Mont-Saint-Michel, a marvellous monastery built on a tidal island

Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular medieval abbey and village perched on a rocky tidal island off the coast on Normandy, France.

I’ve always thought that Mont-Saint-Michel looks like the prow of an ocean liner. It rises proud and majestic in the midst the large sandbanks situated between Normandy and Brittany in France. 

So, what is Mont-Saint-Michel? It’s a medieval abbey surrounded by a fortified town built on a small island. Not only that, Mont-Saint-Michel has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Let’s have a look at this amazing ancient site.

Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular medieval abbey and village perched on a rocky tidal island off the coast on Normandy, France.

Mont-Saint-Michel: medieval centre of learning and pilgrimage

Legend has it that the Archangel Michael pressured Aubert, bishop of Avranches, to build a small church dedicated to him, the archangel. The chosen location? The top of a rocky island just off the coast. Bishop Aubert did as he was told and had the church built in the early 8th century (708).

Later, in 966, a group of Benedictine monks  settled on the island with the support of the Duke of Normandy. They built an abbey, also consecrated to St. Michael, in the Romanesque style. The oldest part of the abbey, the small church of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre, can still be seen and dates back to the 10th century.  Also from the Romanesque period is the nave of the abbey church.

During the Gothic period, the builders made the most of the restricted space available. They built the conventual buildings known as the elegant “Marveille” (the Marvel) above the chaplaincy. The Marveille comprises the Hotes and the Chevaliers rooms, the refectory and the cloisters, which is open to the sea. The views from up there are wonderful.

Mont-Saint-Michel attracted some the greatest minds and illuminators  in Europe. Thus, it became one of the most important centres of learning and pilgrimage of the Middle Ages.

Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular medieval abbey and village perched on a rocky tidal island off the coast on Normandy, France.

The  abbey wasn’t impervious to the outside world.The Hundred Years War against England in the 14th century made it necessary to fortify the islands with ramparts in case of an invasion. And the abbey was used as a prison during the French Revolution and the Empire.

Fortunately for us, restoration work began in the late 19th century.

the medieval town

As mentioned before, Mont-Saint-Michel was a popular pilgrimage centre. It was only natural that a village grew at the base of the abbey to cater for the needs of the pilgrims. The town flourished on the south-east side behind the defensive walls from the Hundred Year War.

Nowadays, the medieval village is the first place you see on arriving. Bring your best walking shoes because the narrow cobbled streets wind up to the abbey. All kinds of shops cater for the tourist, you’ll lots of tat for sale. Move on. However, it’s a pretty place for photographs (if you can get away from the crowds).

Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular medieval abbey and village perched on a rocky tidal island off the coast on Normandy, France.

There are lodgings, bars and restaurants as well. One of the most famous one is La Mère Poulard, famous for its omelettes. Don’t bother trying to eat there without a reservation. And prepare to be fleeced, things are more expensive on the island.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The UNESCO declared Mont-Saint-Michel a world heritage site in 1979. They used the following criteria:

Criterion (i): Through the unique combination of the natural site and the architecture, the Mont-Saint-Michel constitutes a unique aesthetic success.

Criterion (iii): Mont-Saint-Michel is an unequalled ensemble, as much because of the co-existence of the abbey and its fortified village within the confined limits of a small island, as for the originality of the placement of the buildings which accord with its unforgettable silhouette.

Criterion (vi): Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilisation.

Can’t really argue with that!

Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular medieval abbey and village perched on a rocky tidal island off the coast on Normandy, France.

Visiting Mont-Saint-Michel

Back in the day, you could drive to the island and park very close to the base of the abbey. You had to be mindful of the rides, according to the signs posted everywhere. In spring, the bay is subject to the largest tidal range in continental Europe (almost 25 kilometres from the shore).

But there is a new access now. The visitors car park is approximately 3 kilometres away from the island. Modern shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages take you from the Visitors Centre at the Place des Navettes to the mount.

Experts suggest staying in a hotel on the  mainland. This is what we did and didn’t regret the decision. It’s easy to drive to and from the Mount and there are more accommodation options.

Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to arrive and walk around the village, especially during peak tourist season. As I mentioned before, be prepared to face large crowds.

Here are the prices to park your car/camper van/coach/motorbike and the price of the shuttle. There’s also a kennel for your dog.

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Things to do in Normandy in 3 amazing days

3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France.

The path leads us through beautiful gardens to the edge of the cliff. Below, the blue waters of the English Channel lap the quiet beach. Above, a sea of white crosses pays poignant homage to the thousands of servicemen who lost their lives on D-Day. We’re at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. This stretch of coastline will be forever known as Omaha Beach.

We’d driven from Saint-Malo earlier that day. We loved going on road trips in France, especially in the southwest. It was our first time this far north. We checked into our hotel in the historic city centre of Bayeux and bought a quiche and baguettes from a boulangerie. A picnic at the beach was a great start to our visit to Normandy.

Things to do in Normandy

3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France. #traveltips #France #Normandy
American Cemetery over Omaha Beach

Or would have been, had the beach not been engulfed in fog.  We sat on a low seawall and ate to the sound of seagulls crying and the rhythmic lapping of waves we couldn’t see. We then went to Gold Beach, the invasion area allotted to the British for Operation Overlord in 1944. There was a little less fog. At least, we could see a bunker, read the explanatory signs and had to fill in the rest with our imagination.

By the time we reached Omaha Beach, the fog had dispersed. A field of white crosses and trees stretched to the horizon. The effect was intensely moving. A sense of loss and sadness seeped through despite the bright sunshine. I thought about the brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families that stayed behind.

The next morning was also foggy and cold. March and September are the foggiest months in Normandy, and this was late March. However, we were committed to seeing the landing beaches.

We set off for Juno Beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer, which the Canadians wrested from the Germans in June 1944. Nowadays, Juno is a vast expanse of empty beach, at least during off-peak season. At the time, it was part of the Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s line of defence in occupied territories along the North Atlantic. I didn’t think much of the town of Courseulles.

It wasn’t until we reached Arromanches-les-Bains that we got a clearer idea of what D-Day might have been like. Bits of the artificial harbour built by the British, like parts of the concrete breakwater or sections of the causeway, still remain.  

Due to time constraints, we had to leave the remaining two landing beaches, Utah (on the Cotentin Peninsula) and Sword (west of the Orne River estuary), for another visit.  

As I mentioned earlier, we stayed in Bayeux. The town has Gallo-Roman roots and was rebuilt after the Viking attacks of the 10th century and a big fire in the 11th century. Few structures, like the cathedral, date from that time. I loved walking around the Old Town with its half-timbered and stone houses from different centuries.

3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France. #traveltips #France #Normandy
Bayeux Old Town

One of the most recognisable features is the waterwheel on the river Aure, which bisects the city. Bayeux was a centre for tanning and wool dyeing during the Middle Ages, and the waterwheel serves as a reminder.  Its prosperity also came from the other industries Bayeux was famous for, like china and bobbin lace. One of the half-timbered houses that date back to that era is known as the Adam and Eve house and is a lace (dentelle) factory nowadays. We found it near the cathedral.

I haven’t met a cathedral I didn’t like, and Bayeux was not the exception. The Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame was consecrated in 1077 with William the Conqueror in attendance. What remains from that period are the crypt, with its fascinating paintings alongside World War II memorials, the western towers and part of the soaring nave.

One of the things I was excited about seeing was the Bayeux Tapestry. This 50-centimetre-wide and 70-metre-long tapestry, which is actually an embroidery, was made right after the Norman Conquest of England led by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. The colourful scenes of the tapestry tell the story of how William became king of England and the whole thing reads like a modern comic strip.

The Bayeux Tapestry was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It is on display at the Museum of Bayeux. However, it will be loaned to the UK in 2022 while the museum is being refurbished.

Our Normandy itinerary also took us to the fabulous Mont-Saint-Michel. We decided to stay outside the citadel, in the small town of La Caserne, which is what most travel sites recommend.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a medieval Benedictine monastery built on top of a rocky island. Although it is connected to the mainland by a raised causeway, it used to be cut off at high tide. A new bridge connects the island to the mainland now.

3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France. #traveltips #France #Normandy
Mont-Saint-Michel

Mont-Saint-Michel became a centre of learning and pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. A village gradually developed around the monastery. When we visited, the narrow winding streets were packed to the rafters with tourists. We didn’t buy our tickets in advance and had to wait in line. Lesson learned. After a while, having to fight the crowds gave me a headache. The inside of the abbey is very austere in a grand way; however, the views from the top more than make up for its austerity.

We tried to eat at La Mère Poulard, which is famous for making omelettes that resemble souffles. The maître directly laughed in our faces when we asked if we could have a table without a reservation. It wasn’t very nice or polite of him. His attitude made me not want to make a reservation there ever. Besides, there’s more food in Normandy than omelettes. The region is famous for its cheeses, Camembert and Neufchatel being the best known; as well as pré salé lamb from around Mont-Saint-Michel, cider and calvados, an apple brandy.

Normandy tips

Book all your museum tickets online.

Should you decide to drive to Mont-Saint-Michel, leave the car in the car park and take the shuttle to the bottom of the citadel.

Stay outside Mont-Saint-Michel. Inside is very touristy.

There are different transportation options from Paris to Normandy. Flying to Bayeux or Caen is a bit cumbersome since you’ll have at least one stop. The fastest way to get there is by train from St-Lazare station and takes a little over two hours. A more leisurely way to see Normandy, though, is a river cruise from Paris.   

Bear in mind that March and September have the most fog, July and August are the hottest and most popular months with tourists; and December, January and February are the coldest months.

Normandy is France’s apple country. Do try local cider, calvados and tarte normande (apple tart). 

3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France. #traveltips #France #Normandy
3 amazing days in Normandy: things to see, what to eat, how to get there, where to stay in this beautiful part of France. #traveltips #France #Normandy