One kilometre off the French coast lies a small rocky, cone-shaped island in Normandy called Mont Saint Michel, one of the most mesmerising and romantic places on the planet, I have visited. I stayed for two nights.
- My Overall Rating: 87%
- Global Ranking: The “Mount” is the third most popular tourist attraction in France, with over three million annual visitors a year. It is beaten by the Eiffel Tower, and the Palace of Versailles, neither of which should be a surprise! Mount Saint Michel was declared a historic monument way back in 1874 and was designated as one of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1979.
- Why it should be visited: An almost completely unique place on the planet. It is sometimes referred as “The wonder of the Western world”.
- Negatives: Steep steps!
- Would I return?: Yes!
Location and Orientation
Mont St Michel is about 300 kilometres (180 miles) from Paris and 65 kilometres (35 miles) from Rennes. For almost one thousand years, the island was one of three important European pilgrimage centres (along with Rome and Saint Jacques de Compostelle) with people walking to the Mont.
The islet sits in the middle of a large bay which experiences some of Europe’s highest tides. The tides can vary greatly with roughly 14 metres (46 ft) between high and low water marks. The waters are said to sweep in as fast as a galloping horse. It is mesmerising to watch.
The first small church was built on the island in 790 purportedly based on instructions from Archangel Michael. In 966 the Benedictine community moved in and a larger church built.
This monastery supported William the Conqueror in 1067 with his claim for England. They were rewarded with a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which is named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance and is modelled after Mont St Michel. I have been there as well.
By the 12th century, the Romanesque church, monastery buildings and crypts were complete. The 14th century saw military defenses built to protect the abbey from the English during the Hundred Years War. The village surrounding the abbey grew from this time surrounded by the walls built for the 100-year war.
During the French Revolution, it became a prison housing ironically religious prisoners! All religious practices were banned until 1922.
In 1966 a religious community moved back onto the Mont and they live there today. In total, the population of the island is just under 50.
Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor in the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. If you have seen the film, you can see why.
Getting there and getting Around
There are many tours that include a stop in Mont St Michel as well covering the beaches of Normandy.
Many people drive to the Island, park in the car park 2.5 km from the Mount on the mainland. There is a shuttle that takes people 400 metres from the entrance to the island. The car parks must be paid for at the ticket machines near the shuttle bus departure area.
By public transport, you can access the island by bus from Rennes or nearby Dol-de-Bretagne, both of which are stations on the TGV line from Paris MONTPARNASSE. There will be some changes from July 2, 2017 with the opening of the Sud Europ Atlantique high-speed lines with faster trains and new timetables. yourTickets can be booked up to two months in advance and I found a very good fare by booking as far out as I could on the SNCF French Railways website. Eurail passes can be used on the TGV but seats for pass holders are limited and must be booked.
You can fly to Rennes from destinations across continental Europe, Ireland and the UK. It can be a handy way to arrive in France rather than going through Paris.
I arrived in Rennes in the early morning and spent a day exploring that lovely city. I took the 16:13 h bus from there to the Island shuttle area arriving at 17:50. My host was a little cranky because she wanted me to check in by 18:00h!
For the return, I took the 1610 afternoon bus for the 30 minute trip to Dol-de-Bretagne in Brittany from where I caught a connecting TGV back to Paris.
Once on the island, it is foot only. There are many steep stairs and there are no lifts/elevators. Wheelchairs and pushchairs will find it hard to negotiate.
Exploring the Site
The island has a circumference of about 960 metres (3,150 ft) and is 100 hectares (almost 250 acres) in size.
Past the entrance is a single street called Grand Rue which goes through the village and leads up to the Abbey.
This Abbey is a must, even if you feel “Churched out”! If you are on a tour from Paris, make sure that it includes an abbey visit as some skip it. There are free tours of the Abbey itself in English and French. It is not compulsory to take the tour but I do recommend it. There is also an audio guide. Go as early as you can in the morning before the tour buses arrive and book tickets online in advance through tiqts.com as it will help you skip the queues.
Mass is celebrated in the Chapel in the Crypt. Even if you are not a Catholic, grab a free ticket for it as the atmosphere is something else. There is also mass celebrated by the Monastic Fraternity in the Parish Church through the day.
There is a sound and light show in the evenings at the Abbey through the summer.
Walking around the island on the mudflats is a brilliant way to see the whole place.
For safety, book a guided tour through the island’s tourist office because of the tides and the vagaries of the muddy areas. You can also ride horses around the island.
I enjoyed exploring the ramparts on the island and enjoyed the sunset from them. When the day tourists had gone, it was great to feel you had sections of the island to yourself. The lights on the island at night are very pretty. If you walk to the mainland and look back it is a nice sight.
The village is best visited after 3 pm when the crowds and tourist buses have largely gone.
Climate and Weather
The climate is fairly mild. The coldest time of the year is January when the day temperate can reach 6°C (43°F) and the night drops to 2°C (36°F). August is the hottest month with the most daily sunshine hours. Temperatures then reach a high of 21°C (70°F) and low of 13°C (55°F)
Staying and Eating
The island has higher costs for everything due to transport and it being a tourist centre. Restaurants on the island are priced at the high end but quality and service are generally poor. Shop around! I had breakfast included at the hotel and brought my own supplies for lunch.
On the mainland opposite the island are some Restaurants which are cheaper and seemingly better quality than those on the actual island. There are also hotels there which are more modern and also much cheaper than on the island.
The small town of Pontorson nearby has a better range of hotels at even lower prices and some nice French provincial restaurants.
I was determined to stay on the island, however, and got a fantastic place with an amazing view of the bay. It came with an ancient door, free wifi and what seemed like a million stairs! Watching the tide roll in around the island and being on it was quite fun!
Crime and Safety
I did not hear reports of pickpockets on the island or even break-ins of cars left in the car park all day. Take normal precautions.
The biggest safety concern is getting stuck on the mud with the tide galloping in. Also, beware of all those steep stairs across the island.
Amazing, amazing vibe.
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