Mont St-Michel

NORMANDY Mont St-MichelMont St-Michel (pop 46) might look like a slice of Hogwarts as you approach it from a distance. It is a rocky tidal island that houses the iconic Abbey of Mont St-Michel. Having just celebrated its 1300th anniversary, the abbey stands as the island’s crown jewel, atop an 84m high granite rock. With its tall towers, turrets, windings streets and traditional architecture, Mont St-Michel beckons to those awaiting a short getaway to the Middle Ages.

This small island is also home to curious tidal activity. The bay around the Mont features large variations in tidal heights, as the low and high tides can vary up to 15m! Hence, it is not uncommon to find bare sand exposed around the Mont during low tides and the bay completely submerged within hours (including some carparks), during high tides. This is the reason why the Mont features numerous stairways, especially spiral ones.

According to Celtic mythology, the Mont was a sea tomb to which the souls of the dead were sent. Hence, when the monastic establishment was built in the 8th century, the island was still being referred to as “Monte Tomb”. In 708, Bishop Aubert of Avranches commissioned to build a church in the island, as he had repeated visions of the Archangel Michael. Legend states that, the bishop initially dismissed his visions, but decided to build the church upon seeing the gilded Archangel, perched atop a vanquished dragon sitting on the tip of the abbey’s spire.

In 966, the Mont was handed over to the Benedictines who turned it into a learning centre. Soon after, it became a fortress that was of service to the King. From then on, the Mont constantly faced battles and sieges, most notably that of the Hundred Years War (in the 15th century), when the Mont was blockaded thrice, by the English. However, it withstood the attacks long enough to be the only place in Western and Northern France to resist English conquest.

The Mont also became a prison shortly after the Revolution due to its off shore location. In 1979, Mont St-Michel was one of the first places to be listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Mont St-Michel seems like a large speckle lying in the mouth of the Couesnon River. The mainland is connected to the circular head of the island via a causeway which leads into the only large opening in the ramparts, at Porte de l’Avancée. The Mont has a solitary street, Grande Rue (a heavy tourist stretch that is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels). The island is mainly accessible by car; therefore there are many carparks in the area. However, do watch out for the signs along the way that inform you on which areas to avoid due to the tides.



FR NORMANDY MANCHE Mont Saint-MichelThe main attraction in the island is the Abbaye du Mont St-Michel [Mont Saint-Michel Abbey,  +33 233898000 , ad/ch €8.50/Free]. It is a stunning monastery, which sits atop the Grand Rue. After extensive restoration works, the abbey evolved from being a humble monastery to a prison and currently a popular tourist destination.  Its spectacular architecture appeals to those with a curious mind. The abbey holds night-time visits from July to August, during which the entire place is well-lit, making it glow in the night sky. The visits are topped off with soothing music being played in the background, giving the place a serene feel. Visits can be self-guided, though tours are recommended as they are rather informative.

The attached Église Abbatiale (Abbey Church) stands nearby, atop the tip of a mountain cone. The church’s transept is situated on a solid rock, while the nave, choir and transept arms are supported by the rooms below. Though the church is often referred to as having an overall Norman Benedictine style, it is actually a mesh-mash of architectural styles ranging from the Norman Romanesque (featured it in the nave and south transept, which were built between the 11th and 12th centuries) to the Flamboyant Gothic (featured in the choir which was built in the late 15th century). The church is now an important Christian pilgrimage site that sees hundreds of worshippers, especially from May to September and masses are still held here daily.

The northern side of the Mont, La Merville (The Marval) is worth checking out, as it features a cloître (cloister) - an open rectangular space that is surrounded by a double row of carved arches that are supported by thick granite pillars. An early 13th century réfrectoire (dining room) with barrel roofs and recessed windows is also nearby. In addition, there is a large guest hall, dating back to 1213 and an ambulatory, which features the oldest ribbed vaulted ceilings in Europe.

Another place of worship within these grounds is the Chapelle de Notre Dame sous Trepe (Underground Chapel of our Lady Peace). This is one of the oldest rooms in the abbey which was only discovered in 1903.

One of the remnants of the prison history of the place is the giant human hamster wheel that can be found in the area. It is a 19th century contraption that was used in the reconstructive works of the abbey. The ‘machine’ was used by the prisoners to lift supplies in and out of the buildings, past the tall walls. It took about 6 prisoners to operate the device, whereby they would turn the wheel to hoist the supply sledge up the abbey’s side. 

The Grand Rue also houses some museums. There is a History Museum [Main Street Le Mont St-Michel,+33 233608512 , Museum Pass for all 4 museums ad/ch €18/9] at the foot of the Abbey, which displays wax exhibits that tell the story of the construction of the Abbey, the life of the monks and the history of the place.

FR NORMANDY MANCHE view from Mont Saint-Michel abbey You can also check out the L’Archeoscope [High Street, +33 233890185 ] which features a multimedia show of Mont’s history and legends. It documents a detailed timeline of the Abbey from its origins to its modern-day significance.

Nearby, is Le Musée Maritime & l’Ecologie [Main Street,  +33 233608512 ] which informs visitors of the unique tidal activity and ecosystem of the surroundings.

Due to the charming little village houses and shops at the foot of the Abbey, many tourists would also like to have a walkabout in the area. While the flatlands might seem harmless during low tide, they can quickly become hazardous as the tides rise. Hence, visitors are always advised to scout the flatlands with an experienced guide who will be able to gauge the timings of the tides. It is also good to exercise caution on foot, as some flatlands have spots of quicksand as well.