The Island and VillageEveryone told us that Mont-Saint-Michel is “special,” even friends who knew how many old churches and quaint villages we’ve been to, even those who usually are concerned with long drives for single destinations. We started out skeptical, we read about how crowded and commercialized it can be—and still, we went, the journey sweetened by the promise of an afternoon and evening on a Normandy farm along the way. We ended up glad we went, and with a new view of the place. (two clashing views above, one from the mainland, without visitors, and the other from the soon-to-be-removed causeway)
Let’s start by calling it one of the most readily-recognizable landmarks of France, and one of the most unusual. It’s not the only old village, it’s not the only medieval abbey, it’s not the only church on a hilltop or an island—not even the only one to have done time as a prison. But it must be the only one that’s all of these. And to many it looks like something from Disneyland.
Approaching Mont-Saint-Michel, which is just barely in Normandy, on the Brittany border, it doesn’t look like an island; you see it across green fields and marshland until you’re almost on it. Actually, until very recently, it hadn’t been a true island for a long time. A 19th century causeway to the island and various dams along the rivers feeding the bay caused much of the surrounding area to silt up over the years, despite some of the strongest tides in Europe. New construction, almost finished, has replaced the causeway with a new low-lying bridge, and the dams have been adjusted to allow Mont-Saint-Michel to resume its island status.
The cone-shaped island complex we see today, oddly enough, was built from the top down, not from the bottom up. First came a church in the 8th century, where the abbey stands now. As the abbey grew, houses and shops grew at its feet, and eventually the great wall that surrounds the island. Outside the wall, now a barren area, was once home to fishermen’s cottages and small farms. The high and powerful tides of the bay made it highly defensible; it survived a full siege in the Hundred Years’ War.
Today, with the island seldom completely surrounded by water and the tides not at their full every day, all kinds of activity takes place on the tidal flats outside the walls, from Boy Scout rallies to horseback riding to picnicing and just plain strolling.
Over the years, especially after the Reformation, the pilgrimages dried up, and the monastery held fewer and fewer monks. After the French Revolution, which dispersed all the religious houses, the abbey became a prison, a role it played until 1863. By that time, influential figures, including Victor Hugo, had begun campaigning for its preservation as a historic monument, which it became in 1874. In 1979, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Grand Rue, the main (and only) street of Mont-Saint-Michel starts at the entrance gate through the wall, and spirals up toward the lower parts of the abbey. It is so narrow in most parts that the only vehicle on the island, a forklift that makes its way up and down every now and then, collecting the trash, barely fits, and pedestrians have to step into doorways to make way. And it is so crowded that I have never seen a more crowded place that wasn’t watching a parade.
A note about that street full of souvenir shops, lodgings and places to eat: it’s as authentic as the abbey itself. In the Middle Ages, the abbey was the goal of thousands of pilgrims each year, and…well, they had to eat, and they had to sleep, and they certainly needed miraculous medals to take home and treasure forever. Even then, the Grand Rue served much the role it does today.
We were fortunate to find a room on the island; there aren’t many, even though every building not part of the abbey has been turned into a restaurant, souvenir shop and hotel. The actual resident population, other than the religious at the abbey, is less than 50. Everyone else, and the bulk of the local hotels, are clustered at the other end of the bridge, along with huge parking lots; visitors are shuttled to a point just outside the ancient walls. The hotels on the bay side of Grand Rue open also onto an elevated parapet with views down to the water. Our room (white windows above) had a great view, and the canopied restaurant below us served us a pleasant lunch. Staying on the island, though, meant that we got to see it in a different way, indeed.
A town that lives on tourism must, of course, be a town that feeds them, either richly and well, or with quick junk food. Mont-Saint-Michel does both. At the better end, many of the restaurants specialize in lamb dishes made from lamb raised on the saltgrass marshes in the area; it has a distinctive, but not salty, flavor and is incredibly tender. We enjoyed ours at the Duguesclin, where we stayed. One of the books describes it as a restaurant with rooms, and that was true; we had a private entrance off the parapet, but most of the eight rooms were just off the dining rooms. The restaurant itself sprawled over three floors of the building.
Because it so compact, and so steep, it's hard to avoid dramatic views, either up or down.
We spent our arrival afternoon climbing up from the hotel to the abbey at the top of the mountain, up seemingly endless steps—but that’s for the other part of this two-part report. Note how many different places the steps and the walls holding them appear!
At one point, you can even see three sets of parallel steps, each heading to a different part of the abbey and its buildings.
After dinner, we went for a walk outside the walls, strolling along the beach and rocks we had looked down on from above. Without realizing it, we had nearly circled the island when we turned around and retraced our steps as the light faded, and lights went up, illuminating the abbey. Turning away from the bridge and shuttles and the retreating crowds, we felt almost as if we had returned to another century.
Along the walls, ruins of a chapel belonging to a fishing village that once helped feed the island's residents.
And then, as twilight turned to night, more dramatic scenes appear...
And the crowds are gone from the Grand Rue