Mont Saint Michel
by Youliana Veltcheva
January 12, 2020
Mont Saint Michel is one France’s most magnificent sights to see. It is an ever-changing sublime masterpiece of architecture. Surrounded by a medieval wall fortification, it has mesmerizing views of its bay. Built on a small granite outcrop, it stands all by itself in the flats of the estuary of the river Couesnon in Northwest France. The sight of Mont Saint Michel takes your breath away. The dream-like view and the majestic beauty makes you feel like you are in a time warp that has sent you back in the medieval ages. The Gothic Benedictine abbey stands proud and high above the powerful tides. At high tide, it is completely surrounded by water and is absolutely majestic, with its beautiful reflection.
Mont Saint Michel is the second most visited attraction in France after Paris, with more than 3 million visitors annually. In July and August, the number of people per day gets up to 20,000. Despite being a tourist destination, it is a home to under 50 people, called Montois in French, including the nuns and monks from the Abbey and a mayor. There are many shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels to accommodate the massive amount of tourists.
Mont Saint Michel has an interesting legend to tell. In 708 Archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches - St. Aubert. The angel demanded that a church is built on the rocky islet in his honor. The bishop didn't follow the instructions of the angel until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger to prompt him to action. Aubert was later canonised and the relic of his injured head is housed in the Saint Gervais basilica in Avranches.
The town is built similar to how feudal society worked in the past. The hierarchy has always placed God at the top. The next level down is where the abbey and monastery were built. Yet on another level below, there are the Great halls and even lower - the shops and the housing. At the very bottom of the Mount, behind the wall, is where the houses of the fishermen and the farmers are located. Mont-Saint-Michel has 61 buildings, added since 1928 that are listed as monuments historiques
A Day Trip to Mont Saint Michel
The climb up to the top of Mont Saint-Michel is a daunting task: the cobble-stone main street, the Grand Rue, is steep, narrow and pretty crowded and there are quite a few stairs to climb.
On the way up to the Abbey, it’s worthwhile to see the parish church of Saint-Pierre, surrounded by a cemetery, where La Mère Poulard herself, Anne Boutiaut are buried. There is also a gold statue dedicated to Saint-Michel. Visitors can also see the Maritime Museum, displaying ships and sailing exposition.
To the left of the main gate, you can see the Porte Échauguette and walk along the Abbey ramparts, where you will be rewarded with mesmerizing views of the coast. Another amazing vista of the bay is opening up at the Terrasse de l’Ouest.
Along the main street there are multiple stores and cafes, but one of the most popular places to eat is La Mère Poulard, which has been around since 1888. Even though a little pricey, it is supposed to have the best omelettes. For your sweet tooth, there is Crêperie La Cloche, which is also quite popular.
When visiting Mont Saint Michel you have several options - driving, taking the high-speed train, taking a bus. From the parking area,you can walk for 30 minutes, take the free shuttle or pay for a horse-driven carriage, la Maringote, to take you across the bridge from the Place des Navettes next the Tourist Information Centre to the Mont.
When planning to visit, keep in mind that July and August are the most crowded months. So, a better option might be coming in the spring or in the fall. The best way to explore this magical site is to book a day tour to Mont Saint Michel, which would provide a stress free and pleasant experience so you don’t have to worry about any of the travel arrangements.
The Abbey was built in the 11th century. The Romanesque church of the abbey was designed by the Italian architect William de Volpiano, who had chosen to place the transept crossing at the top of the mount.
In the 12th century, the structure of the buildings was additionally supported to make it stronger and the main facade of the church was built. In 1204 the mount was attacked and set on fire. In the 13th century were built two 3-story buildings, offering the monks much better living conditions. A refectory and a cloister were added. Finally, under the rule of Charles VI, the abbey mount was designed with strong fortifications, towers and courtyards.
At the time of the French Revolution there were almost no monks living there. The abbey was closed and turned into a prison in 1811 under Napoleon.
In 1836 famous figures, such as Victor Hugo, started a campaign to restore the mount. The prison closed in 1863, and the mount became a historic monument in 1874.
A Patchwork of Architecture
The successive constructions gives the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey its distinctive look. It truely is a patchwork of architecture that is perfectly put together into a single unit that withstands the test of time. The abbey, the Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre church, the dormitories and rooms of the “Merveille”, the cloister are all synchronously balanced and fit beautifully together. With all the mixture of styles and architecture, the site is a monumental representation of the will of people to protect and preserve this landmark as a Christian sanctuary, intertwined with the incredible beauty of nature.
The tidal variation
of the bay can reach up to 15 meters, with the highest tides occurring at the spring and fall equinoxes. At high tides, the English channel reclaims the Mount’s bay and the island floats majestically in the water. The sea can come as much as 15 kilometers from the coast with quite a force. In 1879 a raised causeway was built to substitute the tidal causeway. And in 2009 the building of a hydraulic dam, using the water of the river and the tides was completed. The goal was to remove the silt deposited by the rising tides and make Mont-Saint-Michel an island again. A new bridge to the Mount was open to the public in July of 2014.
An interesting fact about the meadows around Mont Saint Michel, is that because of the tides and constant natural irrigation, the marsh meadows that were cultivated, have become salty. The unique grass, covering the meadows has been perfect for sheep grazing. As a result, the lamb from the area has a slightly salty flavor that is very distinct. The lamb is called Agneau de pré-salé in French and is a unique local specialty, offered in a lot of restaurants in the area.
Events at Mont Saint Michel
There is also an annual Mont Saint Michel Marathon, which is great for the avid runners. It is scheduled to take place on May 23/24 of 2020. There are several other events throughout the year. At Christmas, Mont Saint Michel dresses up festive for the holidays, with thousands of lights, Christmas trees and decoration, it is a fun event for the whole family. There are two more festivals during the summer - the Christian Art Festival, featuring artists, who are inspired by Mont Saint Michel and Jazz on the Bay Festival, with concerts, film projections and master classes.