June 19, 2019
Ever since I first saw a photo of Mont St.-Michel, on the Normandy coast of France, it’s been on my bucket list. I first looked it up when my dad referred to it in one of his letters to my mother when he was a U.S. Navy officer stationed off the coast of France during WWII. The fact that he was on a mine sweeper in the English Channel during D-Day was the main reason my family rented a farmhouse for two weeks in June for the 75th anniversary of that crucial day in 1944.
Mont St.-Michel is the setting of the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which takes place during World War II, and is one of my favorite novels. That only reinforced my desire to go there!
It is only a few hours drive from our lodgings near Caen to Mont St.-Michel, so after visiting Bayeux, we continued on to that long anticipated place.
Mont-St.-Michel was founded in 708 by the Bishop of Avranches, who was visited by the archangel Saint Michel in his dreams three times. The abbey was built as a small structure at the uppermost part of the island, which is about a mile off the coast of northern France. In 966, the Benedictine monks occupied the abbey and over the years, as it was expanded, it also built up its fortifications, for its position made it a target during the One Hundred Years War, and in 1204 it was attacked by Breton knights under the command of Guy de Thoars.
A series of dioramas shows the expansion of the abbey from the 10th century to the present.
During the reign of King Louis XI, the island became the Alcatraz of France. As a prison, it took in prisoners until 1860. At the end of the 19th century, the 650 remaining prisoners were transferred to the mainland and the detention center closed by imperial decree. The author of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, was a great advocate of the abbey and was one of many people who called for the prison to be closed.*
There is a shuttle which deposits visitors near the entrance to the town on the island. However, the walk on the causeway is easily doable as well as beautiful. At low tide, the island is surrounded by muddy sand, but at high tide, under certain conditions the water level is high enough to flood the causeway and close the island to visitors. When we were there, it was low tide but high tourist season – the site is a very popular sightseeing destination, with 3,500,000 visitors per year.
The main route up to the abbey begins at the entrance gate to the fortified town.
One way to explore the island and go up to the abbey is on the ramparts of the old wall, which is what my son did, via a stairway just inside the main gate.
The view up there is very different and there are no crowds. Here are some of the photos Jayme took from up there.
The rest of us (me, my husband, my brother and sister-in-law) took the winding route through town, which is essentially a shopping area, where shops, restaurants, and small museums occupy the historic buildings, competing for tourist business.
It is touristy but picturesque, preserving its medieval appearance (after all, that’s what attracts the tourists!).
The shops sell everything from swords to ice cream.
The shops and restaurants have artistic signs.
I had heard there were more than 300 steps up to the abbey, so I considered not going up there at all, imagining a single, continuous stairway going upward. However, it isn’t like that at all; the narrow street ascends gradually, affording beautiful vistas at every turn, and the stairs are grouped – 27 here, 36 there – so it isn’t necessary to climb 300 stairs all at once!
About halfway up, the restaurants and shops end; there are small, specialized museums, each with their own entrance fee, but you can buy a ticket for all four. Having limited time, we did not go into any of the museums, saving the time we had to tour the abbey.
We did, however, go into a small chapel. Entrance was via a pink door!
Exiting the chapel was through an open red door.
Our audio tour of the abbey took us through various rooms, each with a history and a place on the timeline. There were a number of interesting doors and entryways at the abbey.
The abbey church is characterized by high ceilings and simplicity of design and ornamentation.
A multi-paneled carving tells the story of the passion of Christ.
The 260m² cloister had a garden for a long time which was replaced in the 19th century by a rainwater collector to supply the kitchens. The current restoration project aims to reconstruct the original garden.
This hall was for receptions.
Each of the tall narrow windows had a different pattern.
Views on the way up and at the top of the abbey:
More views of the town on the way down
We had crepes at a creperie on the way back, but first we watched crepes being made.
Mont St. Michel is a place to take one’s time: visit the abbey and the museums, window shop (or just shop!), admire the unique views, don’t let the crowds deter you, but most of all, appreciate this historic national monument (since 1862) and UNESCO World Heritage Site (designated in 1979).
For more photos of unique and interesting doors from all over the world, visit Norm’s Thursday Doors 8/22/19 and check out other participants’ postings!
*Historical information obtained from A History of Mont Saint Michel on the Paris City Vision website.