In 2017, we had planned to see more sights/land in and around France. Up high on my list was Normandy, and for Easter weekend Jim and I packed up our things and traveled up North. Our first stop was at the UNESCO World Heritage site – Mont-Saint-Michel on the southwestern most corner of the region, aptly dubbed the second most visited “monument” in France after the Eiffel Tower.
Mont-Saint-Michel dates back to as early as 708 when Aubert Bishop of Avranches had a sanctuary built on Mont-Tombe in honor of Saint Michael. Over time the mount was built up by the Benedictines (10th Century) where it became a site of religious pilgrimage. Enter the 14th Century, and it was a military stronghold during the Hundred Years War. This continued until the French Revolution when it converted to a prison. It remained that way until 1863 and was then classified as a historic monument in 1874 when restoration work began. As a result, visitors can enjoy the abbey as it was during the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, for a quick weekend trip it’s not terribly easy to get to Mont-Saint-Michel from Toulouse. A train ride could take close to eight hours while flights to nearby Rennes are infrequent (and at inconvenient times) as well as expensive. As such, we opted to fly to Paris in the evening then rent a car to start our drive the next morning. It worked out perfectly.
Mont-Saint-Michel is about 3.5 hours or so from Orly Airport if you take the Southern route through the Loire Valley. Time permitting, you could also add some castle visits along the way as you take in the gorgeous rolling hills and mustard fields. We did not. Instead, we pushed ahead with the intent of arriving in time for lunch. We left Paris around 8:30am, which put us in Mont-Saint-Michel close to noon or 12:30pm. We had reservations to stay in a hotel ON the mount, so we parked our car in a lot and boarded the free shuttles that crisscross the area every 15 minutes or so (you can also walk, though it’s probably a windy mile or so from the parking lot). You can see Mont-Saint-Michel easily from more than a few miles away. It’s stunning. As you approach on the shuttle, the views only become more and more impressive.
After checking into our hotel, we set out for lunch at Creperie La Cloche. Normandy is known for crepes and cider, and this spot doesn’t disappoint. It wasn’t a quick meal, but it was tasty and just what we needed after a long drive.
Following lunch, we decided to check out the Abbey. Supplemented with audioguides and a paper guide, we explored. The architecture is one of the most interesting aspects of the mount itself: three stories stacked on top of one another (crypt on the first, churches on the second & third, getting lighter the higher), buttresses, etc. all constrained by the idea of building on a giant rock. There’s also a statue of the archangel Michael at the the very top (added in 1897). He’s depicted with a sword and a set of scales along with wings. Apparently, Michael was also somewhat dubbed as the Saint of Knights. Pretty cool.
I’d read before it was around 900 steps to the top. I admit I wasn’t counting, but it didn’t feel like we’d climbed even close to that number. There were guard rooms, terraces (under construction), churches, refectories, crypts, chapels, and even knight’s halls (though the audio guide said no knights ever visited).
Remember I said this place was once a prison? Well, the photo below was a wheel that would house as many as six prisoners who would walk inside (like a hamster) to carry heavy loads from the base of the mont to the top. You can see what looks like a ladder in the opposite photo where they would be raising the loads that were connected to this wheel. We couldn’t really imagine how six men could fit in there or what that might be like. While you’re in prison, this is one cool place to be, but you’re also in somewhat of a hamster wheel.
While we were up high, we had great views of the silt/sand surrounding the mount during low tide. You could see loads of people on tours walking far out into the sand/silt/clay. Those little black specks you see in the photos are people. Some were out past that island in the distance. We were intrigued.
The sand was incredibly soft, but there was more water than we had anticipated/thought when we were much higher. As we were venturing out, we saw a group wading through a large “puddle” of water that came up to their thighs (the lighter spots above are water). We definitely weren’t going to venture into that, and instead stayed closer to the rocks and to the drier sand. We walked around at least 3/4 of the mount before deciding to head back in and explore the ramparts.
The ramparts were cool and afforded some great views. We wandered from the front, around the perimeter to the back where we’d been walking on the sand earlier. At this point there were many more groups exploring, including a French Boy Scout troop. We began to wonder about the tide schedule and just how far out groups could walk (some looked to be miles out). After some internet sleuthing, we discovered the tide recedes to 14 kilometers from Mont-Saint-Michel each day. Then, at high tide the water returns “at the speed of galloping horses” around 9:45/10pm (or at least those were the tide schedules for our day in April). We were intrigued. Friends, this is where I say Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the coolest places. This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever watched.
Around 6 or 7pm, we retreated to our hotel room to clean up a bit and rest a little before heading out for dinner. We ate at one of the La Mere Poulard restaurants. You’ve maybe seen their cider at grocery stores (it’s pretty good, but not my favorite). Let me just say, they OWN this place. I think the only restaurant NOT affiliated with La Mere Poulard was the creperie where we had lunch. They even stocked all the vending machines. By the end of our trip, we joked they should re-name it to “Mont-Mere-Poulard” or replace the statue of Archangel Michael with La Mere Poulard. All I’ll say was this meal was underwhelming. I’d say if you’re there for dinner, do some research for the best place to eat and book ahead.
After dinner, we waited for the tide to come in, then moved back to the ramparts. It was astounding. An absolutely wild sight to see. The water was rushing forward with waves that were only moving in one direction – toward and surrounding the abbey. By 11pm, the whole abbey was surrounded by water. So, if you look at any of those photos above, where you see sand there was water. Unreal and so neat/cool. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any photos I took of the water coming in to show up/turn out as it was too dark.
Before the water had completely surrounded the abbey, we exited toward the bridge to snap a nighttime photo (above). Then we went back in and watched the water stream in from various vantage points. It was quiet, gorgeous, and virtually empty at night. If you are planning to go to Mont-Saint-Michel, make sure you’re there at night. It will make the trip for you – I promise. It’s so special. In some ways, it had the same feeling as being in a museum after hours, when it’s only open to you and 100 of your friends. Perfect.
The next morning, we left around 8am, just as the first of the tourists were starting to arrive. Most of the streets were still empty and it was quiet again, similar to the night before. All the information I’d read about visiting said it was best to avoid the Mont in the middle of the day, highlighting the best times as early morning and late afternoon. Having arrived at noon, stayed through the evening, and left in the morning, I’d say this is pretty sage advice, and I will agree with the books/travel experts and say if you visit, avoid lunchtime and make sure you’re there during the evening and/or early morning. It’ll make your visit so much more enjoyable, and you’ll be able to linger and really enjoy your time.
Jim and I had a wonderful time. Can’t recommend it enough. What a magical place.