And I wandered, surprised as if I had discovered the habitation of a god through these rooms carried by light or heavy columns, through these corridors pierced by day, raising my eyes amazed on those bells that seem like rockets gone to the sky and on all this incredible entanglement of turrets, gargoyles, svelte and charming ornaments, fireworks of stone, lace of granite, masterpiece of colossal and delicate architecture. – The Legend of Mont Saint-Michel, by Guy de Maupassant.
There is something magical, mystical, and mythical about Mont Saint-Michel. Like the Eiffel Tower, its iconic silhouette represents France. The flat, linear horizon contrasts to the vertical, craggy island topped with ancient man-made structures. Out of the vast and ever-changing tidal salt marsh, a rocky mound is crowned by a spire rising up into the immense sky. That is Mont Saint-Michel.
Driving from Bayeux, Mont Saint-Michel was about a one hour drive on a mix of highway and small, two-lane roads through flat farmland. Towards the end of the drive, as you pass by fields of corn and golden wheat , out in the distance, you can get a glimpse of the mount with its spire.
From what we had read before visiting, very recent changes have been made to visitor parking and entry to the site. Before 2014, a causeway built in the 19th century lead tourists and cars to the base of the Mount. Tourists literally parked their cars in the mud flats around the perimeter of the little island. But after a $175 million dollar overhaul, a new dam to protect the island was created as well as an incredible new bridge leading to the island which only allows pedestrians and shuttle buses. There is also a visitor center near the new parking lots (car park) with clean restrooms. On the day we visited, we found ample parking (for a fee) and took the free shuttle bus….there is also the option of taking a horse-drawn carriage for a more “historic” experience. It was very hot and humid on our visit and while the shuttle bus was packed shoulder to shoulder and without any AC, I can’t imagine that riding behind a smelly horse on a slow, forcefully quaint ride would be any better. The shuttle bus had us from the parking lot to the bottom of the Mount in about 10 minutes.
Besides looking really cool (almost Playmobil-like) the shuttle buses have been cleverly designed to have two driver seats…one on each end of the bus. As the new bridge leading to the Mount is very long and narrow with nowhere to turn around, the bus is designed to allow the driver to get out upon arriving and walk to the other end to drive the bus back to the parking area.
As I mentioned, Mont Saint-Michel lies in a tidal marsh. At one point in time, the base of the Mount was a full 4 miles from the shore. The only way for pilgrims to reach the island was to trek across the gray mud at low tide….which could prove dangerous, as it does to this day. High tide can come in very quickly at a rate of 200 linear feet per minute and up to 45 feet in-depth (this usually happens at new and full moons). During low tides, the sand, which is more like clay, can act like quicksand and trap and immobilize you. In 1318, eighteen pilgrims drowned in the bay and twelve more died after being trapped in the quicksand. To this day, tourists who do not heed the advice of signage and fail to hire expert guides, get stuck and must be rescued.
The history of Mont Saint Michel goes back 1,300 years to 708 A.D. when St. Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, began having dreams in which the Archangel Michel (Michael) told the Bishop to go to the Mount and build a church in his honor. Apparently, the Bishop was rather stubborn and ignored the dream…only to have the dream occur two more times. Legend has it that Archangel Michel got really annoyed that St. Aubert was ignoring the dream, so he touched the Bishop on his head and burned a hole in his skull! This was enough to literally wake St. Aubert up and get started on building the church, which was completed by 709.
Some 200 years later, in 966, a group of Benedictine monks were sent by the Duke of Normandy to set up a community on the island. Benedictine monks do not take a vow of silence, but they do pledge obedience, stability and conversion in the way of life. Benedictine Monks could come from any part of society: rich, poor, peasant or nobleman. Known for their black cloaks, their days were spent reading the Bible, meditating, praying and laboring to maintain the monastery (cleaning, cooking, gardening, feeding hungry pilgrims, etc). The Benedictine Monks of this time were also the only active scholars. Besides recording the contemporary events happening around them (for the sake of posterity) they were also kept busy copying books long before mass printing was invented.
By the 11th century, with the help of Italian craftsmen, the Monks had built a Romanesque abbey church at the top of the mount. The abbey continued to grow in popularity and more and more pilgrims made their way to Mont Saint-Michele. Houses made of wood were built at the bottom of the mountain to accommodate the pilgrims (old school Motel 6’s), and food stalls and souvenir sellers sold their wares in the narrow lane leading up to the Abbey atop the island.
With further donations from various kings, the monks continued to build atop the mount, expanding the size of the Abbey and constructing a refectory (where they ate meals), dormitories (where they slept), as well as work rooms and places to receive the pilgrims and the needy. In 1103, the north side of the nave collapsed followed by a dramatic fire ten years later. In the early 1400’s, the original Romanesque abbey was mostly re-built in the new Gothic style.
Mont Saint-Michel survived the Hundred Years War with no siege by the English. During this time, walls and military constructions had to be made to fortify the island. But after many decades of weathering storms and ebbs and slows of monetary funding, the Abbey and its surrounding buildings began to show their age. In the middle to late 18th century, the Monks left the crumbling island and it was turned into a prison (much like the infamous Alcatraz may centuries later) during the French Revolution. In 1863, the prison was closed and the French government took possession of Mont Saint-Michel and realized the importance of the place, protecting and restoring it over many years.
On the day of our visit, there was a police presence at the base of the island in light of France’s high terror alert, but given the sense of being trapped on an island once you enter the gates, I found it re-assuring. We avoided the masses headed towards the main gate and took the advice from travel books that suggested going to the police gate to begin the ascent to the top. It’s free to enter Mont Saint-Michel…you can climb up to the base of the Abbey for no charge, but to enter the Abbey and make it to the very top, you must pay an entrance fee.
Believe it, or not, but not every visitor to Mont Saint-Michel pays to go through the Abbey and make their way to the top. Many are happy to walk half-way up the Mont and then spend their time in the tourist shops buying the tacky mementos or eating at one of the several restaurants. So wandering around the maze of rooms in the Abbey, you can find yourself alone amongst the stone arches and shadowed corners. One of the things that I appreciated was the lack of any period furniture that many historic sites have. Given that this place has been around for 1300 years…how do you choose one time period to be represented? In my opinion, the empty rooms emphasize the beautiful bones of the place…you can appreciate the architecture…and there is a sense of timelessness.
Even after several hours, we weren’t ready to leave. I could have spent days just staring at Mont Saint-Michel and wandering around the place. I think it is as impressive from the bottom looking up as it is looking down from above. It’s a magical place. Beyond unique.
After our descent, we walked around the salt marsh, careful not to go too far or walk in anything too soft. And then we took the shuttle bus back to the parking area where you must pay the parking fee before leaving the lot. And off we drove back to Bayeux, with the little Mont fading away in the distance.
I went to it the next day at dawn, through the sands, my eye on this monstrous jewel, as big as a mountain, chiseled like a cameo and vaporous like a muslin. The closer I approached, the more I felt raised in admiration, for nothing in the world perhaps is no more astonishing and perfect. – The Legend of Mont Saint-Michel, by Guy de Maupassant