A solitary mountain rises in the middle of a vast plain, a monastical fortress steadfast and imposing. Within six hours, when the highest tides of Europe have filled the surrounding bay, the heap of rock will dominate the seascape becoming an even more impenetrable island.
Such is the impression every visitor is first presented with en route to Mont Saint-Michel, the UNESCO World Heritage Site anchored, immovable, off the coast of northwestern France in Normandy.
Archangel Michael himself is said to have ordered Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, to build a church on the emerging mountain, formerly called Mont Tombe. The church was consecrated in 709 CE. In the 10th century, Benedictine monks settled on Mont Saint-Michel, and the buildings underwent expansions for another three centuries. The Hundred Years War, a series of conflicts between English and French kings from 1337-1453, provoked military reinforcements on Mont Saint-Michel in the 14th century – these fortifications were strong enough to resist a 30-year siege. The two cannons on display today are what English commander Thomas de Scales left behind when he finally gave up trying to overtake it.
More remodeling and new constructions continued throughout the ages, especially since it was such an important place of pilgrimage. Men, women, and even children sent by their parents sought out the “pyramid of the seas” – many of whom perished in the tidewaters and quicksand.
During the French Revolution, the abbey was used as a prison, and for a period the whole place was left to stand in ruins, but Mont Saint-Michel eventually underwent refurbishment and returned to being a place of worship and prayer.
Today, guests enter Mont Saint-Michel through three gates and a drawbridge. A spiral of steep streets and stairways wind past towering buildings containing village shops, restaurants, museums and homes. Further up is “The Marvel”. After conquering Normandy in the early 1200s, Philip August, King of France, made a financial peace offering to Abbot Jourdain, which resulted in a unique set of six buildings constructed on three levels: the cellar and alms house at the bottom, the knights’ room/scriptorium and guest rooms above that, and the cloister, garden and refectory on top. Here the monks lived according to St Benedict’s order of ora et labora (prayer and work).
Although the population (2015) of Mont Saint-Michel is 50, it receives over three million visitors per year.
• The causeway that was built for easy and safe access, as opposed to crossing the flats and risking the ebb and flow of the tide, became too disruptive to the natural flow of tide water, silting up the bay over time. In 2014, a 760-meter-long bridge opened to replace the causeway. The bridge allows the waters to move freely beneath it. Guests can walk on one of three pathways from the new car park 2.5 kilometers away, or take the shuttle bus.
• If you plan to venture out onto the flats, bring a compass in case of unexpected fog, and bring the tide tables, which can be obtained from the on-site tourist office. The tide flows in and out of the bay twice a day to varying depths, creating a lot of muck. It’s best to hire a guide.
• There are a handful of places to overnight within the city walls: www.ot-montsaintmichel.com
• The impressive Bayeux Tapestry, on display in Bayeux (a 1.5-hour drive northeast), depicts the 1066 Norman conquest of England, when William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) and Harold, Earl of Wessex fought over the English throne. (William won.) In one of the 70-meter-long tapestry’s scenes, Harold is shown rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the flats surrounding Mont Saint-Michel.