Mont Saint Michel (Le Mont-Saint-Michel) is among the most iconic nights in Europe. Set in the spellbinding bay where Normandy and Brittany come together, the island entices the eye from a great many angles and far distances. The fascinating architectural structures – willowy spires and stout fortifications – of Mont Saint Michel characteristic of the Middle Ages, the craggy slopes, the disorienting fog, the quicksand and the surrounding bay all add to the enigma and the drama of the island.
All these also made this magical island a perfect setting for a “gravity-defying medieval monastery,” which for centuries became a destination for religious believers’ pilgrims. If not for the crowd of tourists flocking to Mont Saint Michel, it is easy to believe that you are back in the Middle Ages, particularly with the narrow alleys in the island and the abbey. Today, the island is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site with about three million people visiting it every year.
The Pilgrimage: How it All Began
According to Normandy’s (Official Normandy Tourist Website) Le Mont-Saint-Michel, “The staggering location has long inspired awe and the imagination. The story of how the mount turned into a great place of Christian pilgrimage is colourful. Aubert, bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches early in the 8th century, claimed that the Archangel Michael himself pressured him into having a church built atop the island just out to sea.” Being merely600 meters away from the mainland, it easily accessible to the abbey’s pilgrims.
The pilgrimage flourished from 966 onwards, including the construction of a foremost Benedictine abbey on the island because these were supported by the dukes of Normandy and the French kings. Throughout the medieval period, numerous monastic edifices in grand scales and designs were built, so that it became recognized as a renowned center for Christian learning and experience. This lured huge numbers of pilgrims.
The Magic That the Bay Bestows on the Island
The bay surrounding the island is unique. It is known for having the highest low-high tide variations, which are merely six hours apart. The difference can reach a dumbfounding 15-meter difference. Whenever the tidal coefficient goes higher than 100 and the high tide is over14 meters, expect the waters in the Mont Saint-Michel Bay to totally surround the island. This happens every month or so. When this happens, the waters rush in at an amazing speed.
Much of these can change with the fast silting of the bay, which has been happening in the last two centuries. The siltation problem is becoming more intense now with the construction of a walkway to the island monastery and the farming activity in the island. These days, efforts are being exerted to preserve the maritime character and integrity of Mont Saint-Michel. For instance, Couesnon River is being diverted to the sea, so the silt it carries will be deposited there and not in the bay.
Things to Do in Mont Saint-Michel
- Visit the abbey. This is every pilgrim’s “must-end here” goal, and so is every tourist. The Benedictine abbey atop the mount can be reached by braving the steep, meandering street of the village. Despite the age and the throngs of tourists, the ambiance is still awe-inspiring, particularly the cloisters, the church and the grand chambers across The Marvel snuggly hugging the rock. Summer evenings give the pilgrims and tourists a spectacular view as the dusk falls with lights and music, adding magic to the already awesome ambiance.
- Enjoy the panorama from the abbey. From the balcony, you’ll get the opportunity to have a sweeping view of the bay stretching all the way to Brittany. Normandy and Brittany are historically separated merely by a river. It used to pass the island on the other side, making it historically part of Brittany. Today, the river’s route is on Normand soil.
- The greatest tidal range in Europe to awe you. With the remarkable biggest tidal variations in the world, the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel has an ever-changing seascape. The changes in the seascape changes by the hour – minute by minute. No wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These make for a moving spectacle.
- Get a first-hand experience of the seascape by hiking. The coast across the Bay offers a truly extraordinary experience. You can join guided tours to stay on the safe side. There are inherent risks that come with the quick rising and ebbing of the tide. At low tides, crossing the bay on foot will give you the chance to explore the amazing forms of life forms, the streams and the mudflats.
- Touring the village on a horse-drawn carriage. There are many nooks and crannies in the village that you’ll love to explore. You don’t need to brave the steep steps; you can opt to explore on board a horse-drawn carriage. The experience will take you back in time and give you the feel of the olden days.
Wondering what made the monks settle in the island more than a thousand of years ago? Stay until after darkness falls to discover the answer as you experience the magical ambiance of Mont Saint Michel. The serenity and the ambiance will provide the experience as you are engulfed by the “solitude that attracted monks to this dramatic spot so long ago.”