Mont Saint Michel is a small island off the shore of northwestern France. Although various groups inhabited parts of the island as early as the fourth century or before, at the beginning of the eighth century, Bishop Aubert of Arvanches built the first small chapel on the peak of the island.
Around 966, a group of Benedictine monks came to the island, built a larger church and abbey, and established a monastery. Throughout the years, additional buildings were added. During the French Revolution and for several years after it, the government used the abbey as a prison. In the late 20th century, the abbey was restored and a group of monks and nuns returned to restore the spiritual presence to the island.
We toured the abbey and found it much larger than we imagined it would have been. The chapel – the centerpiece of worship – was simple, yet beautiful. The chapel, abbey, and the cloisters – secluded park-like areas where monks could read their Bibles, pray, and tend their gardens – were built over four crypts that were large enough to support the weight above.
From the beginning, small businesses and homes were built on the lower parts of the island, especially on the southeast side. Eventually, these grew to form a village. Today, the population of the village is less than 50 people and virtually, the only business is tourism. Several hotels, restaurants, and small businesses cater to the two to three million tourists that visit each year.
Arrival and Transportation to the Island
There is no parking on Mont Saint Michel, so visitors staying on the island must park on the mainland and take the shuttle across the causeway that connects the two areas. A large public parking lot is located at the edge of town – a short walk or shuttle ride from the mainland business district. The parking fee of €11.70 includes the shuttle ride to the business district and across the bridge to within about a quarter mile of the island. If you would rather walk, the entire distance is safely walk-able. Another option is to ride in a horse-drawn carriage for and additional €5.30 each direction.
A few hotels can be found in the mainland business district near the causeway. When my daughter and I visited, we chose to stay in one of these hotels. The hotel parking lots are accessible with a special code, and for a fee of €4 (a savings over the regular parking fee). There is a gate near the public parking lot – if you have a code you can go forward to the hotels, if not you must park in the public lot.
Most visitors arrive by car, because public transportation in the area is limited. However, there is a train from nearby Ponterson (fare is about $3 each way). Cyclists can park their bikes in two areas on the mainland – there is no bike parking allowed on the causeway and no parking areas are available on the island.
During the day, Mont Saint Michel is crowded. We visited on a Sunday in early May, and the walks through the village were wall-to-wall people. We made a dinner reservation (see below) and quickly made our way to the abbey. The crowds thinned out by around 6 pm, and the island was a peaceful respite in the evening, although everything except the hotels and restaurants was closed.
We had hoped to eat at La Mere Poulard, a restaurant famous for delicious omelettes, but we were not able to secure a reservation. We had read mixed reviews about the restaurant, but decided to try to eat there anyway. Since we missed the opportunity, we asked for a recommendation for another restaurant on the island. The hostess gave a suggestion, so we quickly walked there to reserve a table for dinner in the evening.
The restaurant looked fine, but unfortunately, the food was terrible. The omelettes we ordered were thin and rubbery. We realized later that we may have misunderstood her directions, but next time we will be more diligent to make reservations ahead of time. La Mere Poulard has a viewing area where visitors can watch the production of the omelettes – they looked scrumptious.
The company that owns La Mere Poulard owns several restaurants and some of the hotels and shops on the island – as much as 50% of the businesses are part of the group. There are two other large group owners – only a small amount of the businesses are independently owned.
When visiting Mont Saint Michel, you can choose to stay on the island or on the mainland. We chose to stay on the mainland, because we planned to leave right away in the morning for a full day of touring the Normandy area. The shuttles start running at 7:30 am, so we could have worked it out, but we chose to save the time. Another advantage of staying on the mainland is having the opportunity to see Mont Saint Michel at night. Floodlights illuminate the entire island until midnight every night.
I would imagine staying on Mont Saint Michel would also be pleasant, although there are few activities available in the evening. If you arrive in the evening and stay on the island, though, you would be able to beat some of the crowds of daytime visitors the next morning.
One of the most interesting parts of the day was watching the tide come in during the late afternoon. We didn’t time our visit exactly right, and we thought we missed the entire tidal approach.
Over the centuries, pilgrims crossed at low tide to visit the abbey. If they were not careful, they would be enveloped by the quickly rising tide. In 1879, a causeway was built so pilgrims and visitors could arrive safely. However, the structure changed the flow of the water, so silt began to build up around the island, eventually changing it from an island to a peninsula.
In 2009, a dam was built on the nearby Couesnon River to try to control the water flow and eliminate the buildup of silt. In 2014, the causeway was removed and replaced by a bridge-type causeway, allowing water to flow freely underneath it. The hope is that the natural conditions will return.
It is still possible to make the pilgrimage across the sand to Mont Saint Michel during low tide. Area authorities recommended to go with an experienced guide to avoid problems. (If you attempt to go on your own, be sure you have a cell phone that you can use in an emergency).
When the tide is out, the silt and sand stretches for miles, but when the tide comes back in, water is everywhere. It is an amazing phenomenon.
The tides have some of the largest ranges in Europe and are especially high in the spring and fall. They move swiftly. As we began our climb to the abbey, the island was surrounded by a long sandy beach on all sides. People walked out onto the flats, tempting fate. We toured the abbey and by the time we came out, rushing water splashed against the walls on the northwest side of the island. We were disappointed- we had missed the tide coming in – just that quickly.
As we started to make our way down from the top of the island, however, we realized that the tide was still advancing around the southeast side. We watched as each wave brought the water further up the shore and closer to the walls. After about 45 minutes, all the sand and rocks were covered with the tidal waters. It was fascinating!