About an hour and a half drive to the south of where we were staying was Le Mont Saint Michel:
“The history of Mont Saint-Michel begins during an October night in 708, when the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, asking him to build a church on Mont Tombe (the original name). The first chapel was built a year later. The Benedictine monks arrived in the Xth century and started to build an abbey. From this moment, Mont Saint-Michel became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages. The Romanesque-style abbey having been partially destroyed in a fire, rebuilding began in the XIIth century. New Gothic structures were also added on the northern side, the whole complex being called “La Merveille”, “The Marvel”, as it is still known today.
In the XIVth century, walls were built around the village which protected the Mont against English assaults during the Hundred Years’ War.
The monks having been expelled during the French Revolution, the abbey became a prison, which continued until 1864. Ten years later, it was classified as a French Historical Monument and major renovation work began. The present silhouette of Mont Saint-Michel dates from the end of the XIXth century with the addition of the new bronze Neo-Gothic spire and its famous golden statue of the Archangel on its tip.
Classified as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, Mont Saint-Michel welcomes nearly 3 million visitors and pilgrims each year.”
With our D-Day site-seeing complete, we drove down on our second day. In the late 1800’s the tidal causeway that connected the island to the mainland was raised, granting around the clock access to the island. The result was sedimentation depositing in the bay, altering the landscape. A project to restore the marshland and bay to it’s original state began in 2006, with an estimated completion in 2015. Now, visitors park on the mainland and can walk, bike, or take the free shuttle to the island. Along the way are several stopping points for access to hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Day visitors pay for parking, access to the island is free, but you will have to pay an entrance fee for admittance into the abbey. Audio or guided tours can also be purchased.
It’s a bit difficult to put into perspective just how large this place is. To give you an idea, the buildings on the first level (bottom of the island, center) are four-stories tall. Pictures don’t do it justice. Mont Saint Michel is massively impressive and a sight to see.
For such a large place, when you first enter, it can be a bit claustrophobic. The narrow streets are lined with shops and restaurants, there’s a post office and several museums here too. Upon entering, immediately to the left, is a small visitors information office. We stopped and picked up a map in English. This is also one of the only places you’ll find public restrooms, though there are also facilities at the visitor center (use prior to bussing to the island).
We were here at the end April. Peak season for the island is June – October. I can not imagine navigating these small roads with more people. My recommendation, if you can, go in the “off” season.
It’s a climb, to be sure. This place is not handicap friendly. I don’t remember seeing any ramps or elevators. I was surprised at the number of people I saw carrying strollers up the stairs. I can’t imagine that to be very enjoyable.
I found myself continuously looking up. Climbing the stairs, always looking up; at the gilded statue of the Archangel Michael, the flying buttresses, the various architecture styles. It’s a lot to take in and around every corner is a new sight. For the geek in me, I felt like I was in Minas Tirith.
From here we had a great view back to the mainland. We had gone on a cold, windy, overcast day. But, when in the city, the temperature was very comfortable. Another reason to visit in the early spring or winter, it must be sweltering in the summer.
You enter the nave through this unassuming facade. No photos were allowed when we entered as a service was in progress. We sat an listened to part of it, the chants reverberating through the sanctuary. It was very peaceful and I’m grateful we were able to witness part of a church service.
After several minutes, we exited the nave and entered the cloister. Scarlet Monastery anyone? It was evident that the cloister had been added to the nave. It was very interesting to see the changes in architecture, as we progressed through our tour and wove our way back down from the top the abbey, it felt that we were going further and further back in time.
We explored the island for a good six hours and I still feel like I could go back and discover places I hadn’t seen. But, with three kids in tow, it was time for us to head back to our cottage. The youngest was asleep before we even left the parking lot.
If you do visit, give yourself more than one day if you can. As we drove down, we passed by several villages and cities I would have loved to spend more time in, in particular, the city of Avranches. So, if you’re in the Normandy or even Brittany regions of France, I highly recommend a stop at Le Mont Saint Michel. It’s a marvel to explore.