Visited by more than 3 million people per year, Le Mont Saint-Michel is one of France’s top tourist attractions. And it’s not hard to see why when you consider its history and spectacular location.
A brief history of Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel’s origins can be traced back to 708 when the Bishop of Avranches built a sanctuary on the outcrop in honour of the Archangel, St Michael. Over the next few hundred years, Benedictine monks settled in the Abbey and a village started to take shape below its walls. By the 14th Century the monastery, abbey and church were completed as they appear today.
Located approximately 600 metres offshore, it was accessible to the mainland during low tide but completely cut off at high tide. In fact, the bay lays claim to having the highest tides in Europe. It was perfect for pilgrims to make their peaceful visits but a major headache for any would-be assailants trying to launch an attack. So impregnable was the Mont that it survived every attempt by the English to take it during the Hundred Years War. As a result, it became a symbol of national identity for the French.
After the Revolution, the Abbey was used as a prison. More recently it’s been the subject of ongoing restoration and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Getting to Mont St Michel
There’s a huge, new car park about a 10-minute drive from the island as you’re no longer able to drive right up to its entrance. Which is good news considering the sheer volume of traffic it attracts. Not so good news is the near 12 euros parking fee for anybody staying more than 30 minutes. Which means pretty much everybody.
It’s possible to do it as a day trip by train and bus from Paris. The train from Gare Montparnasse to Rennes takes about two hours. And from Rennes, there’s a connecting bus to Mont Saint-Michel (12 euros one-way) which takes about an hour and twenty minutes.
Walk or shuttle bus?
You can queue for the 10-minute shuttle bus to Mont St Michel (which is free with your car park ticket) or take a 45-minute walk. It’s as flat a walk as you could possibly wish for. And, best of all, after the first 10 minutes or so, you’ve got a perfect view of the Mont right in front of you.
As you approach the entrance, a glance up to the church spire reveals a golden statue of St Michael, which literally gleams in the sunlight. It’s a truly spectacular sight and one that’s worth lingering over.
Just inside the entrance, the tourist office is on your left inside a building called the Burgher’s Guardroom.
You can get to the Abbey by walking through the village along the Grand Vue and then take the Grand Staircase on your left. Or take a right after you pass through an archway into the village, up the steps and then turn left so that the sea is on your right after you pass through the archway into the village, up the steps and then turn left so that the sea is on your right This will give you access to the ramparts and you’ll reach the Abbey with much less exertion.
The route takes you past the rooftops of medieval houses and restaurants with open terraces looking out to sea. And you’ll find various viewpoints where you can gaze down over the mudflats some 90 metres below.
Hang on. Mudflats you say? Why on earth would they be of any interest? To be honest, they were the best surprise of the day as they gave a perfect sense of what it must have been like to gaze out from these very same ramparts a thousand years ago. Multiple hues of orange, pink, green and grey interspersed with the white specks of resident seagulls. And they’re also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, too (the mudflats, not the seagulls).
Eventually, you’ll arrive at the Abbey. You do have the option to walk straight past and continue along the ramparts but it’s well worth the 10-euro entrance fee. Apparently one in three visitors misses out on the Abbey which is a shame as it is really quite spectacular.
Guided tours are available or you can rent an audio guide or you can also get a free leaflet from the ticket counter and work your own way around. It’s all signposted and easy to follow.
You’ll discover ancient crypts, corridors, staircases and even a huge wheel which was used to hoist food to the prisoners during the Abbey’s time as a prison.
Once you’ve completed your tour of the Abbey you’ll exit at the opposite side where you’ll again be able to take in views of the coastline and mudflats.
Once you’ve followed the exit route back to the Abbey entrance you can then complete your circumnavigation of the ramparts and return to the village.
Along the Grand Vue, you’ll see shops selling clothes, ice creams, pizza slices and rows of biscuits from the famed Mère Poulard, renowned for making omelettes here back in the 19th-Century. And where lunch will cost you around 40 Euros for an omelette made today.
The village is as quaint and pretty as you would imagine it to be. It does get crowded and inevitably touristy especially in the summer months – but it really does live up to the hype…
Ian and Nicky Mackenzie are house sitting fans and avid travellers who blog at aboveusonlyskies.com