An unmistakable icon of the northern French coast, the UNESCO-listed Mont-Saint-Michel is a magical island crowned by a lofty medieval monastery, looming dramatically on the horizon and defying some of the highest tides in Europe. It was for centuries one of Europe’s major pilgrimage destinations and today, 2.5 million tourists from around the world flock here every year. There is often confusion as to whether it belongs to Normandy or neighbouring Brittany, set in the bay where the two regions merge – but it’s Normandy that just stakes the claim. The mount has a rich and colourful history: legend has it that the local bishop Aubert was obliged by the Archangel Michael to have a Benedictine abbey built here, and the project was supported from the 10th century onwards by the dukes of Normandy and French monarchs. Mont-Saint-Michel’s development was in itself a miracle: boats transported granite from quarries in Chausey, a group of small islets off the Normandy coast, which was then cut into blocks and hauled to the top of the mount. Through the medieval period several other imposing monastic buildings were added to the site and the main abbey became a centre of learning, attracting some of Europe’s greatest minds and manuscript illuminators. Scores of pilgrims visited but English forces were kept resolutely out by ramparts at sea level.
Over time, high tides and human interference caused silt to build up around the bay, and by 2006, the nearly landlocked Mont-Saint-Michel no longer resembled an island. A project to restore the mount to the sea was launched in the same year, with the operation of a new dam designed to gradually sweep away the silt and sand. The old parking area at the foot of the rock was demolished and moved to a new area near the bridge on the mainland, and the causeway followed suit, returning Mont-Saint-Michel to its true island status. This is a must-see French landmark and it’s worth allowing enough time to visit its accompanying museums, hotels, restaurants and boutiques. In addition to the abbey itself, don’t miss…
- The Musée de la Mer et de l’Écologie, housing a collection of 250 ancient boat models where you can learn about the Mont Saint-Michel Maritime Character Restoration project
- The Musée Historique, charting 1,000 years of history with its collection of ancient weapons, medieval instruments of torture, Louis XI’s iron cell and the oubliettes
- Le Logis Tiphaine, the former home of Knight Bertrand du Guesclin – 14th-century constable of the armies of the French king – and his wife Tiphaine de Raguenel, a famous astrologer who used to predict the world’s fate by the stars