I have dreamt about visiting Mont Saint-Michel for over thirty years. In 1990 the movie “Mindwalk” was released. Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, and John Heard spend almost two hours discussing science, philosophy, and the meaning of life. As they do, they walk around the Mont Saint-Michel. I fell in love with the island immediately.
Mont Saint-Michel is a tidal island that sits approximately one kilometer off the coast of Normandy. A tidal island is one that is accessible by walking at low tide, but not at high tide. It covers 4 sq Km (1.5 sq mi) and climbs up to 80 m in height. There are about 25 permanent residents on the island, and 60 buildings. The main structure on Mont Saint-Michel is the Abbey, which was originally constructed in the 9th century, but more on that next week.
The ability to defend Mont Saint-Michel made it an important stronghold over the centuries. Its limited access, height, and the ability to construct ramparts for protection made it a safe haven. The abbey played important roles in the Norman conquest of England and in the Hundred Years War.
Mont Saint-Michel was always a place that could be difficult to visit. It was cut off to everything but boats during high tides, which average 15m (46 ft). In the 1800’s a causeway was built, which gave an easier pathway during low tide, but still would be covered at high tide, and was a collecting area for silt and mud. In 2014, a bridge was built that offers complete access at all times. A large parking area is about 5 km (3 mi) away, with an attached Visitor Center. There is also a free shuttle service from the visitor center that runs from 7:30 AM until midnight.
Today Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most-visited cultural sites in France. Over three million people visit the island every year. Most of them are day-trippers, which gives the area a similar feel to popular cruise ports. It gets very crowded during the middle of the day, but empties out by dinner time.
On Mont Saint-Michel there is one main street—Grande Rue—that climbs from the entry gate uphill to the Abbey. In fact “uphill” is a key term, because a visit here involves climbing hills and steps whichever path you take. Grand Rue is where almost all of the restaurants and tourist shops are located. During the day, it is very crowded, and the restaurants fill up quickly at lunch time, so patience and planning is needed, as you will almost certainly have to wait for a table. I enjoyed lunch at Le Chapeau Rouge, a small restaurant that serves excellent mussels. I also enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Auberge Saint Pierre. If the weather cooperates, there are several places that sell sandwiches and drinks that you can buy and eat along the ramparts.
In my opinion, the best way to see the island is to stay overnight at one of the hotels. The crowds leave in the late afternoon. Grand Rue and the ramparts on the edge of the island empty out, and you can get a good feeling for how Mont Saint-Michel was in the past.
Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places that seems to be “out of time.” Even with the crowds, a walk around the island, especially down the smaller walkways, can take you back centuries.