Mont Sainte Michel

Apparently up to three million people are currently visiting Mont St Michel every year to inspect one of the first sites to become a UNESCO world heritage site. Statistics and commendations like this tell you that something special exists in the bay in front of the mouth of the Couesnon River in Normandy. Even ignoring these details, you only have to reach the edge of the Bay of Sainte Michel to know you are in the midst of a landscape that has all the elements that call to the human spirit, a rocky island of safety in a dangerous sea of swirling tides with an castle/fortress pointing towards the heavens; a haven, a sanctuary from all perils, both physical and spiritual.

IMGP7856aThe history of Mont Sainte Michel confirms initial impressions. The first recorded community here was started by an Irish hermit and by the ninth century a monastery was built here. A granite rock in the middle of daily rising, falling, swirling tides is not a place for ordinary folk to raise children and go about the ordinary activities of feeding the family. It was a place of wilderness prayer, it was a potent symbol of the isolated human condition. No wonder stories spread of a visit of the archangel Michael appearing to the Bishop of Avranches instructing him to build a church on this granite sanctuary. Thus the rock was renamed after this angelic visitor, replacing the original prosaic, gloomy name, Mont-Tombe. It also gained a suitably potent symbol that has hovered over the mount for the last 1200 years.

Any island that sits in an estuary before a major river, particularly one with a monastery on it, cries ‘strategic’ to all comers. Like all the towns and cities along this east coast of Brittany and Normandy, Mont Sainte Michel was a target for the English armies attempting to enforce their claims on this area of France during the 100 Years war of the 14/15th centuries. They failed each time and so the Mont gained the reputation of being impregnable to evil forces. Its reputation inspired the great French heroine. Joan of Arc, as she too inspired French resistance in the latter stage of the 100 years war. An impregnable fortress also makes a great gaol and so during the French Revolution, Mont St Michel was used as a prison, initially with a certain sense of historical irony, for housing clerics who opposed the Revolution.

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We had stayed the night in the Camping park at Beauvoir on the edge of the Bay of Mont Sainte Michel. We were ready early in the day to ride to the transit centre from where you can catch a bus out to the Mont or walk along the long causeway (or in fact over the sand if the tide is out). We assumed we could ride our bikes out to the granite island but signs at the start of the causeway informed us that this wasn’t permitted from 9am to 5pm. The choice was either walking or busing and the democratic vote amongst the fellow travellers saw us walking the kilometre out to the Mont. The advantage of this was to slowly become aware of the beauty of our destination as it slowly loomed larger on our horizon. The view out over the bay was also a splendid backdrop for our walk. The only disadvantage with walking was that it stated to rain three quarters of the way into our journey so it became harder to appreciate the views with water dripping down our necks. When we arrived at the island, our target was to find a café out of the rain. We gained the last available table in the cafe and were able to sit out the rainy weather in a restaurant that looked back to the gate of the island village as well as providing a view of the other poor wet scurrying tourists who hadn’t been able to find shelter.

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Map-of-the-Mont-Saint-Michel 2A tour of the island of Mont Sainte Michel, despite the appearances of a medieval warren, is very straight forward. There is one Grand Rue through the small village at the base of the monastery/fortress and it winds its way up the hill. If you don’t enter the abbey, you can stroll back down hill to the Tower of Gabriel overlooking the bay as well as make your way through some back streets to the Grande Rue. However, it is hardly worth visiting the island without continuing your journey up the staircase, paying your 10 Euro entry fee and climbing up to the top to visit the Church-Abbey of Saint-Michel.

IMGP7811 aThe walk up through the shopping street of Le Grand Rue is not a spiritual or welcoming experience. If there are 3 million tourists visiting Mont Sainte Michel each year, and it only closes on Christmas Day and May day, that means you are sharing this narrow shopping street with approximately 8,000 people any day you visit. You will get a little break from the crowd when you reach the small parish church of St Peter (patron saint of fishermen) half way along the street. You can step out of the line and be able to admire this beautiful little churchIMGP7874a and the impressive statue of Joan of Arc (early 20th C) outside its door. Given the rock is dedicated to St Michael, you can expect to find a beautiful statue of the saint killing the dragon in a side chapel. (You can also buy a bronze version from one of the many souvenir shops lining the street.)

It is not much further along that the stairs begin, taking you around the bend in Le Grande Rue and on to the steeper uphill climb leading you up to the entrance to the abbey.

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IMGP7834 aUpon entering the abbey, the stairs lead you up to a platform outside a small museum that covers some of the history of the Mont. However, all though crowded, the view from this terrace was amazing. It enabled us to get a clear view back to where visitors catch the bus on the mainland and to the right of this area, the new dam (8 floodgates, two fish locks) that now controls the silt that the river has brought to the sea for millennia. In the image to the right, remnants of the old causeway, much of which was removed in 2015, can be seen. The problem created by the old causeway and the silt coming down river was that the isolated island that the abbey/fortress was built on would be joined to the mainland not too many years into the new Millennium if nothing wasn’t done to reverse the process. The causeway, in particular, blocked the natural tidal flow of the bay and sand and silt built up on either side of it. The new dam not only controls the flow of water and silt out of the Couesnon River, it also sucks in sea water and then releases it on the outgoing tide to assist in moving the sand/silt further out into the bay. The integrity of this island masterpiece has been saved for future .

It is easy to become confused in walking around the abbey of Mont St Michel as there is so much to see, so many rooms and passages leading to further larger than life rooms. Our trail up to the forecourt in front of the abbey church was by way the Grand Degre stairway. After inspecting the view from the walls here, we moved up to the huge paved area in front of the church and discovered we had wide open views out over the bay. The tide was well out on the day we were there and I was amazed by the large number of people (some school groups) who were out inspecting the  stretches of sand revealed by the retreating tide. I hoped they knew when the waters were returning.IMGP7820a

Our next step was to visit the church that sat on the top of Mont Sainte Michel. It is not surprising that a church built on top of a series of other buildings on a rock in the middle of a tidal bay would have had a checkered career over its approximately 1000 years of existence. The first church built here was in the 8th century and this early ‘oratory’ was built over when larger facilities were needed. Church buildings on the rock have suffered devastating fires and structural collapses over the centuries and the current church was largely restored in the 19th century. In 1896, the 170 metre tall ‘Neogothic’’ spire was added to the church and not long afterwards, the golden statue of the Archangel St Michael was added to the top of it. 120 years later, the lightning rod on top of the archangel had to be renovated so the whole statue was lifted from the steeple by helicopter for restoration.

During archaeological work at the end of the 19th century, remains of the original chapel built on Mont St Michel, Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre, were discovered under the floor of the church. It was fully excavated and can be visited today.

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On the left hand side in the centre of the church, there is a door that takes the visitors out to the Cloister, a traditional outdoor garden contemplation space that is an essential in every monastery.

From the ‘Cloitre’, the trail leads us into the three-storey building called the Merveille (The marvel!), that runs along the length of the church. This is the living quarters of both past and present monks that contains rooms like the Monk’s dining hall (refectoire) and the Guest Hall (Salle des Hotes) containing two huge fireplaces.

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On the left hand side in the centre of the church, there is a door that takes the visitors out to the Cloister, a traditional outdoor garden contemplation space that is an essential in every monastery.

MtStMichel-PlanNiveau03-EgliseSource: Wikipedia

From the ‘Cloitre’, the trail leads us into the three-storey building called the Merveille (The marvel!), that runs along the length of the church. This is the living quarters of both past and present monks that contains rooms like the Monk’s dining hall (refectoire) and the Guest Hall (Salle des Hotes) containing two huge fireplaces.

IMGP7897 aIMGP7863 aFrom the Merveille we headed back down toward the lower sections of the Abbey. Whilst the pillars in the Ambulatory room were very impressive, the columns holding up the roof of the “Crypt des Gross Pilliers” were extraordinary; their job was to support the weight of the church on the level above this crypt. Around the corner we came to where the giant tread-wheel stands, used to haul up all the rocks and other building materials from way down on the shoreline. When the Mont was a gaol, it was the prisoners inside the wheel who provided the power. These two photos show both sides of the equation; from inside the abbey looking down to the edge of the Mount and from the outside where the pulley rope hauled up goods from the base of the rock face.

We finally exited through the souvenir shop and outside onto the steps that led us back down the hill via Le Grande Rue. Rather than fighting the uphill traffic, we made our way through a shop and out on to the fortified walls walkway that gave us a pleasant unhurried walk back along the edge of Mont Sainte Michel. In one direction, it gave us a great view out over the bay, watching the tour groups out on the sand flats beginning to wend their way back to safety. Looking the other way gained the astonishing view back up to the Church of Sainte Michel with its triumphant steeple holding up St Michael against the darkening sky.

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At some stage during our tour of the abbey, a large number of World War Two era jeeps and other vehicles arrived on the parking area outside the main entrance of Mont Sainte Michel. They appeared to be part of the celebrations around the 75th anniversary of the beach landings that was the invasion of Normandy that began on the 6th June 1944. The people who brought the vehicles across the causeway were commemorating the wartime service of journalists and photographers who covered the allied troops landing in Normandy.


On our arrival back on the mainland of France, we decided we would check out the complexity of the dam across the Couesnon River that has brought such an amazing change to the issues of the build-up of sand and silt in the bay. It was also a great spot to get some last photos of the Mont dwindling into the distance.

IMGP7901a IMGP7902a IMGP7907 aThe other part of the transformation of the bay was the new causeway that we had walked along at the start of our day rather than catching the shuttle buses. I was interested to note that one explanation for the design of the new causeway was as follows…“The idea behind the new umbilical cord between the mainland and the Mount is also a moment of real wonder for pedestrians.” (Mont Saint Michel, Gerard Dalmaz) I can confirm that this goal was fulfilled for our little group in both the walk to and the walk from Mont St Michel.




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