MONT-SAINT-MICHEL—A FRENCH ICON
We drove to Mont-Saint-Michel the first time during a terrible transport strike in November 2007 in Paris—we needed to get out and do something other than sit at home, to go to a special place, and Mont-Saint-Michel sure is that, one of THE top sights in France.
Mont-Saint-Michel is special for so many reasons.
Firstly, Mont-Saint-Michel is a geographical wonder. As you drive closer, you see flat fields and then quite suddenly there’s a hill in the distance, rising offshore, with an amazing town atop its own island. It looks like an enormous, sculpted, thousand-year-old birthday cake rising from the sea. Layer upon layer of buildings constructed in different styles at different times. As we arrived it was misty, then pouring with rain, so the hill and its buildings were indistinct, but after we found a hotel at the end of the causeway, a miracle: the sun came out just as it was setting and lit up the island. Magic. Shimmering, warm golden light.
Actually, Mont-Saint-Michel is an island, or at least it used to be. It’s now connected to the French mainland by the causeway, built in 1878. This land link caused much of the bay to silt up, but the French government has initiated work on a new bridge instead of the causeway, and dams on the river allowing the water to circulate as part of the project to restore Mont-Saint-Michel’s maritime character.
And of course, Mont-Saint-Michel is a pilgrimage destination. Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert in A.D. 708 and ordered him to build a church on the island and since then it’s been an important pilgrimage center. Now it’s more of a tourist destination, but there is continuity and there are still around 100,000 pilgrims each year who cross the bay on foot. (This is allowed only with an approved guide). It’s still a pilgrimage for some of the tourists—when we were there, one Asian girl got off her bus, stood there speechless, kneeled down and prayed!
When you arrive on the island, don’t be turned off too quickly by what you find at the bottom after the drawbridge entrance and along the only road up to the abbey—tacky museums, and tourist shops full of mass-produced “souvenirs”. You’ll also find several rather expensive, touristy restaurants that aren’t nearly as appealing as their menus imply. Remember that even in the Middle Ages this was a commercial street with vendors selling souvenirs, candles and food to the thousands of pilgrims. (Note: The restaurant at the Relais du Roy Hotel on the land side of the causeway is wonderful— http://www.le-relais-du-roy.com/en/home ). We stayed there and ate there.
Past the shops and services you climb up the spiraling road to the top to visit the Abbey. As you walk up, notice narrow walkways, stone stairs and hidden side alleys, but also many lookouts over the causeway and bay, with its mud flats and distant polder land. The reclaimed land is covered with salt-loving plants that are grazed by sheep—their meat is a delicacy—and you may be lucky enough to see sheep grazing next to the causeway.
Last, but not least, the Abbey on Mont-Saint-Michel is an architectural wonder. It’s so multi-layered with so much more than meets the eye from the causeway, and is quite justifiably called the “Merveille” (the marvel).
—The timeline is long, more than 1200 years. Today’s abbey is built on the remains of a Romanesque church, which stands on the remains of a Carolingian church.
—Think of the design and construction. The monks built this church on the top tip of the rock to be as close to Heaven as possible. But, there wasn’t enough level ground to support such a church, so they had to construct 4 huge supporting crypts under the church, to support each wing.
—The whole abbey is not just the church, but also three lower levels of buildings, for all the living necessities of the time: living, feasting, meditating, learning. In fact, as you wander around you realize that it’s like a whole small town, with cloisters, passageways, halls, refectory, crypts, ossuary, gardens, walkways.
—The buildings are made of granite stones, quarried from an island 20 miles away, and transported here by barges using tidal power. Stone-cutters were paid by the piece and carved their number onto each stone—we can see many stones with numbers on the now-exposed West Terrace.
—Imagine the complexity of finding people at that time to do the actual building. Many were not trained, but followed orders. Most important was the architect, who had to design the buildings, not only for safely but also taking into account all kinds of symbolism, especially using combinations of shapes and numbers.
When we first went in 2007, it was still possible to drive across the causeway to a parking area below the Rock. But now that’s all changed.
If you arrive by car, you have to park in the huge new parking area a way before the causeway. You can either walk to the Mont (about 50 minutes), or catch a shuttle (navette) from the Place des Navettes close to the parking area and the Tourist Information Office. This is also where La Caserne is—a commercial area with hotels, restaurants and shops (for which you need a special permit to get in and park a car). Or, you can catch a Maringote, a horse-drawn shuttle.
Another option is to walk to the Place du Barrage, the last stop before the causeway leading to the Mont. From the Place du Barrage, you can walk on the causeway road (now restricted to official vehicles), which takes about 30 minutes. Or you can take a free shuttle.
So, even though you’ll be sharing this amazing place with literally thousands of others on any given day, it’s still well worth the effort.
http://www.bienvenueaumontsaintmichel.com It is in English and has all the information you might need.