Mont Saint-Michel – Introduction
The Mont St. Michel is France’s second most visited monument, second only after the Eiffel Tower in Paris. With over 3 million visitors each year, it is no wonder United Nation’s UNESCO put it on their World Heritage Sites. And there are several good reasons for this.
Mont St. Michel has not been changed over the centuries, and the reason for this is that it’s very difficult to change. No flats, no supermarkets, no big hotels … all because the town is built on a rock which is at times an island. During high tides, the whole town becomes an island, at low tide there is a road (causeway) that leads to the island which can be taken. In the last 2 years, work has been done so that the town can be accessed 24 hours per day; tourism rules!
Today you need to drive your car to a public parking outside the area and take a shuttle bus to visit Mont St. Michel (there are also horse & buggies to take you there the slow way). It also means you will have more problems visiting the souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels located outside Mont St. Michel. But once inside, there is nothing that will spoil your fun, since there are no cars, buses or trucks to pose a danger.
Mont St. Michel started in the late 800’s as a monastery, built on the very top of the rock island. Over the centuries and the many wars that followed, Mont St. Michel turned into a heavily fortified monastery and abbey. It had become almost impossible to conquer, because if invaders were at the foot of the fortified walls, they did not have the time to set up their machines to scale the walls since the rapidly rising tides would sweep everything away.
Tide difference can be up to 14 meters, which as surprised many hikers in the area.
And even if the invaders managed to scale the walls, they would need to climb up the rocks to reach the next layers of fortified walls. An impossible feat, hence the reason the place was never conquered (apart from in the very beginning when there where no walls by the Vikings).
This is why Mont St. Michel has stayed as it was many centuries ago, and this is why when you walk the narrow streets, you know what the feel was centuries ago. There is no concrete, nor asphalt. Stones for the building and cobblestones for the roads.
“Town” is a big word, since the population of Mont St. Michel is around 50 souls. So it’s more a very small village. But nevertheless, there are 8 restaurants and 9 hotels inside the walls (plus several on the other side of the causeway).
All the streets are very narrow, and quite sombre. During the main tourist season (July/August), it can get very busy and difficult to pass. But you can also walk all around the town via the walls. The views are quite breathtaking.
However, there is one thing you need to take into account, and the following photo tells it all:
There are many, many steps to climb, and no elevator nor escalators. At the top of the shopping street (called “la Grande Rue”), there are 350 steps to go straight up to the church.
TIP: If you have problems climbing stairs, Mont St. Michel is NOT the place for you.
But you are able to walk all around the place on the sea bed and marshes when the tide is low. In fact, there are organised hiking tours allowing you to discover the area, its fauna and animals. But you will need to check with the tourist office when the tides are in and out, and make sure you can get back to dry land when the tides comes in (which it does at a very fast rate).
If you do manage to walk around the island, not only are the views to the sea and land spectacular, but also all the angles in which you will be seeing Mont St. Michel.
On the climb up the many steep and narrow stairs, more and more of the upper structures will become apparent. It’s a long climb, but worth it.
Notice the two openings in the middle of the above photo. The people of Mont St. Michel had made an “elevator” to hoist up food and weapons using a pulley and rails system. Inside there is an interesting pulley & wheel system to ensure that even heavy items get lifted into the monastery safely:
During the clim up, the view is not only what you are climbing towards. There are several places where you can look downwards to the fortifications:
Since the stairs are all around the rock, you will always see the walls below you when climbing. It often shows an intricate infrastructure of narrow and protected walkways.
The Monastery and Abbey
The main objective of your climb is the monastery and abbey above. It’s a long climb, but as you can see, the buildings are amazing. Just imagine the building of this place centuries ago without the help of cranes, bulldozers and JCBs:
Up close you can see the efforts that were put into the design of the place, and apart from minor restoration works and cleaning, the place is “as is” when it was first made centuries ago.
Once inside, another world opens that you would not have imagined. Inside the walls is a haven of peace and quite, an inner courtyard designed for reflection of the soul, the cloister.
All around the cloister are the passages to the different rooms inside the monastery. Walking the passages gives you a feeling of calm.
Below is a 360° photo (courtesy Google) of the cloister. Click on the photo and keep your left mouse clicked, drag up/down/left/right to see the 360°. You can also zoom in and out by clicking on the “+” or “-” buttons on the photo:
Inside, the rooms are amazing in structure. High vaulted ceilings with pillars all over the place. Sound carries very far, and even someone breathing can be heard on the other side of the room.
Mont Saint-Michel is an amazing place to visit. Although most tourists visit Paris, going to the rock is a 3 hour bus ride, and many companies organise trips to Mont St. Michel starting in Paris. It will be a day trip, but it’s worth it.
All the stair climbing is worth it, not only for the views, but also for the very historically rich monastery and abbey at the top. If you do plan to come to France, do make it a point to visit this magical place.