So, what is Mont-Saint-Michel? It’s a medieval abbey surrounded by a fortified town built on a small island. Not only that, Mont-Saint-Michel has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Let’s have a look at this amazing ancient site.
Mont-Saint-Michel: medieval centre of learning and pilgrimage
Legend has it that the Archangel Michael pressured Aubert, bishop of Avranches, to build a small church dedicated to him, the archangel. The chosen location? The top of a rocky island just off the coast. Bishop Aubert did as he was told and had the church built in the early 8th century (708).
Later, in 966, a group of Benedictine monks settled on the island with the support of the Duke of Normandy. They built an abbey, also consecrated to St. Michael, in the Romanesque style. The oldest part of the abbey, the small church of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre, can still be seen and dates back to the 10th century. Also from the Romanesque period is the nave of the abbey church.
During the Gothic period, the builders made the most of the restricted space available. They built the conventual buildings known as the elegant “Marveille” (the Marvel) above the chaplaincy. The Marveille comprises the Hotes and the Chevaliers rooms, the refectory and the cloisters, which is open to the sea. The views from up there are wonderful.
Mont-Saint-Michel attracted some the greatest minds and illuminators in Europe. Thus, it became one of the most important centres of learning and pilgrimage of the Middle Ages.
The abbey wasn’t impervious to the outside world.The Hundred Years War against England in the 14th century made it necessary to fortify the islands with ramparts in case of an invasion. And the abbey was used as a prison during the French Revolution and the Empire.
Fortunately for us, restoration work began in the late 19th century.
the medieval town
As mentioned before, Mont-Saint-Michel was a popular pilgrimage centre. It was only natural that a village grew at the base of the abbey to cater for the needs of the pilgrims. The town flourished on the south-east side behind the defensive walls from the Hundred Year War.
Nowadays, the medieval village is the first place you see on arriving. Bring your best walking shoes because the narrow cobbled streets wind up to the abbey. All kinds of shops cater for the tourist, you’ll lots of tat for sale. Move on. However, it’s a pretty place for photographs (if you can get away from the crowds).
There are lodgings, bars and restaurants as well. One of the most famous one is La Mère Poulard, famous for its omelettes. Don’t bother trying to eat there without a reservation. And prepare to be fleeced, things are more expensive on the island.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The UNESCO declared Mont-Saint-Michel a world heritage site in 1979. They used the following criteria:
Criterion (i): Through the unique combination of the natural site and the architecture, the Mont-Saint-Michel constitutes a unique aesthetic success.
Criterion (iii): Mont-Saint-Michel is an unequalled ensemble, as much because of the co-existence of the abbey and its fortified village within the confined limits of a small island, as for the originality of the placement of the buildings which accord with its unforgettable silhouette.
Criterion (vi): Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilisation.
Can’t really argue with that!
Back in the day, you could drive to the island and park very close to the base of the abbey. You had to be mindful of the rides, according to the signs posted everywhere. In spring, the bay is subject to the largest tidal range in continental Europe (almost 25 kilometres from the shore).
But there is a new access now. The visitors car park is approximately 3 kilometres away from the island. Modern shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages take you from the Visitors Centre at the Place des Navettes to the mount.
Experts suggest staying in a hotel on the mainland. This is what we did and didn’t regret the decision. It’s easy to drive to and from the Mount and there are more accommodation options.
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to arrive and walk around the village, especially during peak tourist season. As I mentioned before, be prepared to face large crowds.
Here are the prices to park your car/camper van/coach/motorbike and the price of the shuttle. There’s also a kennel for your dog.