Le Mont Saint Michel

Le Mont Saint Michel rising majestically from the sea

Le Mont Saint Michel literally means "Mount Saint Michael". "Le Mont", as it is called, still retains the aspect of a mountain from a distance, rising majestically up out of the water just off the northern coast of France. The "mountain" referred to, actually a huge rock outcrop over 260 feet high and a half-mile around, is no longer visible however. It has been completely obscured by a medieval abbey, church and surrounding walled town.

The original church on the site was built between 1017 and 1144. It incorporated an earlier structure which, according to legend, was built in the eighth century after the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, the Bishop of nearby Avranches. The church and abbey were repeatedly expanded until 1521. The statue of Saint Michael was added to the spire in 1897. (If you look closely at the photographs, you can see that when we visited in the spring of 2002, the spire was surrounded by scaffolding while it underwent restoration work. The statue had been temporarily removed.)

Originally an island, Mont St. Michel is now reached from the mainland by a road that runs along a causeway built in 1877. At high tide, the causeway is the only approach. It is possible to walk over the tidal flats at low tide, but extreme caution should be exercised as the incoming tide can supposedly outrace a horse.

As you approach Le Mont over the causeway, its appearance is of a fortress with a church spire at the top. High walls guard the entry to the island. Entering through the Port du Roi (King's gate) one arrives at the Grand Rue (main street) of the town. The town dominates the west and southwest portions of the island. The buildings, which once housed the residents of the town, have given over to the restaurants, shops, and galleries which seek to extract tribute from the modern day invaders.

The rear facade of the abbey church from the courtyard

The abbey church dominates (actually covers) the central portion of the island. On the north and west sides of the island, the approach is guarded by high cliffs. At the top of the cliffs, but at the base of the abbey, are the abbey gardens. The church itself, built on top of the 262 foot-high rock, rises to 515 feet at the spire.

Mont St. Michel served the French kings as a fortress during the Hundred Years War. At the time of the French Revolution, it was briefly used as a prison. It has been classified as a national historical monument since 1874.

The tour of the abbey ($6.00 for adults) is a fascinating, if a bit confusing, journey through the ages as you go from chamber to chamber, connected sometimes by passages and sometimes by stairs. Occasionally, the route emerges into open courtyards with views of the sea.

One particularly interesting site on the abbey tour is the medieval equivalent of a freight elevator. A person walking on the inside of a large squirrel-cage like wheel turns a windlass raising a wheeled cart up a steeply inclined stone ramp built into the side of the abbey.

Mont St Michel is about 370 kilometers (220 miles) from Paris, about a three and a half to four hour drive. If you are traveling by rail, the nearest station is in Pontorson, nine kilometers to the south. Bus service is available for the 15 minute ride to Le Mont.

In my view, it's best to make Mont St. Michel a day trip. There are only a couple of shops and a few bed-and-breakfasts on the mainland. Avranches and Granville are two small cities relatively nearby. It's just over a two hour drive to Honfleur, Le Havre, and the Pont du Normandie.


Copyright 2002 Harry B. Rowe