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 to discover and enjoy.
Restoring the Mont-Saint-Michel’s full maritime character.
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.
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The new ways to reach the Mont-saint-Michel
Recently, the visitor car parks have been relocated away from the shoreline, to preserve the Mont-Saint-Michel’s exceptional surroundings. The new car parks stand approximately 1.5 miles away from the island. Once you have parked, head for the Place des Navettes, where specially devised, ultra-modern shuttle buses called Passeurs will take you 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 (half a mile) from the car parks and that the Passeurs stop 450m away from the island itself.
Alternatively, you can book a special horse-drawn carriage (a Maringote) or you can walk all the way from the car parks to the site, contemplating the full magnificence of the Mont-Saint-Michel as you approach.