Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel
Explore an unmissable World Heritage Site on a mystical island
Getting to know Le Mont Saint-Michel
Central European Time (CET)
The tides of time
With over 60 protected buildings, Mont Saint-Michel and its beautiful bay have a rightful place on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. It’s a picture perfect island 600 metres off the French coast. Many pilgrims en route to the abbey were able to access it easily at low tide. At high tide however, the crashing waves and cold waters made the island unreachable. The Mont was unconquered throughout the Hundred Years War, and thanks to its impenetrability, the abbey was later used as a prison.
The monastery that tops the hill on this medieval island is the kind you might expect to see surrounded by flying dragons and forked lightning. It appears to defy gravity and while it now attracts camera-wielding tourists, it was once one of Europe’s major destinations for pilgrimages. Looming over the bay where Brittany merges with Normandy, this fantastical site is the stuff of legends, one of which states that in 708 AD, the Archangel Michael himself ordered its construction.
It’s not just the abbey you should dedicate some time to on Mont Saint-Michel. Local culinary delights include some big surprises, like the fluffy omelets which have become an island specialty. The monks would wolf these down, back in the day, as the eggy treats made for a quick and filling meal before the tide came in and rendered them stuck. The lamb is particularly good here too, having been raised on the island’s saltwater grass, while the mussels and seafood platters also go down like a dream.
Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel
This breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site is the main tourist draw to Mont Saint-Michel. With 20 rooms to explore, beautiful gardens and panoramic views of the sea and sky, it’s a majestic piece of historical France, and you can spend a good few hours exploring the abbey alone or with a free guided tour. As early as 708 AD it was a place of pilgrimage for medieval monks, who started building the abbey in the 10th century. The earlier you can get here, the better. It gets busy, especially in summer.
The building of Mont-Saint-Michel’s cloister began in 1228, when architect Thomas des Chambres hoped to construct a symbol of the perfect monastic life. This is where the monks would meditate; a space for personal reflection with uninterrupted views of the sky. In 1878 the limestone columns from England were replaced, which in turn revealed more of the world outside. The eye is now drawn to the sand and sea below instead of to the sky. Some might say this makes for better photos - something the monks weren’t too worried about.
Terrasse de l'Ouest
Part of the abbey tour, but well worth some extra time, the views from this lookout spot resemble an impressionist painting. Take your time on the way up, or down from the abbey to enjoy a few magical moments of panoramic contemplation. If you’re lucky you’ll spot the reflection of Mont Saint-Michel in the waters below you, while at low tide a lunar landscape unfolds and you can usually watch a few brave souls wandering along the wet sand. Either way you’ll get some excellent photos.
Stop in Rennes
If you’re stopping in Rennes on your way to or from Mont Saint-Michel, you’ll find a maze of charming streets to explore, plus shops, boutique stores and cute cafes. Even the tourist office in Brittany’s capital is in a former chapel, which is also home to a permanent exhibition on the town’s interesting history. It’s worth a look. Explore the Parlement of Brittany and be wowed by the architecture of Place de la Mairie, Palais du commerce and Champs Libres - a cultural centre.