I challenge you to walk away from Mont-Saint-Michel and not look back. You will find it an impossible feat.
The medieval icon dares you to depart. It commands your gaze from miles away and once you arrive ensnares your imagination after you’ve migrated within its walls. When I exited, I continued to turn back to get another glimpse of this beguiling mass of granite, gold and gall that had first caught my attention 12 years ago when I read about it in a magazine.
Mont-Saint-Michel is one of those places. A revered attraction whose allure has been built for centuries and made all the more legendary because it requires some commitment to reach. It took me three trains and more than four hours to make it to this spot that had been lingering on my bucket list like an itch.
Seeing it didn’t disappoint. Not in the least.
The walls of Mont-Saint-Michel date to before the 10th century — this fact alone makes it an extraordinary place to visit. Featuring a towering cathedral and soaring monolithic spire with a golden statue of Archangel Michael on top, the site is a wonder. A series of narrow cobblestone walkways lead up to steps upon steps that keep you climbing as if you were aiming to ascend heaven at that moment.
Visitors are able to access the famed abbey and walk around the town inside the walls of Mont-Saint-Michel. Similar to Old Quebec City, this fortified village is touristy but in a pleasant way. You will find bars, creperies, expensive restaurants, souvenir shops and all kinds of sweets for sale. Small as it is, the fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel is still a residential town. There’s a cemetery, a few offices and a population of 50, according to the 2015 census in France.
Medieval History and Gothic Architecture in France
Reaching Mont-Saint-Michel used to be hazardous, if not undoable. The islet upon which the cathedral is built juts out into water as if it were a giant trophy on a mantelpiece. The Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel once surrounded the fortress. But a dam has been built, slowing the flow of water from the Cousenon River into the bay and preventing the moat from forming, on most days. The tide coming in from the Atlantic Ocean usually recedes more than 9 miles (15 kilometers), but there are about 30 days a year when the water rises and Mont-Saint-Michel becomes an island again. For most of the year, however, the coast is wondrously clear and a recently built causeway allows buses to bring visitors within a short walk of the gates. You will notice many barefooted people clomping in the muddy ground between the fortress and Tomblaine Island, an uninhabited speck of land in the middle of the bay. Traditionally, pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago made it to the sanctuary by crossing the bay in this direction. Pilgrims and other tourists replicate the march daily.
The large shuttle buses, called passeurs, offer free rides and they are frequent, departing every 15 minutes from 7 am until after midnight. The buses pick up passengers at spots along the main road that cuts through the town of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, which is outside of the walls and is a different experience from the town that is inside the fortress. I visited on the eve of Bastille Day, which brought a boisterous atmosphere to the lightly populated region. Ironic, given that the French Revolution caused much damage to the cathedral and village, but these days Mont-Saint-Michel is enjoying a revival in interest, following a 10-year renovation project and added infrastructure such as the buses and causeway.
Outside of the walls, you will find additional accommodations, as well as restaurants, shops and other tourist fare. Both the walled city and the external town are worth spending time in, though it is the life within the fortress — past and present — that you will most want to explore.
A prison in the 19th century, Mont-Saint-Michel has had a tumultuous, sometimes wicked, past, as you might expect from a place that has endured eras considered among the worst periods in human history. According to legend, it even had a violent beginning. A myth says Archangel Michael, for whom the fortress and area are named, commanded a priest in the early 8th century to build a sanctuary and church on the rocky mountain that is 260 feet (80 meters) above the sea. The priest twice ignored the order, which came to him in a vision, and Michael did what archangels apparently do when they don’t get their wish: He used his finger to burn a hole in the priest’s skull, getting his point across more tangibly.
Soon afterwards, the priest, who would become Saint Aubert, began construction of the monastic sanctuary. A dramatic wall sculpture of Michael and Aubert is in the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey, one of many art pieces visitors will find fascinating.
A night show occurs often during the summer and choir groups occasionally perform concerts. Such artistic endeavors demonstrate Mont-Saint-Michel’s wealth of history as well as its commitment to remaining culturally current, too.
And that’s all the more reason to contemplate a visit to this epic attraction certain to convince you it has a magnetic energy amid all of its marble, stone and rock. A force intent on summoning you back.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MONT-SAINT-MICHEL
Getting There: The most convenient way to reach Mont-Saint-Michel is by train. The stop is Pontoroson station. From there, you can take a local transit bus (2.80 euro fare; about $3.20 USD) that carries you (6.5 miles (10 kilometers) into the town of Le Mont-Saint-Michel or to within a half-mile of the walled city. Free shuttle buses, called passeurs, run from 7 am til past midnight each day, picking up passengers from as far as 1.3 miles (2 kilometres) away from the walls.
Where to Stay: I booked my stay at Le Relais du Roy, a comfortable hotel within a mile of the walls. From the balcony of my room, I had a terrific view of the attraction. I used the hotel’s online booking engine to secure a “last-minute deal” rate of 83 euro (about $95 USD) per night.
Where to Dine: Le Relais du Roy also has a fine restaurant. The plates are beautifully presented and the food is good and inexpensive (a three-course meal cost less than 20 euro, or $45), though there were a couple of culinary mistakes: the chicken breast was too tough and the dessert — a chocolate gateaux — was overly sweet, when it should have been subtle and textured. Les Nouvelles Terrase, one of the many restaurants on Grand Rue inside the walls, sells large portions of moules frites (mussels and fries) for 11.90 euro (about $13.75). La Mere Poulard is the large restaurant and hotel with the red awning inside the gates of the fortress. It will tempt you because it is the only true fine-dining experience inside the walls, but it is terribly overpriced and the food quality is awful. You might still want to go for a special night out, but stick to the traditional omelettes. I paid 52 euro (about $60) for a Brittany-style lobster tail that was so saturated with butter and cream it made me nauseous.
Entrance: There is no fee to enter Mont-Saint-Michel fortress.
Tours: English language tours of the abbey take place multiple times daily and cost 9 euro (about $10.30) per person. Tickets can be purchased at the abbey entrance, where the 75-minute tours begin.
Museums: There are four museums on site and tickets can be purchased at the entrance of each of them. If you want to see all four museums, you can buy a discounted ticket that gets you into each one during your stay.
More Info: The Mont-Saint-Michel tourism website can provide additional details for your trip.