Most people approaching Mont Saint-Michel from miles away suddenly gasp when the massive monastery comes into view — perched on the top of a mountain in the middle of sandy flats. It is one of the world’s most beautiful and inspiring sights. Visiting Mont Saint-Michel easily surpassed all of my expectations — built up over many years. It is a testament to the creativity and brilliance of man. Everyone should put this on their bucket list for a visit.
The monastery is on an island that is completely surrounded by water during high tides. Tourists are casually informed that if they leave their cars in the parking, they will be washed out to see by the tide. Other tourists have had to be rescued after walking out into the picturesque flats only to be cut off by the rising water or caught in the quick sand. Victor Hugo, who fought to restore the monastery, once warned that the water comes “à la vitesse d’un cheval au galop” (“as swiftly as a galloping horse”). It does as we witnessed during one a day of the full moon.
According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church. Aubert ignored the instructions despite repeated appearances of Michael, who finally convinced him to build the monastery by burned a hole in his head. The monastery is dedicated to St. Michael. As for the Aubert (the patron saint of slow learners), you can still see his skull with the hole burned through by St. Michael’s finger at the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches (right).
Looking up at the monastery, it is no surprise that it was never taken by force. Indeed, Les Michelettes – two huge wrought-iron bombards — are on display as evidence of the failed siege by the English in 1423–24.
You get to the monastery by driving over a levee and parking is easy on the flats (so long as you flee the tides in time). You can stay after the tides by moving your car on to the levee — this allows you to see the castle lit up at night (with music playing from outdoor speakers).
Once you enter, you go up hundreds of steps to the top. It is a work out. I was told that four million people visit the monastery but only one million make it to the top. I found that surprising because it is not too arduous if you take it in insular stages. There are plenty of stopping points with breathtaking views. My kids of course made it a race in an attempt give their father a heart attack.
You pass through narrow twisting stone passages with stores on either side. It is disappointing to see the usual pirate flags and plastic police guns for sale at the shops. There are a couple small hotels available on the island.
Moving up the stairs to the top, you are rewarded by a view that is a wonder. The church itself is incredible. Built on the tip of the mountain, it is supported by huge pillars running down both sides and multiple layers of chambers on either side. It is fascinating architectural feat.
One of the more interesting sights was a giant wheel that looked like a huge guinea pig lived on the top. In fact, it was a wheel used when prisoners were kept at the monastery. Four or five would be placed in the wheel to raise or lower a sled that ran down the side of the mountain. Provisions would be taken to the top by way of this human wheel.
The kids loved the monastery and the English guide was skilled in keeping their attention with jokes and funny questions. When we left, we waded into the salty waters of the flats which offered cool relief on a hot day. We left reluctantly, but we had to make it to Honfleur and the beaches of Normandy — our next stop.