Mont-Saint-Michel is an island fortress rising above the vast sands in Normandy, northwestern France. The sight is loved by tourists – it is visited by about 3 million people a year (more interest is shown only to Paris). At Mont Saint-Michel, you can see the powerful tides with your own eyes, walk through ancient streets and admire stunning views.
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Video: Mont Saint-Michel
At high tide, this place becomes an island that is almost completely cut off from the mainland. Only the causeway, built in the late 19th century, retains its connection to the abbey. At low tide, the water recedes and the area of Mont Saint-Michel becomes a regular part of the mainland. The walls, cliff and abbey buildings create a coherent impression. The height from mean sea level to the top of the church spire is 170 m.
The castle of Mont Saint-Michel will seem familiar to many people: it was the prototype of the fortress in the movie “Lord of the Rings”. The object appeared not for defensive purposes and not for the entertainment of the nobility – it was founded as a monastery. The ancient castle has seen monarchs and military cannonade, and the discontent of the people during the revolution. Mont Saint-Michel is considered impregnable – it has survived three English sieges and did not submit even during the 30-year siege. Since ancient times and until today it is a place of world pilgrimage.
Mont Saint-Michel Castle at low tide Mont Saint-Michel at high tide
Creation of the fortress
The battle between the archangel Michael and the dragon. Miniature from the Magnificent Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry. Early fifteenth century. At the foot of the abbey, a village is depicted at low tide.
The history of Mont Saint-Michel dates back to 708. The Benedictine monks were fascinated by the granite island of Mont-Tomb – so they decided to build a chapel on the cliff. The name is associated with a medieval legend: the bishop was commanded to erect a church by the Archangel Michael. He came three times, but the clergyman doubted the validity of the sign. Then the Archangel knocked the bishop on the head with his finger, and only then did the construction begin.
Guillaume de Volpiano, a very famous man, was appointed architect. He had been brought up by Benedictine monks and had built more than one monastery. But the structure was a unique construction: it could not be extended horizontally, so the emphasis was put on vertical construction. Some rooms overhang the rock on special platforms. It was not easy to deliver granite from the neighboring islands for the construction. Roads, quicksand and high tides interfered with the construction.
In 966, the Benedictine monastery in honor of St. Michael appeared there. At the foot of the monastery a settlement of fishermen arose, because pilgrims had to be accepted and fed, and the local monks needed household services. But the construction of the fortress continued until the XVII century: walls and towers appeared. The abbey became a powerful structure, combining religious and military architecture. The island-fortress had an important strategic importance. During the Centennial War, Mont Saint-Michel was considered a reliable French outpost – it did not succumb to the enemy.
Mont Saint-Michel in the 18th century
In 1790, during the French Revolution, the monastery ceased to exist – the monks were expelled, and the island was called “Freedom Mountain. The castle became a prison where inveterate criminals were sent. The people nicknamed Mont Saint-Michel the “provincial Bastille. Prisoners were held in stone cages where they could not rise to their full height. The chains of slaves jingled with every step. But pilgrims still came – a chapel was created especially for them.
Since 1863 began a new phase in the history of Mont Saint-Michel. The castle opened its doors, but now for tourists. In 1874, the Benedictines returned and founded a new abbey. At the end of the XIX century began the restoration of the complex, which continues to this day. It is possible to visit half of the rooms of the abbey, access to the rest is closed. The rooms that are not of interest to visitors are occupied by the monks.
Railroad laid out in the early 20th century to serve the Chateau of Mont Saint-Michel in 1900
Tricks of the sea
An interesting feature of the area is the tides. The change occurs once every lunar day – after 24 hours and 50 minutes. The tides are considered the strongest in Europe and second highest on the planet. In terms of speed, they are even compared to a horse galloping. But this is mistaken: the maximum tide “speeds” up to 6 km / h, and the average speed of a horse is from 21 to 60 km / h. Because of the shallow depths and flat day, the sea “runs away” to 15-20 km from the castle, and then returns.
The city inside the castle The flooded dyke of Mont Saint-Michel
The “games” of water allowed the castle of Mont Saint-Michel to remain impregnable. Enemy ships could get close to the island, but would run aground during the departure of the sea. An inhospitable welcome awaited the infantry as well. First, it was necessary to move on quicksand, and then the tide came and the enemy sank. Fog, a frequent phenomenon in these parts, also served as natural protection of the fortress. Local fishermen were guided by the sound of the bell, which was rung specifically for the lost. Enemies were simply lost in the thick darkness.
In the nineteenth century, Mont Saint-Michel lost its impregnability. To connect the site with the mainland, a dam was built. But it disrupted the circulation of water in the bay, and the unfavorable environmental situation in the bay forced to look for an alternative. Soon, the dam will be removed, and a bridge will be built in its place. In March 2015, due to an eclipse of the sun, the tide was so high that it flooded the dike as well. The height of the water reached 14 meters – that’s almost a 5-story building. Such a phenomenon occurs about once every 20 years – on the days of the spring or summer equinox.
Mont Saint-Michel meets guests
The complex already fascinates from afar. It proudly occupies the top of the cliff, and the end of the spire is crowned with a golden figure of the Archangel. The walls are impressively thick. Travelers get inside through the protruding gate of the fortress wall – the Royal Gate. With the development of artillery their design changed its shape. After all, until the beginning of the 16th century cannons were shot with cannonballs, and then – with shells.
This place unites two towns. The first is the settlement of Mont Saint-Michel. There is a town hall, stores, a parish church and a cemetery. The way goes along the main street of the Grand Rue. It is occupied by old houses of the XV-XVI centuries, which are tightly pressed to each other. Premises are occupied by souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes. Residents of this town (about 30 people) not only work in the service sector, but also devote time to agriculture. In the town there are several museums, which will add to the knowledge of tourists about the fortress. You can watch educational films, see ancient objects and “sketches” on a medieval theme with wax figures, look at models of ships of different eras.
The second town is more “spiritual,” monastic. From the settlement to the abbey there is a climb up the southern slope of the mountain. There is a heavier road that does not cover the main street and museums. One must turn left after the post office. A steep path will lead directly into the gardens. This is the only place on the island where you can have a picnic in the shade. Another path goes through the stairs, which are located on the right – near the Royal Gate. Tourists climb the steps to get a glimpse of the magnificent view. The stairs provide easy access to the fortress walls and the tower. The third way leads through the bustling town – the main road with souvenir shops and restaurants. This road is suitable for those who have time.
Mont Saint-Michel Gardens Cemetery Royal Gate
Life in Mont Saint-Michel revolves around the abbey. It was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. The complex is a fortified monastery and covers about 55 thousand square meters. In order not to get lost, tourists take a brochure with information about the attraction at the entrance. To move from the lower level of the monastery to the upper one, one must climb the Grand Staircase between the rock and the monks’ dwelling. This leads guests to the West Terrace in front of the church. This temple is located on the top of the mountain. It was built in the Romanesque style in the early XI century. It is true that there was not enough space on the rock, and so the temple rests on the first church. Over the years the structure has been repeatedly exposed to destruction, suffered from fires, the main tower was struck by lightning. The building was supplemented with elements of classicism, gothic and neo-Romanesque style. The church is crowned with a spire of Archangel Michael, which acts as a lightning rod.
To the left of the church, if you face the facade, is La Merwei – “The Miracle”. The three-story complex is an architectural masterpiece of Medieval Gothic. La Merwei fits on a narrow rock and therefore, unlike the local buildings, it has a vertical structure.
The Refectory Knight’s Hall
The eastern wing of the Miracle housed the refectory for the monks, a room for accommodation and meals for the poorest pilgrims and a place to receive high-profile guests. The western wing was used as a pantry and the Knights’ Hall. It was where the monks spent much of their time working and studying. Books and manuscripts were copied there. The northern part of the Miracle had to be strengthened with buttresses, but it did not spoil the building – on the contrary, it turned out a delightful artistic effect. And Victor Hugo, admiring the Miracle from the sea, noted: “This is the view of the most beautiful wall in Europe.
The Counterforts of the “Miracle” The Cloister of the Cross
An unforgettable walk on the top floor of La Merwei will be unforgettable. Here is the covered gallery that overlooks the ocean. The observation deck is known as the “garden between heaven and earth”. Completing the experience are the limestone statues that adorn the gallery.
There is an older church here, Notre-Dame-sous-Terre. This structure dates back to the 10th century. At first the building was in the open air. Later it was decided to add vaults to the church, and then it was turned into a tomb.
Around all the constructions of the island there are powerful fortress walls and watchtowers. These defensive structures were erected in the XV century. The towers do not tower over the walls – they are protected by them. The loopholes once housed bombardas – huge cannons of the Middle Ages.
The picturesque nature of the bay
Many tourists flock to Mont Saint-Michel to enjoy the magnificent view of the water from the medieval walls. The bay, with its vast expanse without vegetation, resembles a desert. The tranquility here is illusory and dangerous. Behind the natural beauty there are powerful tides, fogs, thunderstorms and many danger zones.
At high tide, the waves travel several kilometers. At the same time the bay is considered a nature reserve – it is home to about 200 species of inhabitants. Fertile silt attracts ducks and other birds that feed on it. In the waters of the bay is born about 100 species of fish. The place is also attractive to seals, which breed here. Each year about 10 thousand mussels are raised here. Although plants cover about 1% of the area, thousands of sheep graze here.
Lunch within the walls of the fortress
If you plan to stay overnight, grab a small lunch. Lunch during the day is not difficult: snack bars, burger shops, and pancake houses are available to travelers. Restaurants of Breton cuisine are open. The menu includes meat dishes, seafood and salads. In the evening, the establishments are closed. Be sure to try the local omelet. A seemingly simple dish, but its fame resounded throughout the world. In the past, it was served to pilgrims, who always appeared unexpectedly. Today it is served to tourists. The recipe for the omelet is still a secret.
Keeping up with the schedule
A trip to Mont Saint-Michel is better not to plan for summer – at this time there are too many tourists, and therefore it will be difficult to enjoy an extraordinary view from the walls of the abbey. The weather in this part of France is affected by harsh Atlantic winds. It’s chilly here – you need warmer clothes than sundresses and sandals.
Be sure to check the tide tables. Then you can find a good time for a photo hunt. The tide comes out of the blue: a few minutes ago the sea was splashing around and the sand started to come in. It seems to be harmless. But when you step on the surface, it turns out that the sand is treacherously shaky. It has a special structure: mixed with seawater, it becomes viscous, and when it dries – dense, so rare tourists are willing to risk a walk in the bay, without checking the “schedule” of the sea.
Mont Saint-Michel at dusk Lookout
People, having created a dam 2 km long, “stole” from Mont Saint-Michel an unusual look. Now it is a real island only a few times a year. Then particularly strong tides flood even the surface of the dam. But usually raging elements do not disturb cars, so the number of tourists only increases. However, to the top of the cliff, where the ancient church and monastery is located, only one-third of visitors reach.
Many choose to stay in the sacred place for several days. There are small hotels in the abbey where travelers stay. In the evening, the corners of the castle are free of noisy tourists. One can inhale in plenty of the salty, intoxicating air of Mont Saint-Michel and catch the magical moment of the coming of the tide. The abbey is beautifully lit, but the walls are illuminated only by the glow of lanterns. Guests are offered night tours of the fortress. At this time the halls of the monastery are empty, the main street becomes less busy – you can leisurely get acquainted with the architectural features of the abbey.
The Mont Saint-Michel fortress also has its opening hours. In May and summer the abbey opens from 9 am. The last tourists are allowed on the territory until 6pm. The rest of the time shifts: from 9:30 to 17:00. But if the tide prevents access to the site, the opening times change. On holidays, Mont Saint-Michel “rests”: January 1, May 1, and December 25.
In the pavilion of the protruding gate, stop by the Tourist Information Center. It will provide information about the site, as well as a tide schedule. The cost of a visit is 8.50 euros. You can use the audio guide, but then the entrance will cost 12.50 euros. There are tours for visitors: twice an hour – in French, twice a day – in English.
Tourists walking to the castle View of the abbey
How to get there
From the capital to the island-fortress is 285 km. Tourists rush here by train, bus and their cars. The way to Rennes by train costs 55,8 EUR. Then you need to take a bus, which leaves directly from the railway station and reach your destination. The ticket costs 11,4 EUR. The whole trip will take just over three hours. Towards the abbey, tickets are purchased from the cashier, and on the return trip from the driver. Brown “Landmark” signs are a great help to tourists.
The location of the island-rock does not allow buses and cars to approach directly to the site. Transport is parked a few kilometers away from the site. There is a narrow path to the abbey, so the rest of the way tourists make their way on foot or use special buses that run here. Previously the peculiarities of the road did not even allow them to turn around. Because of this, the vehicle has two entrances, just like the subway cars – on the sides. Now the path is slightly widened.
Mont Saint-Michel is an architectural marvel of France
Mont Saint-Michel is both an island in the bay of Saint-Michel and a medieval abbey. In addition, it is one of the most attractive attractions in France. 2.5 million people visit the place every year.
Standing majestically on the very top of the rocky island, Saint-Michel Abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the abbey that gives the island of Mont Saint-Michel such an unusual and attractive appearance. It is not for nothing that it is called the “Pyramid of the Seas”.
The abbey looks more like a fortified castle. It is surrounded by strong walls and impregnable bastions. It’s probably one of the most impressive churches in the Gothic style. From afar, especially at high tide, Mont Saint-Michel appears to be an island of fantasy with its Gothic temple hovering 155 meters above the bay.
Incidentally, it is at high tide that it can be called an island.
Île Saint-Michel at high tide
But at low tide, you can walk to Mont Saint-Michel on a sandy beach. The water recedes quite far from the coast.
This is what Mont Saint-Michel looks like at low tide
Did you know that on Chandipur Beach in India, the tide takes the water away from the shore for five kilometers. And the tide swallows up the beach completely. That’s why it’s often called the Vanishing and Emerging Beach.
Saint-Michel Abbey was founded on October 16, 709 by Bishop Aubert of Avranches. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to him and indicated this place to build a monastery. In 966 the Benedictine community settled on the rock. A full-fledged church appeared there only in the 11th century. It became an important pilgrimage site for the faithful.
Interesting fact – because of its inspiring peace of mind, Mont Saint-Michel is sometimes called the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would come here on foot and cross the bay at low tide. And sometimes they were met by treacherous quicksand or unexpected tides.
Getting here from Paris is now easier. But it’s not an easy way to get here. Travel to Mont Saint-Michel takes about 3.5 hours. First you have to get to the city of Rennes by train. Then about another 1 hour by bus.
It is best to plan a visit to Mont Saint-Michel for at least one day. Then you will have time to fully explore the monastery, its refectory, bastions and fortress walls. You can see how the tides rapidly change the surrounding landscape and turn sandy expanses into water.
Do you want to know about the vanishing road? Then be sure to read about the Passage du Goût road. It’s the one about which they say that this road sinks twice a day.
A great way to book a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel directly from Paris. It usually includes a direct transfer from and to the capital. And of course you can stay here overnight either in the village by the abbey or in hotels on the mainland.
Mont Saint-Michel Abbey
This abbey is also called “La Merveille” (which means “the miracle”). And it really was a true architectural marvel of the Middle Ages. And the miracle is not only in architectural terms, but also in terms of delivery here of building materials. It is known that some people died trying to overcome the way to the island at low tide.
However, despite all the technical difficulties, the abbey was nevertheless completed between the 11th and 13th centuries. As a result, you and I are witnessing an exquisite and amazing Gothic temple.
Mont Saint-Michel Abbey
To get to the abbey, tourists and pilgrims must start from the old gate. Then go through a small village and climb to the top of the hill. Then follow the 350 steps up the Grand Staircase (Grand-Degre). They end right at the entrance to the abbey.
On the lower level you will see a cozy garden and a spacious hall. In the 13th century this hall was a shelter for pilgrims. On the middle tier is the vaulted Knights’ Hall. This is where the noble knights were received. The most stunning part of the abbey is on the second level. Here you see the monasteries, the refectory, and the abbey church. The whole architectural ensemble forms a quiet monastic setting. There are as many as 220 beautiful granite columns in the monasteries.
The inside of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel The columns of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel
The beautiful Eglise Saint-Michel (abbey church) was founded as early as 1020. Here you’ll see a Romanesque nave and a lavishly decorated 15th-century Gothic choir. The sanctuary will amaze you with its breathtaking beauty and inspiring atmosphere. The Escalier de Dentelle leads from the abbey church to the terrace. The terrace offers an incredible view of the sea.
An interesting fact is that the Abbey, during the French Revolution, was used as a prison until the end of the 19th century.
Bastions of Mont Saint-Michel
The whole area of the island is a pedestrian zone. Most of the buildings were built in the 13th-16th centuries. Classic for the Middle Ages, the island is surrounded by massive fortress walls and bastions. They naturally served to protect against attacks from outside.
The walls and bastions of Mont Saint-Michel
An interesting fact – the walls and bastions were built during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). It is thanks to these structures Mont Saint-Michel was able to withstand a siege by English troops for almost 30 years.
To enjoy the amazing views, be sure to walk along the “Chemin des Remparts”. This is the name of the path along the fortress walls.
The fortress walls of Mont Saint-Michel
To get to the fortress walls you have to walk about 2 km from the town of La Cazerne across the Passerelle bridge along the causeway to the parking lot at the foot of the rock. Remember that sometimes the tide even reaches the parking lot. Then through the main entrance you get to the fortress bastions.
From almost all points of the fortress walls you can see picturesque panoramas of the surroundings.
View of Mont Saint-Michel from above
Rue Grand Rue
The only street on the island that runs beside the ramparts. This paved walkway leads visitors through the medieval village of Mont Saint-Michel. Tourists enter the island through the Old Brig, which now houses a travel agency. Then pass through the Boulevard Gate and the Royal Gate. Behind them begins the Gran Rue.
This enchanted street is surrounded by stone houses built back in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of them now house souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes and hotels.
In this street you will find the Church of St. Peter in the 15th century. You’ll also see a multimedia show called Archeoscope. It focuses on the history of the abbey and the island of Mont Saint-Michel.
Don’t miss the History Museum with its collections of antique weapons, clocks, sculptures and paintings. In this museum, you’ll get a glimpse of life in the Mont Saint-Michel abbey.
It’s also worth stopping by the House of Tifany. It was built in 1365 by the knight Bertrand du Gesquelin for his wife Tiffany. It is now a museum where you will see well-preserved antique furniture and other medieval objects. Grand Rue ends at the Grand Staircase (Grand-Degre), which goes to the entrance of the abbey.
The Horned Lane
It is also called Watchman’s Alley. It is the smallest street of Mont Saint-Michel. It is so narrow that an animal with horns cannot pass here. Hence the name. To get to this street, you must go along the Grand Rue and turn left before the hotel La Croix Blanche.
This is what Horned Street looks like in Mont Saint-Michel. It will be hard to see.
By the way, let us remind you about Ebenezer Place, the smallest street in the world. Its length is measured literally in centimeters.
A pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel
In addition to tourists, Mont Saint-Michel is also visited by religious pilgrims. The main pilgrimages take place in late July and late September for St. Michael’s Day. A solemn service is held here on the following Sunday for St. Michael’s Day. On Saint Michael’s Day (September 29), morning prayers are held in the island’s churches.
Hotel La Mere Poulard
This is a legendary hotel on Mont Saint-Michel. It was founded in 1888 by Annette and Victor Poulard. Annette was only 20 years old at the time, but she was an excellent cook and was affectionately known as La Mere Poulard (Mama Poulard).
The hotel welcomed pilgrims and tourists who fell in love with La Mere Poulard’s famous cuisine. Today it is not only a hotel, but also the restaurant and a small cafe with the same name. The restaurant and cafe at the hotel serves a specialty – omelet. Besides La Mere Poulard is famous for its fine cookies. They are made with the best Norman butter.
La Mere Poulard