When I glimpsed Mont Saint Michel from the car park on the horizon I couldn’t contain my excitement, I hadn’t felt that way about visiting somewhere new in a long time. It almost looked like what you’d imagine a fairytale castle to be.
Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on this rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger. Talk about pressure!
From 966 onwards, the dukes of Normandy, followed by French kings, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on the Mont. The abbey became a renowned centre of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and vast numbers of pilgrims visited, despite warring cross-Channel royals. Rather than pilgrims today tourists go in droves, about 2.5 million of them every year making this France’s 3rd most visited attraction.
Our group of four set out fairly early on in the day for our visit because we knew to expect a crowd. From the visitor’s centre there are shuttles that will take you within a few metres to the mount. You don’t have to take the shuttle and can walk from the car park forgoing the visitor’s centre but you might want to save your legs for the hike up to the top.
Once we arrived our first stop was to find sustenance. There are many restaurants to choose from with comparable menus and almost all of them are over priced. We choose a restaurant halfway up the Mont and stopped for a light meal of crepes.
At low tide visitors can (with the aid of a guide) walk around the island. I saw a lot of people opting for this but we pressed on to see the Abbey. The climb up is not too bad but when taken all at once it is not easy. You will have to climb no fewer than 900 steps to get to the top. It is entirely worth it though for the view and the thinning crowds.
Today’s abbey is built on the remains of a Romanesque church, which was built on the ruins of a Carolingian church. Visiting the abbey is a one-way route which takes you through it all; where Monks used to eat and pray, past gorgeous stained glassed windows and the cloisters.
During the Revolution the abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836 influential figures, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.
It amazed me to find out that the islet has permanent residents, how do they cope? London is always packed with tourists but this is on a much more intense scale. Visitors can stay overnight and I think it would be a fantastic way to experience the island, illuminated and quiet. Likely the only time the residents get some respite. We spent the best part of a day here and I’d recommend giving yourself that time to explore should you find yourself planning a trip.
There is definitely something magical about the island though it is not entirely clear why. Perhaps the determination and grit used to haul materials up this rock just to build a place of worship, the legend of Archangel Michael, or the sudden and potentially dangerous shifting tides which shows a place that against all reason exists.