!