As we drive through the pretty farmland of Normandy, with its pleasing apple orchards and pastures dotted with sheep and dairy cows, it’s easy to forget this region’s turbulent past. Normandy’s geography, situated on the stormy Atlantic coast not far from England, put it in the path of repeated war and conflict dating back to the days of William the Conqueror (who was born here). More recently Normandy was the site of the largest naval invasion in history, but more about D-Day in a future post.
Today’s destination is Mont-Saint-Michel and its iconic abbey, perhaps the most photographed in the world. As we leave the expressway we finally see the silhouette of the Mont in the distance. It’s a captivating vision and it draws one closer, as it has so many in the past thousand years. It’s easy to see why this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Brief History of Mont St Michel:
The abbey dates to the 8th century when the first sanctuary was built on this island to honor the Archangel Michael, head of heaven’s militia. Medieval people thought Michael was the angel who led the dead to their last judgement (where their souls were put on the balance and a thumbs up or down rendered). Believers saw the Mont as a symbol of Paradise on earth and therefore it has been a site of pilgrimage for a thousand years.
They Abbey’s layout is unique because it’s customized to and constrained by the shape of the Mont. The medieval architects built their church and abbey around the top of the rock, closer to God. Later, like another layer added to a wedding cake, a village was built at the base of the Mont and the entire complex was secured by ramparts. The location and fortifications of Mont St. Michel resisted all English attacks during the Hundred Years War, helping it become a symbol for French pride.
The abbey thrived until the French Revolution when, by revolutionary decree, all Abbeys in France were ordered to be closed. For the next 60 years it was used as a prison, which was closed in 1863 and the abbey then restored. Tourism to the abbey has been its prime function for almost a century and a half; it’s also still used as an active abbey and you’ll likely see a few monks and nuns when you visit it.
Visiting the Mont:
Unless you take a bus or tour, or stay in one of the hotels in La Caserna, you’ll have to park in a massive lot on the mainland as vehicles are no longer allowed on the causeway. You can walk to the abbey or get there by taking a shuttle (known as a navette). The causeway between the mainland and Mont St. Michel (then an island, now really a peninsula) was built in 1878 and is just under a kilometer in length. The causeway is being rebuilt as a bridge, with the old causeway to be demolished to allow better removal of silt deposits which have accumulated in the bay in the past 150 years. A recently built dam in La Caserne is also designed to help restore the ecosystem, holding back river water and then flushing a large volume out into the bay at low tide. This dam is a great place to see views of the Mont especially after dark when it is illuminated.
While at a distance Mont St. Michel looks like a massive fortress, there are conceptually three distinct regions to it, which in reality blend together: 1) the abbey and church crown the top of the Mont, 2) below this is a medieval village with only a single narrow lane going through it, 3) ramparts providing an outer barrier. It’s through a gate in these walls that you’ll enter the medieval village to begin a relatively steady and steep climb to the abbey. There are two approaches to the abbey you can choose from, one being a walk through the single street of the very touristy village (with typical restaurants, gift shops and a few small hotels), the other a walk along the top of the ramparts. If you have bad knees or hips, or heart disease, take it easy and reconsider if you want to make the climb at all.
Your journey ends at the top of the Mont, at the fortified entrance to the abbey. After paying your admission (also get the very useful audioguide), your climb continues until you reach the top, a terrace facing the sea to the west and Brittany to the south, the entire scene wonderful and memorable! It’s a great place to rest from the climb and to enjoy the fresh salty sea-breeze. When we visited the tide was out and people were going for a walk on the sand-flats of the ocean floor. Hard to believe that until only 150 years ago, a walk over the seabed at low tide was the only way people could approach the abbey.
Adjoining the high terrace is the abbey’s church, built over 1000 years ago at 80 meters above the sea. The Romanesque church was larger before a fire in 18th destroyed a portion of the nave and the rebuilt facade is the newest portion of the building. Before you enter the church, look up to the abbey’s spire and study the a gilded statue of St. Michael on the top. Enjoy exploring the lovely interior of the church.
The walk continues through the cloister, dating to the 13th century, and gives access to the Refectory (where the monks ate), kitchen, church and dormitories. The life of a Benedictine monk was simple — centered around prayer, work and meals — which is reflected in the layout of the abbey. You descend to the Guests’ Hall which was designed for visiting nobles and royalty. Afterwards, you walk through series of crypts with impressive weight bearing pillars. The slide show below takes you through our walk in the abbey if you’d like to see more.
Mont St. Michel receives millions of visitors a year, so you won’t be lacking company when you visit. Least busy times are early morning and late afternoon, so consider spending a night here to avoid the daytime crush of tour-bus visitors and see the abbey in the morning and late afternoon when it’s much less busy. There also concerts at the abbey during the summer months. Also be sure you are aware of the tide charts if you plan to walk on the ocean floor. The waters here have among the highest tidal flows in the world, and the tide moves in very quickly and powerfully.
We stayed at the Le Relais du Roy, situated in the village of La Caserne near that dam and immediately adjoining the causeway. It was a comfortable and convenient place to stay with a great restaurant — we enjoyed one of the best meals of out vacation here.
Near Mont St. Michel is a German Military Cemetery on a hill by the village of Huisnes-sur-Mer which houses the remains of 12,000 German soldiers. It’s worth a visit, and this was where we started our D-Day site exploration in France. These unfortunate young men were not Nazi idealogues for the most part — just guys following orders, and tens of thousands were killed in these fields. I’m glad they lost the war, but I’m saddened at the waste of all that young life.
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)