Magical Mont St Michel

There we were, driving through French villages, dodging sheep and baguette-wielding locals, when we emerged from one village and suddenly saw it, Mont St Michel. Few places match it for atmosphere. Surrounded by sea, this tiny community off the French shoreline has a very isolated feel, despite being only one kilometre offshore.

The Stuff of Fairytales

Mont St Michel looks what you would expect a young girl to draw if you asked for a fairytale castle straight. I’m not convinced Disney didn’t take inspiration from a quick visit actually. It stands proudly on a rocky outcrop in the middle of seemingly endless sandflats. These flats are in turn exposed and covered by the strong local tides which vary by a massive 14 metres and at speed too “as swiftly as a galloping horse” according to Victor Hugo. As we approached by road it suddenly appeared across the salt meadows and seemed unreal. There it was suddenly and I hadn’t expected to see sheep grazing between us (the tide was out).

Mont St Michel’s infamous silhouette is thanks mostly, to the Gothic style and still operating, Benedictine Abbey, which has been an integral part of the monastery here since the 8th century. The other buildings date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

When arriving at Mont St Michel, you approach on a long, straight and raised road. Arriving with the tide high might sound fantastic, but it can also mean that parts of the car park are underwater, which is not altogether convenient.

Shops on Mont St Michel, France

As you make your way from the car park you arrive through the Boulevard Gate. From here, make your way through the King’s Gate which has an impressive portcullis, just impressive enough to make you wonder if you are really welcome.

Oh, the biscuits!

You emerge onto the Grande Rue, which is the main street. The museum fans will drag their heels here as there are four different museums, somewhat remarkably. They concentrate on the architecture of the abbey, the history of the mont, including weaponry and the use of the mont as a prison, maritime artifacts and it is also possible to visit one of the domestic houses. There are snacks available and a wealth of little shops, selling souvenirs, local produce (including butter biscuits – don’t miss the biscuits!) jewellery, replica weapons, religious artwork, embroidery and also a few random trinkets such as pewter dragons.

Grande Rue, Mont St Michel, France

Mont St Michel Abbey

If you still remember why you came and can drag yourself away from all of this retail distraction, climb the grand staircase and take in the spectacular view as you make your way to the abbey. The abbey is lovingly preserved and it is possible to attend mass here every day that the mont’s population are here (which seems to exclude the latter half of August) Outside the abbey there is a large open area, from which you can look a long, long way out to sea and, if you’re like me, bump into your boss. Yes, we both went to France one long weekend and both happened to be at Mont St Michel at the same time on the same day – small world.

UNESCO status

Mont St Michel was deservedly awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1979. It truly is a magical place. There has long been a friendly rivalry between neighbouring Normandy and Brittany. Each has claimed that Mont St Michel is part of their region. With the diversion of a river, Normandy seems to have won the debate. It is not hard to understand what a victory that would have been.

Have you been to Mont St Michel or any other World Heritage sites? What did you think?

Photo credit: IoW Sparky


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