Le Mont Saint Michel has lived near the top of our French bucket list forever. There’s something about that silhouette arising out of the sea and sand that beckons. The improbably spire-topped mountain in the sea? Church, abbey, old village, castle walls? The rhythm of low-tide sand flats and then high-tide floating island? Disney took the silhouette, mixed it with some other European castles, fed it to us when we were babies, and we bring all those stories back?
Whatever! It’s just cool.
For millennia, you had to either take a boat to the island at high tide, or walk on the exposed mud and sand at low tide, timing your crossing carefully. From 1879 onwards, during low tide, you could walk or drive to the island on a constructed causeway; but you still had to time your crossing carefully. The causeway dammed silt and sand in the constantly ebbing and flowing of this tidal-flat ecosystem. In 2014, a new passerelle (raised pedestrian and shuttle way) replaced the old problematic causeway.
Today, the unhurried 35-minute walk along the passerelle above the sand and water was for us the most magical part of experiencing le Mont Saint Michel. We watched the Mont go from gray triangle on the horizon to amazing romantic village. On our day, passing little clouds floated shadows over the stone walls and pinnacles.
Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims from all over the world have come to the Abbey to pay their respects to Saint-Michel. The first Benedictine monks settled on Mont Saint-Michel in 966 and converted some of the dwellings into a monastery. In 1791, the monks were driven out by the French Revolution, only returning in 1966 to celebrate the monastic millennium. Since 2001, two bodies of monks and nuns from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem live in Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and deal with the running of the Abbey and daily services. (source)
The cult of Saint Michael goes back to the 5th century AD. In Italy, the Monte Gargano is a site dedicated to St Michael recognised since the end of Antiquity, before the cult of the archangel extended to the whole of medieval Western Europe. Michael was the leader of the heavenly body of angels. In the Bible, he plays a major role in the Book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament. This text tells the story of Michael’s fight against the demon, represented in the form of a dragon. Helped by his angels, Michael managed to restrain the beast, which he tossed into the abyss. (source)
We’ve heard comments like, “The village streets are all tourist shops and mediocre restaurants,” and “You climb all those steps up the abbey if you really want.”
There is indeed one street that overflows with tourist stuff, but not really more than other high-profile places, like la Cité de Carcassonne. You just go with the flow, and try not to buy yet another t-shirt, nor any cookies. You try.
Despite the 350 steps up to the top of the abbey…
…we thought, “We’re here. Why not? Probably nice views from up there.”
Indeed there are.
The highest tides in continental Europe are found at Mont Saint-Michel, reaching a difference of up to 15 metres between low and high tide. During high tides, the sea withdraws 15 kilometres from the coast and rises very quickly. (source)
And there are all sorts of grand and interesting spaces in the abbey complex. Spending some time here lets you ponder the lives that came to this place, on pilgrimage, centuries ago — and last week.
On our way back to the mainland, we couldn’t resist repeated gazes back to Le Mont Saint Michel.
Lunch in a restaurant amid all the tourist shops. Nice fresh oysters, followed by some average (but filling!) food.