A magical island topped by a gravity-defying medieval monastery, the Mont-Saint-Michel counts among France’s most stunning sights. For centuries one of Europe’s major pilgrimage destinations, this holy mount is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is its breathtaking bay.
The Mont-Saint-Michel is one of Europe’s most unforgettable sights. Set in the mesmerising bay where Normandy and Brittany merge, the island draws the eye from great distances.
The staggering location has long inspired awe and the imagination. The story of how the mount turned into a great place of Christian pilgrimage is colourful. Aubert, bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches early in the 8th century, claimed that the Archangel Michael himself pressured him into having a church built atop the island just out to sea.
From 966 onwards, the dukes of Normandy, followed by French kings, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on the Mont-Saint-Michel. Magnificent monastic buildings were added through medieval times, one vertiginous section being nicknamed The Marvel. The abbey became a renowned centre of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and manuscript illuminators in Europe. Vast numbers of pilgrims visited, despite warring cross-Channel royals. However, the ramparts at the base of the island were built to keep English forces out. Other fine buildings went up along the steep village street, now converted into museums, hotels, restaurants and boutiques for today’s tourists.
The Mont Saint-Michel Bay has been prone to silting up in the last couple of centuries. Actions by man, including farming and the building of a causeway to the island monastery, have added to this problem. A major campaign has ensured that the Mont-Saint-Michel preserves its maritime character and remains an island. The main river into the bay, the Couesnon, for example, is being left to flow more freely so that sediments are washed out to sea.
For more information on this project, please click here
Recently, the visitor car parks have been relocated away from the shoreline, to preserve the Mont-Saint-Michel’s exceptional surrounds. The new car parks stand c.1.5 miles away from the island. Once you have parked, head for Place des Navettes; specially devised, ultra-modern shuttle buses called Passeurs take you from here to the mount itself. These Passeurs operate daily, at very regular intervals, from 7.30am to midnight.
Note that the shuttle bus stop is 800m (c. half a mile) from the car parks and that, normally, the Passeurs stop c. 450m from the island itself.
For further information, please see www.bienvenueaumontsaintmichel.com/change/en
Alternatively, you can book a special horse-drawn carriage (a Maringote) or you can walk all the way from the car parks, contemplating the full magnificence of the Mont-Saint-Michel as you approach.
The Benedictine abbey atop the mount has always been the main goal for pilgrims and tourists alike. It is reached via the steep winding village street lined by museums, restaurants and shops. The abbey’s powerful architecture dates mainly from medieval times. It still inspires awe, showing military as well as religious strength.
Inside the sober abbey buildings, absorb the exceptional atmosphere of the church and cloisters and also that of the grand chambers across the wing known as The Marvel, clinging so spectacularly to the rock. In 1966, the abbey celebrated the 1000th year since its foundation. Since then, a part of the abbey has been re-occupied by a small religious community.
Far above the abbey church’s spectacular flying buttresses and Gothic pinnacles, an acrobatic statue of Saint Michael, weigher of souls, stands at the highest point on the mount. Made by the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet in the 19th century, it recalls the origins of the Christian foundation here.
On summer evenings, you can tour the abbey as night falls, with music and lights adding to the special ambiance.
Several times a year, classical concerts are staged at the abbey.
This traditional museum close to the abbey’s entrance retells the story of the mount via historic objects, including some alarming torture instruments. Learn also about the startling time after the Revolution, and up to the 1860s, when the abbey served as a prison, housing radical political prisoners. Enjoy the surprise of the museum’s periscope, allowing you to spy on the surrounding bay in surprising detail.
At the base of the mount, as you penetrate the ramparts, you can’t miss this famous, picturesque, particularly well-positioned inn, founded in 1888. It is well known for its fluffy omelettes, the gastronomic emblem of the Mont-Saint-Michel.
This attraction opposite the charming old village church offers a rapid contemporary introduction to the Mont Saint-Michel and its bay, using modern technology to startle your senses.
The focus in this museum is on the extraordinary maritime features of the Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay, covering the tides and the project to preserve the mount’s island status. The main collection on display is of 250 model boats and ships.
This traditional historic house is named after the wife of one of Brittany’s, and France’s, most feared commanders in the Hundred Years War, Bertrand du Guesclin. Tiphaine de Raguenel herself was particularly interested in astrology, reflected in the astrological cabinet inside. Other curiosities include antiques and a medieval chastity belt.
The Bay of the Mont Saint-Michel is subject to the largest tidal range in continental Europe during spring tides. The waters can withdraw as far as 25km from the shore. After low tide, the local saying goes that the seawaters rush back in to the bay ‘at the pace of a galloping horse’. The waters certainly come in fast, so don’t get caught out by the rising tide!
The Association Pour la Mise en Valeur du Patrimoine de la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel works towards the preservation and promotion of the bay. This organisation offers a variety of ways for visitors to discover the bay.
‘Sur les chemins des pèlerins d’antan’, for example, allows you to emulate the pilgrims of yesteryear, who would gather at the port of Genêts east of the mount and then walk across the bay at low tide, led by a knowledgeable guide. Today, you are encouraged to come in shorts and walk bare-foot, as there are streams to ford. The route is 6km long, or 12km from Genêts and back.
Admiring the bay with the greatest tidal range in continental Europe
The Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel is subject to some of the biggest tidal ranges or variations in the world, creating an ever-changing seascape. It makes for a sublime sight, watching the waters and patterns across the vast bay change hour by hour, minute by minute. The glorious Bay of the Mont Saint-Michel has, like the holy mount itself, been classified a World Heritage Site.
For a truly unforgettable hike, join a guided walk across the bay. Given the dangers of the tides and quicksands, it is very strongly recommended that you head out with a guide.
Crossing the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel
At low tide, and especially during spring tides, the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel unveils its secret life. As the hours pass, as the seasons change, you can appreciate the surprising array of flora, fauna, streams and mudflats, as well as the changing light and reflections of this exceptional environment.
However, always be aware that the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel can be dangerous. If you wish to cross it on foot, it is very strongly advised that you go with an experienced guide. You can get further information at any of the local tourist offices, not just at the Mont Saint-Michel itself, but also at Avranches, Pontorson, or Porte de la Baie Tourisme branches on the eastern side of the bay.
This museum dedicated to local traditions and the local environment is set in a lovely coastal farm at the village of Vains, on the eastern side of the bay. Learn here about the bay’s flora and fauna and how men once lived from the bay, for example by fishing using special techniques and by gathering salt, once a precious commodity. The presentations are appealing, using videos, models and interactive screens. The centre puts on temporary exhibitions and organises activities, such as guided, themed walks.
This charming manor has parts dating from the 15th to the 19th century and displays archives relating to the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel.
The Avranches Scriptorial Interactive museum, home to the Mont-Saint-Michel manuscripts.