Everyone has seen pictures of Mont-Saint-Michel, right? The beautiful, picturesque island looming out of the sea off the Norman coast topped with a towering monastery, the foundation of which stretches back to the late 10th century. As enthralling as all of the pictures make it look, the island is even more magical in person. I was looking for the right note to end my backpacking and shuttling around France and I certainly found it.
Mont-Saint-Michel sits just off the coast near the borders of Normandy and Brittany in northwestern France. Due to its location, it faces some of the highest tides in Europe. When the tide comes in, the island is completely separated from the coast except by the newer causeway that allows access to pedestrians and shuttles. When the tide recedes, most of the area surrounding the Mont become a vast sandy plain. At this point, guided tours actually lead visitors across the bay on foot. (It is NOT recommended to go without a guide as there are dangerous spots of “quicksand” and the tide comes in very quickly!) Due to its limited accessibility, Mont-Saint-Michel actually resisted sieges from multiple wars including the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion.
The island is surrounded by medieval ramparts and rises to over 250 feet above sea level (with the top of the abbey reaching over 300 feet above sea level!) From the causeway it’s quite an impressive sight! The closely packed shops, restaurants, and hotels peek above the walls giving incoming visitors a glimpse of the extremely well maintained medieval village inside. There are only really two routes up to the monastery from the gate. One street is extremely narrow and lined with shops and restaurants. This is the main route most tourists take to get to the monument and is thus extremely packed. The other route is a much steeper hike and there are no shops along the way but is also much less traveled making for a less crowded walk.
The monument itself is stunning. When buying tickets be aware that there are two different visitation periods in the day and you can buy a ticket that covers both (I highly recommend this option as the rooms that you will see and the route you take do change between the two periods). During the daytime, it’s easy to lose hours wandering around from room to room and reading the different plaques detailing the history and purpose of each (I personally almost always read them all). There is a wide platform in front of the chapel itself where you can see for miles down the coastline. At night, however, the rooms are lit with projections and lights making for a completely different experience. There are short projected films in some of the rooms showing the history of the foundation of the monastery and how the island developed over time. I thoroughly enjoyed the nighttime tour!
As far as restaurants go, it is definitely helpful to make reservations ahead of time here. There are only a handful of restaurants on the island itself and they get busy very quickly. Most of the restaurants are also accessible from the ramparts and most of them have pretty views out over the bay back towards the mainland.
After my dinner, I decided to walk the ramparts to watch the sunset from one of the towers. The views were spectacular. At the time, the tide was most of the way out but there were still channels of water moving out into the bay and I watched the sun descend on and reflect over the vast expanses of water and sand. I stood for hours taking in the fresh sea air and the warm colors of the sunset in one of the most relaxing stops of my entire trip.
By nighttime, most of the tourists have left the island except for those like myself who were lucky enough to have a hotel room on site. This is a perfect time to wander the few narrow streets. The shops and restaurants will be closed but if you are looking for a more solitary experience of the small medieval village nighttime is the way to go! I personally snuck out onto the sand to get a few good pictures of the town by night but again this is definitely not recommended, especially at this time because visibility is very low.
I think overall, Mont-Saint-Michel was one of the more magical experiences on this trip. From the views to the tours and the well-maintained town, the whole day was full of excitement and wonder. While there may be fewer monuments to visit than most of the other places I went, the views and a nighttime tour of the inside of the abbey certainly gave me plenty to do and see. It isn’t without reason that Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most visited places in France and it doesn’t take much to see why!