Madeline and I visited Mont Saint Michel when we visited Paris. It’s a long drive from Paris but we found a terrific tour company. Our tour guides: Doru and Stella were full of history and interesting information.. You hear me talk about these two a lot in France because we took plenty of tours with them. They have their own travel company, and they are on Instagram. I highly recommend the I Come and Go company. The link is below.
We picked a bit of a blustery day to visit Mont Saint Michel, so we dressed in some warmer rain gear. Mont Saint Michel is a small island commune that occupies 240 acres off the coast of Normandy. Mont Saint Michel has a lot of history associated with it. It has been calling pilgrims to it since the 8th century. At that time, they needed to cross a dangerous bay with tides that could rise very swiftly.
Mont Saint Michel began in 708, when Bishop Aubert erected a first sanctuary on what was then called Mont Tombe in honor of the Archangel. In 966, Benedictine monks came at the request of the Duke of Normandy, Richard I. The Benedictine monks were responsible for the growth of the new monastery. Many books and manuscripts were stored there it became known as the “City of the Books.” Pilgrims came to read and be inspired.
The first abbey was built in the 10th century, and continued to be developed further over time, together with its surrounding village. Fire and erosion have resulted in a change in both design and architecture over a thousand years. If you are a fan of the TV Series Vikings, you will appreciate that Rollo provided funding for Mont Saint Michel.
In 1811, an Imperial decree transformed the Abbey into a prison, mainly for common law prisoners and some political prisoners. The prison closed in 1863, and things were left in a state of severe dilapidation. In 1872, the highly decorated French architect of historic monuments, Edouard Corroyer, was sent to assess the condition of Mont Saint Michel. It took him about two years to convince his minister to classify Mont Saint Michel a historic monument, and it was officially declared as such in 1874. This allowed restoration work to begin. Pilgrims still came and went but tourism did not start in earnest until after WW II. In 1969, a small community of Benedictine monks was established at the Abbey, who were replaced in 2001 by the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem.
The actions by the State to conserve the site led to it being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 under the title of "Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay". Mont-Saint-Michel was one of the first French cultural properties to be listed. Then in 1998, the site was also listed as a "Pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, in France". The double recognition solidified the value of this monument and more tourism resulted.
It took until 2005 to make the abbey more accessible. A new bridge and dam were built allowing a shuttle to regularly office tourist service. Parking lots that were close to the abbey removed and put far back on the shoreline. Only the 50 or so permanent residents of the island can use their own cars. The shot above is where the shuttle lets visitors off. Everyone wants to take a picture and then there is a bit of a walk to gain entrance to the abbey grounds. Visiting is free, but there are entrance fees for some buildings on the island – namely the abbey and some small museums.
Once we traversed our way to the grounds, we passed through the medieval wall which services as the entrance.
In the “olden days” there was even train service to Mont Saint Michel. We looked up at the abbey and were amazed at the architectural spires and walls.
The ancient gateway took us to the Grande Rue which is the short road to the abbey. We passed plenty of restaurants and tourist shops.
The walkways are a bit narrow, and you can see Madeline admiring the 15th and 16th century buildings as she walked toward the abbey. Medieval architecture is intact and beautiful.
I put my wool hat on because it was a bit misty, and I knew we had a bit of a walk ahead of ourselves. People come to see the abbey and frequently stop at the shops for souvenirs or to have lunch before going on to the next tourist site for the day. Just getting to the village entrance is a bit of a walk. In order to get up into the abbey, it’s more than 900 steps and most of it is uphill. However, nobody is going to race you and you can easily stop along the way if you are short of breath. However, there is no elevator, and it would be a difficult climb to the abbey in a wheelchair.
Once we entered the abbey, we were very impressed with the nave.
It is even more impressive up close.
Madeline took this picture of the refectory, and it made me think of some historical movie with a lot of special effects. Instead, this was a dining and congregation area for the monks. The columns that border each side give it a spiritual look and the cross hanging on the wall let us know we were correct.
The life of a monk or nun was very spartan and spiritual. Their days were very long and if they were not working, they were praying.
You can see Madeline and Stella walking along the cloister. I wasn’t sure what that meant originally. The cloister is the open courtyard that connects the various buildings of a monastery by means of a covered walkway. The covered walkway allowed the nuns and monks to mediate and pray while they enjoyed a bit of fresh air but protected from direct rain or snow.
I was fascinated by the architectural design. Madeline and Stella were taking pictures everywhere.
We could only imagine monastic life during medieval times. Inside the abbey, they have preserved some of the treasures from those times.
There are golden and silver chalices, crosses, and beautiful objects.
We could only imagine how they might have been used during the various time periods when the abbey was functioning at the height of the pilgrimages. We didn’t come for the treasures; we came for the history and the beautiful architecture of all of the buildings and rooms. We also came to absorb the history of the place and why so many pilgrims made their way to such an inaccessible place.
After all of those stairs and walking around, it was time for lunch. On our way up the route, we scouted a few places we thought might be perfect for lunch. Madeline loves French Onion Soup and this restaurant had it and she really enjoyed it. Just look at how much cheese was on top!
We talked about the history of the place and how much we saw in a few hours. I remembered when I worked in France early in my career. I wanted to visit Mont Saint Michel. At that time, you needed to know the tides and if you were off a bit, you either wouldn’t get there or you wouldn’t get back when you wanted. As a result, I didn’t go. These days are different, and Mont Saint Michel is very accessible. We think you’ll really enjoy your visit to such an historic monument.