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.
Where exactly in France is the Mont-Saint-Michel? How far is it from Paris?
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. It belongs to the Manche department, and is situated 26km south-west of Avranches and 330km due west of Paris. To get there from Paris it’s a 4-hour drive, or you can take a train from Paris-Montparnasse to Pontorson–Mont-Saint-Michel, followed by a navette (shuttle bus) to the Mount itself.
What’s the history of the Mont-Saint-Michel?
The long history of the Mount is thought to date back to 708, when Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, had a sanctuary built on Mont-Tombe in honour of the Archangel. Its 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.
The mount soon became a major focus of pilgrimage. In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey, while a village grew up below its walls. By the 14th century it extended as far as the foot of the rock. An impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, the Mont-Saint-Michel is also an example of military architecture. Its ramparts and fortifications resisted all the English assaults and as a result the Mount became a symbol of national identity. Following the dissolution of the religious community during the Revolution, and until 1863, the abbey was used as a prison.
Classified as a historic monument in 1874, it underwent major restoration work. Since then, work has gone on regularly all over the site. The result is that visitors can now experience the splendour of the abbey that the people of the Middle Ages regarded as a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth, an image of Paradise. The Mount has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979.
How have the tides affected the Mont-Saint-Michel?
Over time, high tides and human interference caused silt to build up around the bay, and by 2006, the nearly landlocked Mount 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 the Mount to its true island status.
Visiting the Mont-Saint-Michel: what is there to see?
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
The 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.