The nave and Choir of the Abbey
Sitting at the top of the island of Mont Saint-Michel is the reason for all the crowds - The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel au Péril de la Mar (Mount Saint Michael at the peril of the Sea). With a history that spans over 1400 years, this church draws visitors from around the world.
According to legend, the Catholic Church established a series of oratories on the island of Mont Saint-Michel as far back as the early 8th century. While not consecrated churches, there were places of contemplation and prayer. During the 9th century, Charlemagne chose Mont Saint-Michel as a protector of his empire and had the first idea of building a church here.
The transept crossing was originally constructed in 1066 at the top of the island, 80 m (265 ft) above the bay. Constructing a church in this spot was not easy. The area was not large enough for a full church, so other buildings had to be built to support the structure of the nave and choir. The first attempt collapsed on 1103. In fact, the church, and its attendant buildings were not completed until 1543.
Mont Saint-Michel served as a Benedictine monastery until 1791, when it was closed by the republican government of the French Revolution. It served as a prison until 1863, when a group of prominent citizens petitioned emperor Napoleon III to close it and designate the the structure as a national treasure. The abbey remained unoccupied until 1966, when some Benedictine monks returned after a celebration of the millennial anniversary of its founding. Today there are approximately 25 members of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem that live there full time.
A visit to the abbey takes some planning, but it is well worth it. I highly recommend buying timed entry tickets in advance. You can do this on-line, or at the Tourism Office on the island. They will arrange for you to participate in a tour in English or French. The line for “day-of” tickets can be very long, and having a timed entry allows you to bypass the line, although you will still have to check-in for your tour in the ticket office. The abbey sits at the top of the island, and so there is a lot of climbing of hills and stairs to get there. You will also have to go up and down several stairways during your tour, which starts at the top, and then wends its way through the support buildings working back down to the ticket office/souvenir shop.
You will begin your tour at the main church. First, enjoy the view from platforms outside the building. There are great views of the bay and the surrounding land. You will also find some very friendly seagulls hanging out, looking for food.
The nave of the church is built on the island’s core rock, but the choir is not. It is supported by buildings underneath, along with around two dozen columns that reach down around 60 feet.
Leaving the church, you enter the cloister, a place of contemplation, although with today’s crowds, that is not so easy. The ceiling around the open space is decorated with friezes, each one unique.
The cloister sits on top of the support buildings along the north side of the abbey. Leaving the cloister you enter the monk’s refectory. They would eat their meals here, while one member of the brotherhood would sit and read from the Bible.
Your tour will take you back and forth below the church, traveling between the buildings. You will visit the dining room for visiting nobility, the one for their servants, a small chapel, an herb garden, and the room used both in the past and present to transport supplies up to abbey.
The tour ends up at the souvenir shop (of course), and from there you exit into the Bois de l’Abbaye, and make your way back to the main street of the island.
When you finish your tour of the abbey, find a place for lunch, and then enjoy one of the other museums, or a day wandering the back paths of Mont Saint-Michel.