Detailed review by weetoon
Ecosse, United Kingdom
The first time we saw the Mont Saint Michel was from about 40kms away, from a village called Mortain, and even from this distance, there was something magical about the place, the characteristic shape appeared to be floating above a shimmering sea. You can understand the fascination it held for mediaeval pilgrims, and tourists ever since. This site is the most popular tourist attraction in France with 3 million visitors a year. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
History of the Mont
Aubert, bishop of Avranches, built the first church on the site after being asked to do so in a dream by the archangel Michael (that kind of things happened a lot in those days!). That was in 709AD. Before that, this was just a lump of rock in the middle of the sea, barely an island. In 966, the Duke of Normandy requested that a Benedictine community live on the rock, and they started building, expanding, beautifying the abbey, which was already nicknamed 'the marvel' by the 13th century. During the hundred years war, the Mont was besieged many times, but proved to be impregnable. In the 16th century, monastic life was no longer a popular option, and the abbey gradually fell into disrepair. This was compounded by protestant attacks later, and only about 12 monks remained by the end of the 18th century. During the revolution, the abbey was used as a prison. The Mont Saint Michel has been the property of the French 'Monuments Historiques' who have cared for and restored it ever since. Although there is a small community of monks living on the island nowadays, they do not own the monastery.
We knew from experience that this kind of place gets very busy and that the best thing to do to enjoy your visit to the maximum is to arrive early. Another thing to look out for when planning the timing of a visit there is the time of the tides, as the water may well cover the car parks nearest the Mont and you may have to park as far as two kilometres away. The causeway however, is never covered by water. One of the most amazing spectacles, apparently, is to watch the rising tide from the Mont Saint Michel. We mainly experienced low tide during our visit. You can find the timetable of tides on the official Mont Saint Michel website (http://www.ot-montsaintm ichel.com/horaires_gb.htm ), along with a warning NOT to venture into the bay.
So we set off suitably early for a visit we had eagerly anticipated. We had two teenagers in the back, thinking this was another of these boring visits their parents drag them to, but still in fairly good spirits. We had picked the day perfectly; the sun was shining bright after a week of less than beautiful weather (in fact I fell completely at home in Normandy, with its climate evocative of the best Scottish summers). Approaching the place was an integral part of the experience, and we felt a measure of the awe with which the mediaeval traveller would have walked towards the Mont, its silhouette dominating the landscape for many miles. We kept stopping as the Mont tempted us with its picture-postcard quality, now with sheep or cows in the foreground, now behind green or yellow fields.
When we arrived, we had made fairly good time and the car park still had quite a lot of room left. It cost 4 € to leave the car there for the day, which we felt was reasonable. Although these car parks offer convenience for the tourists, they do spoil the look of the place somewhat. I think the plan is to do away with them when the huge project to reclaim the Mont from the land gets under way. Through the deposition of sediment, the bay is loosing its maritime character more and more, and the tides that once reached up to the Mont itself have lost much of their magnitude. In future, there will be a bridge and people will have a choice to either walk or take a shuttle bus to the Mont. But I digress away from the visit itself.
The first thing that you will notice when you walk into the village itself is the number of tourist shops selling all the tat you normally find in such places. These follow a long tradition of commerce around the abbey, where the village was born of the need to provide pilgrims with goods. There are also a good many restaurants where you can try the local delicacy, 'mouton de pré-salé', mutton or lamb having grazed on the sometimes-flooded fields, thereby acquiring a peculiar salty taste. These are found all along the Breton coast, but the Mont Saint Michel ones are the most famous. If like us you find the prices a little prohibitive, you would be well advised to eat out with the Mont Saint Michel itself.
Now the town surrounding the abbey is well worth a look in itself, so much so that a friend of mine who had been there never got any further, not realising there was more to see nearer the summit. One thing you have to be prepared for is the amount of steps you will have to climb. In the intensifying heat of the morning, this proved quite hard work and the teenage moaning and groaning reached new heights at that point. Make sure you have plenty water with you. As adults though, we felt all this effort was more than compensated by the architectural wonders and increasingly vast views that offered themselves all around. Plus, it's good for you, right?
We finally arrived at the abbey and bought our tickets. This cost us 8 € per adult for the guided tour, and nothing for the children, which I felt was excellent value. Now I am not a great fan of guided tours usually, but in this case it was well worth it to understand some of the architectural complexities of the abbey. Our guide was great, her English, although spoken with an accent, was excellent, and even the children were being won over by the beauty and remarkable achievement represented by those buildings. It was rather pleasant too to wonder amongst those thick walls, when the heat outside was still building up. After the guided tour, we were allowed to make our own way back to the start, taking as much time as we liked to admire this or that.
So what's so great about this place?
As far as I am concerned, this is one of the wonders of the world. Architecturally, because it was being built over such a long time, it encompasses a variety of styles, from Norman to Gothic, sometimes within the same building, in layers as in the main church. It was also such a feat of human resourcefulness to build on this rock, to which all these huge blocks of granite had to be brought by boat. The main church is actually balancing on top of the ridged summit of the island. It has to be seen to be believed.
It has also been visited throughout its history by so many, be they humble pilgrims or prestigious visitors. It even features in the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, where you see William and his troupes against that background.
To cap it all, it set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and you can feast your eyes on vast expanses of scenery where the sky, the sea and the land mingle and become a single entity.
And let's face it, any place that can get 2 grumpy teenagers' thumbs up and is not a theme park has got to be great!
I will just mention these in the interest of a balanced review, but really they are minor.
As I said, this place gets very busy. Get there early, and get out early to avoid the worst of it.
You will have to pay, and queue, to use the toilets.
Avoid buying food or drinks there if you are on a tight budget, as the prices are somewhat inflated.
Oh, and a seagull pooed on my hair!!!
The Mont Saint Michel Abbey