Cover Mont Saint-Michel as seen from the farmlands of Normandy

A tumultuous 1,300-year history has made this UNESCO World Heritage Site one of France’s stellar attractions

After the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Mont Saint-Michel is probably one of the most identifiable landmarks in France. Forming a tower at its apex, the island sanctuary is a compelling vision even from a distance as it comes into view as you traverse the farmlands of Normandy. But seeing it in its full glory, a medieval town and abbey floating in the middle of an immense, sparkling bay, is an experience that will simply take your breath away. It is no wonder that both the rocky islet sanctuary and the surrounding waters that form its ever-changing seascape are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites; and over 60 of its buildings are protected as monuments historiques. The site is also listed as part of the Camino Frances or French Way, the most famous of all the pilgrimage routes to the famed Santiago de Compostela, in Northern Spain.

However, this distinction, aside from being one of the most visited attractions in the country, did not come easily. Before the construction of causeway bridge, the island was very difficult to reach because of quicksand and fast-rising tides. The Bay of Saint-Michel has the largest tidal range in continental Europe causing the seawaters to withdraw as far as 25 kilometres. from the shore then quickly rush back “at the pace of a galloping horse” after low tide. Its original name, in fact, was Mont Tombe (meaning “grave” in Latin or tum, a “raised place”). It was only in the 8th century that it received its present name when St. Aubert, bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches, built a church there after having a vision of the archangel St Michael. Supposedly, he had many recurring dreams but did not act on them because who would think of building anything in such a dangerous, inhospitable location? It was only after his last dream when the archangel burned a hole on his forehead did he proceed to construction.

From 966 onwards, the dukes of Normandy, followed by French kings, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on the island. Aside from becoming a major pilgrimage site in the Christian West, the Mont became one of the centres of medieval culture and learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and illuminators in Europe, earning it the nickname “City of the Books.” It was also visited by the kings of France and England.

The monks stayed on the Mont for over 800 years during which the architecture of the monastery evolved thanks to different generations of builders who defied the inhospitable site to create a work of undisputed artistic and technical mastery reflecting various periods and styles. William of Volpiano, the Italian architect who built Fécamo Abbey in Normandy, designed the Romanesque church of the abbey in the 11th century, boldly placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. To achieve this, many underground chapels and crypts had to be built to compensate for the weight, forming the base for the upward structure seen today. The 13th Century builders, on the other hand, created a masterpiece of Norman Gothic art with the creation of the Merveille (marvel) building which is considered the jewel in the crown of the abbey’s architecture, consisting of three layered levels supported by 16 powerful buttresses.

During low tide, you might see pilgrims traversing the sands. Singing hymns of praise to St. Michael, they are reminding the world that just as their patron saint defeated the dragon, so can good triumph over evil.

With its position on the border of Normandy and Brittany, the Mont was both a place of passage and a fortress for the Duchy of Normandy, requiring new powerful fortifications during the 14th century onwards due to the successive conflicts of the Hundred Years War between France and England. By the 17th century, however, with the desertion of the administrator abbots, it lost its importance in both military and religious terms until a new religious order was established in the abbey in 1622 by the Congregation of St. Maur. By this time, the island also became a “Bastille by the Sea” with the arrival of prisoners sentenced to imprisonment without trial. Following the revolution, the monks were driven away and the “Mont Libre” became a prison for refractory priests in 1793 and a reformatory for common law and political prisoners in 1811. Closed in 1863, the Abbey was left in a state of severe dilapidation until over a decade later when it was declared a historical monument and underwent restoration. By 1969, a small community of Benedictine monks had taken over, that were eventually replaced by the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem in 2001.

Although the Abbey is the highlight of a trip to Mont Saint-Michel, the ascent is an experience in itself: from the Boulevard Gate and King’s Gate with its portcullis, you will encounter the Grand Rue with its museums, shops, and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, including the charming parish church consecrated to St. Pierre. A familiar landmark is La Mère Poulard known for its fluffy omelettes and cookies. Aside from these delicacies, one should also try the agneau de pré-salé which is served in other restaurants along the way where one can have commanding views of the bay.

The Grand Staircase to the top, in fact, can be done leisurely so that you can stop and enjoy the scenery from different vantage points. This also gives you a chance to appreciate all the marvellous details of the architecture of the monastery as it slowly reveals itself, before you finally enter to explore the abbey with its Romanesque nave; an elegant choir in flamboyant Gothic style; the refectory with its high narrow, windows; and the magnificent cloister with its fine sculptures. Before you make your way down, take a last look at the bay with panoramic views from the southern and eastern sides of the mount. On a clear day, during low tide, you might see pilgrims traversing the sands. Singing hymns of praise to St. Michael, they are reminding the world that just as their patron saint defeated the dragon, so can good triumph over evil.

  • ImagesRicky Toledo and Chito Vijandre