Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is one of France’s most iconic attractions. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site which receives more than 3 million visitors a year. It’s also a commune with a very small population.
It is famously located on a rocky tidal island – meaning it’s only an island at high tide. At low tide you could walk across the sands.
Mont Saint-Michel was a revered spiritual and intellectual centre for centuries. Considered one of the most important places of pilgrimage in medieval times, it was said to provide a “path to paradise” for the pilgrims who flocked there over a period of a thousand years.
The history of Le Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel has a colourful and ancient history. The island was a small military strong hold more than fifteen hundred years ago. It achieved religious status in 709 when a small church was built there by the Bishop of Avranches, St Aubert. According to legend the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop. He ordered him to build a church but the Bishop ignored the angel’s instructions. Until, that is, he had a hole burned in his skull by the angel’s finger. The church was built and the island became Mont-Saint-Michel.
Things quietened down on the island for a while until the middle of the 11th century. Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King Harold of England, apparently rescued two Norman knights from the quicksand there. It’s depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry in a battle scene. The year after Duke William of Normandy’s successful victory over England in 1066, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel threw its support behind his claim to the England throne. As a reward William granted the Benedictine monks who lived there, land and property on English soil. It included an island off of the coast of Cornwall known as St Michael’s Mount.
The middle ages
In the 1400’s thanks to the generosity of the King of France, Philip Augustus a Gothic church was built and the island became a pilgrimage destination and centre of religious study. Life was fairly settled and quiet for the inhabitants. Apart from a period during the Hundred Years War, when fortifications were added which enabled the island to wait out a 30-year siege.
Then the French Revolution happened. Like so many other heritage sites, Mont Saint-Michel was forced into service as a prison for a while as well as a garrison quarters. High profile supporters like Victor Hugo campaigned for the island to achieve the status of national treasure. Eventually the prison was closed and in the 1870s the island was declared a historic monument. These days it’s the most visited tourist site in Normandy. Its ancient wiggly, winding cobbled roads, medieval shop signs and ancient buildings are enchanting. And at the top of a very steep climb the amazing monastery has incredible views over the bay.
What to see at Mont Saint-Michel
Entrance to the medieval town of Mont Saint-Michel is through a huge fortified gate known as the King’s Gate. There is a tourist office at the entrance which is in the former Guardroom. Once through the King’s Gate you’re into Grand Rue. This is the principal street of Mont Saint-Michel, wrapping round the island helter skelter fashion. It’s lined with half timbered houses of the 15th and 16th centutries. There are shops, many of them filled with things to lure tourists in. And there are plenty of restaurants. Allow a whole day for your visit, there is a lot to see and a lot of walking to do.
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel
At the very top of the Mont Saint-Michel is the Abbey. You reach it via a chest-thumping climb via a series of staircases. But if you make it to the top you’ll be rewarded with stunning views. You can also tour the beautiful abbey buildings. But beware, it’s not for those with faint – or weak – hearts.
You can very easily spend a couple of hours enjoying the views, wandering around the many rooms, admiring the cloisters and refectory and going up and down staircases and marvelling at the vaulted ceilings.
Attending Mass at Mont Saint-Michel
It is possible to attend Mass on the island. It is still a place of pilgrimage and on the occasion of the monastery’s 1000th anniversary in 1966, a religious community moved back to the island. Friars and Sisters from “Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem” have for the last few years provided a spiritual presence at Mont Saint-Michel.
The Monastic Fraternity of Abbaye Mont Saint-Michel website has details of times of services and Mass which is celebrated daily except for Monday.
The museums at Mont St-Michel
There are several museums and you can buy tickets at the entrances to them. Archeoscope is about the construction of the Monument and its sacred history. The Museum of History houses a collection of paintings, sculptures and weapons. The Maritime and Ecology Museum is devoted to the tides of Mont Saint-Michel. Tiphaine’s House was built in 1365 and is now a museum with period furniture, paintings and tapestries. The Mont St Michel website has details of opening times.
The Tides at Mont Saint-Michel
Victor Hugo, a visitor to Mont Saint-Michel described the tides as “swiftly as a galloping horse” with good reason. The tides can rise to 14 metres from their low water mark and in days of old it was known locally as St Michel in peril of the sea” because of the danger to the pilgrims who came from far and wide and could be caught out if unaware. It is still a peril so don’t be tempted to try to walk across the sands as the tides can come in at around a metre a second. Read more about the tides of Mont-Saint-Michel.
Getting to Mont Saint-Michel
By Train from Paris take the TGV from Montparnasse to Rennes or Dol de Bretagne and then coach to Le Mont Saint-Michel.
Or From Rennes take connecting train to SNCF station Pontorson Mont St- Michel which is around 9km from Le Mont Saint-Michel and from where you can take a taxi or bus.