Mont Saint Michel is a can’t-miss destination for any visitor to Normandy or Brittany. If you’re traveling through the area, you literally can’t miss it. The spectacular island castle, with its Gothic spire of the abbey reaching 515 feet high, dominates the surrounding landscape. Mont Saint Michel can be seen from miles away in sharp contrast to the flat pastures surrounding it.
The small island, on the border of Normandy and Brittany in France, has a population of about forty and draws over three million tourists and pilgrims every year. The destination, a world UNESCO site since 1979, is best known for it’s well preserved Abbey of Saint Michel. Mont Saint Michel can get crowded, but it’s still well worth a visit. I went to see the castle on a chilly, windy day in late March and the shops were crowded then, so I can imagine what they would be like in July.
Le Mont Saint Michel is entered through the King’s Gate which opens onto the Grande Rue, or main street. The Grande Rue is lined with shops, museums, and places of residence dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There are plenty of places to buy souvenirs or grab a bite to eat.
After making your way past the tourist shops of the Grande Rue you come to the Grande Degre, or Grand Staircase, that leads to the abbey. The walk up the staircase is broken up by small gardens with places to rest.
The Grande Degre leads you to the Marvel, the buildings of the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel. There is still a monastic community at the abbey and mass is held every day except Monday. Entry to the abbey is free during mass, but there is a fee of nine euro otherwise (kids are free). During the Middle Ages, the abbey was considered a representation of Paradise.
For those interested in the architecture of Mont Saint Michel, there are architectural models representing the development of the island castle from it’s founding in 708 to the golden statue being places on the spire in 1897.
While exploring the abbey, a huge pulley can be seen that was used to pull up supplies when it was being used as a prison during the French Revolution. That human powered pulley, used in the early nineteenth century, is actually a replica of the original that pulled building materials up to the site during construction of the abbey.
When leaving via the rampart path, you can enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding bay and pastures.
HISTORY OF MONT SAINT MICHEL
– The Romans abandoned the island in 460 AD
– During the 6th and 7th centuries the island, then called Monte Tombe, was used as a stronghold of Romano-Breton culture until the Franks took it.
– The first church was built on the site in 709 when, as legend has it, the Archangel Michel appeared to the Bishop of Avranche and instrusted him to build the sanctuary.
– In 966 the Benedictines settled the abbey. Before the year 1000, a pre-Romanesque church was built at the request of the Duke of Normandy.
-In 1067 the monestary gave its support to William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with property on the English side of the channel. One of the islands was modeled after Mont Saint Michel and became know as Saint Michel’s Mount.
– In the the 12th century, Philip Augustus, King of France, conquered Normandy and gave the Monestary a large donation enabling them to add two three-story buildings topped by the cloister and refectory.
– During the Hundred Years War (1336-1453) the castle served as an impregnable fort and resisted repeated assualts by the English.
– The Romanesque chancel (space around the altar for the clergy) was replaced by a flamboyant Gothic chancel in 1421.
– Following the French Revolution (1789) until 1863 the abbey was used as a prison.
– Classified as a historic monument in 1874, the site underwent a major restoration that has continued over time.
– Road access was constructed in 1879
– In 1966 a religious community moved back into the abbatial dwellings.
– 1979, Mont Saint Michel was designated a world UNESCO site.
– 2001, Friars and sisters of Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem moved in.
Official Tourism website of Le Mont Saint Michel