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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrNothing can quite describe the feeling of approaching the island commune of Mont Saint-Michel in France. Busy as it is, and it is very busy, you can not help but feel a rekindling of something sacred, and something quite divine. Perhaps it is the ocean, or the silty sands, or the sun as it moves across the sky, silhouetted only by the spire of the cathedral that sits at the top of the island. Perhaps it is because you are retracing the path of pilgrims from centuries long gone by. Even among crowds there is a certain ambiance to Mont Saint Michel; a feeling of being at a really special place.
GeologyA rocky tidal island, the Mont sticks out about a kilometer into the ocean. In prehistoric times the island was firmly connected to the mainland, but over time erosion reshaped the coastline, wearing away at the softer land, and shifting the surrounding sands. The granite rock of the Mont withstood the erosion, and remains an outcrop; rising some 300 feet above sea level.
The island was previously only accessible in low tides, via a tidal causeway. In 1879, a bridge connected the island to the mainland, and allowed for easy access at any time. The recent construction of a hydraulic dam has again changed the connection, and the causeway has been removed, to make Mont Saint Michel an island once again, joined by a light bridge. Visitors can access the island by parking up and walking, or by taking one of the regular shuttle buses to the entrance of the walls.
HistoryMont Saint Michel has a rich history of fortifications, religious significance, and war. It has seen time as a fort, monastery and prison, and still has permanent residents living there to this day; 44 in total, many of them monks, who also occupy the unseen side of the island; probably to get some peace and quiet from the 3 million tourists.
In the 6th and 7th century, the Mont was used as an Armorican stronghold, before it was ransacked and captured by the Franks. Back then it was called ‘Mont Tombe’, before the first monastic establishment was built there in the 8th century.
Battles ensued over the bloodstained centuries to come, and the Mont was controlled briefly by the Bretons, before it was retaken by the Normans, who managed to defend it against a full-scale attack from the British during the Hundred Years' War . Its natural fortifications, enhanced by the walls and man-made defenses, made it an extremely difficult place to invade, and in turn its strategic importance cannot be understated. The tides are also some of the fastest in Europe, again adding to the natural advantage of its inhabitants.
The building of the great Abbey of Saint Michel, situated at the top of the island, began in the 11th century, when Richard II of Normandy commissioned Italian architect William de Volpiano to contract the work, though monks sought hermitage on the then deserted island much earlier, as far back as the 6th century.
The design and build of the abbey, and the surrounding walled town, continued for many centuries to come, with later additions occurring in 17th to 18th century, and again in the 19th and 20th century.
In 1791 the abbey was closed down, and converted into a prison, but was closed in 1863 by Napoleon III, and soon after declared a historic monument. Benedictine monks returned in 1922, but began to leave after 1979. The monks that worship there now are from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem.
Mont Saint Michel and the surrounding bay were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.
Myth And Religious SignificanceFor anyone who likes to visit religious monuments to reconnect with the spiritual history and culture contained there, you will need to be very patient with the crowds. Expect noise in places where hushed whispers should be the limit. Expect to see robed monks in deep prayer, surrounding by tour groups eating snacks and taking pictures.
Mont Saint Michel is a living, breathing monastery with real religious practice, whose economy relies almost entirely on tourist money. This is an interesting combo, but one that the monks still seem to find peace with. Perhaps, it is possible that you can find peace with it too?
The idea for the first monastery on the Mont, came directly from the words of the archangel Micheal himself. According to legend, Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches at the time, had a vision in which the archangel told him “build here and build high.” He didn't want to listen to the words of Micheal, and decided to ignore the archangel's advice several times, until Michael burnt a hole in the Bishop's skull, which helped to get the message through.
Pilgrims have since made their tracks towards the island, and have braced the dangerous crossing of the quicksand, incoming tides, and silt mud for centuries, looking up to the cathedral for inspiration, before finally reaching their spiritual goal, and connecting with their faith at the monastery and abbey, or else dying in the process. The pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel is much easier now that there is a bridge, and a car park and shuttle bus service.
The abbey still holds services daily, so if this interests you then check the times when you visit. There is also a smaller chapel on the main drag, on the way up the steep cobbled streets. Monks still live, eat, and pray on the island.
The structure of Mont Saint Michel perfectly represents the feudal structure of the medieval ages, with God at the top, represented by the spire of the cathedral, with monks quarters high in the village, military ramparts part way up, and the poor fishermen and houses of the common people at the bottom, sometimes outside of the walls.
Visiting Mont Saint MichelA visit to Mont Saint Michel can be enchanting, spiritual, historical, or irritating, depending on your inclinations. Upon arrival, you will have the option of approaching the island on foot, or taking a shuttle bus. The bus is regular, and free, but walking can add to the dramatic feel of the already impressive Mont.
You will enter through the town gates, and doing so is like entering another world. The main flow of people follow the main strip (road), as it winds its way gradually to the top, toward the spiritual goal; the abbey. Along the way, you will encounter chapels, cobbled streets with quaint medieval architecture, fortifications and strategic look-outs, as well as fast food shops and tourist traps.
For a quieter option, break away from the herd immediately after entering through the gates and take a right up some steep outdoor steps to access the side of the island, away from the main strip. It is possible to find many small roads and windy paths, and you may even grab a bit of peace and quiet if you use your imagination. The grounds at the sides also contain small gardens, graveyards, and religious sculptures.
The main event, is of course, the abbey itself, and from the outdoor spaces at the top you will have splendid views back out over the island, and out into the ocean.
The AbbeyTo walk through the abbey is to take a journey through time, and through an amazing structure that has seen centuries of history and worship. It feels like the walls have stories to tell. The walk is one-way, and is, unsurprisingly, pretty busy. Gothic rooms create a barren atmosphere, and visitors take a stroll through impressive churches and chapels, cloisters, a refractory- a huge long room where monks ate in perfect silence.
You are then led deeper underground, into the Romanesque foundations, which boast a completely different feel and architectural style. Here you can see a giant tread wheel, used in the 19th century to haul of supplies. A walk out onto the verandas will reveal one of the best viewing platforms that Mount Saint Michel has to offer, with views across the bay that separates Normandy and Brittany.
Eat, Drink, And SleepMont Saint Michel offers everything that the weary traveler needs to have a nice day trip, and while the food is hideously overpriced, some of it is very good quality. It is possible to get the usual pizza and chips type meal here, or for the more luxurious (and pricey) option, why not sample some of the region's specialties: seafood platters fresh from the ocean, salt grazed lamb, fed on the salty plains, or puffy omelets, a quick and popular treat that used to be served to hungry pilgrims, who had to chow down their food in time to escape the encroaching tides.
There are several bars and restaurants within the walls of Mont Saint Michel, so you will be able to quench youR thirst too, whether for a quick soft drink, or a bottle of wine in a pleasant environment. You can expect the usual tourist enticements, ice creams, sweets, and all manner of gift. Remember, most of the economy relies directly on tourist transactions.
There are also several hotels in Mont Saint Michel, although you should not expect to find a budget option anywhere within the walls of the commune. There are much larger hotels available on the mainland facing the island, but once again these are not the cheapest, or most exquisite on offer. Many people are content to travel from nearby towns, such as Rennes, or Saint Malo, where hotel and hostel options are more widely available. Mont Saint Michel can be comfortably covered in a short day trip, so the only benefit of staying within the walls, is perhaps the added ambiance of seeing the commune in the silence of the night.
For those who are traveling on a budget, there are several small campsites nearby to Mont Saint Michel, and for anyone who has a camper van, you are welcome to stay overnight in the car park for free.
How to Beat the CrowdsUndoubtedly, the biggest killjoy of a visit to Mont Saint Michael is the amount of people who also want to visit. This is understandable, given that the Mont is a stunning sight to behold, and one of the most popular attractions in France, but it doesn't stop the mildly irritating feeling of getting stuck behind a 30-strong tour group in a small chapel.
There is one way to beat the crowds: in high season, for a few weeks a year, at an unannounced time, Mont Saint Michel opens its gates to visitors for the whole day, and then well into the night. You can stay as long as midnight, and most of the tourists, especially those with families or a long distance to travel, have gone home by then.
The whole commune is much quieter, the ambiance is unique at night, and the view from the abbey veranda is superb. The abbey itself does things differently during this night time special; arty images are digitally projected on the cathedral walls, and sacred instruments are played in various acoustically perfect rooms withing the abbey.
If you are lucky enough to be in France when the announcement is made, then a night visit makes for a completely different experience.
Getting ThereNo matter how you choose to travel to Mont Saint Michel, you will have to walk the last leg, or get one of the free shuttle buses from near the car park. Many people drive to Mont Saint Michel, and this is by far the easiest options, with ample parking available.
If this is not an option for you, then it is possible to take public transport. You can take a train to Rennes, and then a 90-minute bus from Rennes to the Mont, or you can find your way to Saint Malo, and take a short bus trip from there. The nearest train station to Mont Saint Michael is Pontorson, which will leave you only a 15 minute bus ride from the attraction.
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Author: M.Warburton. Last updated: Jan 25, 2015