Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

Man's fight against nature


Mont-Saint-Michel, BP 22, 50170 Le Mont-Saint-Michel, France

GPS: 48.6362427598, -1.5109495972763

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Ideally positioned along the Normandy Bay, on the border of Brittany, the Mont-Saint-Michel enjoys an exceptional environment and natural setting. With its Benedictine abbey, this characteristic ensemble of religious and military architecture from the Middle Ages is one of the most visited sites in France. In spite of a layering of disparate constructions, the Mont-Saint-Michel forms an admirable place retracing 13 centuries of eventful history. It has always been able to withstand the test of time, facing several fires, wars, landslides, seismic movements and violent climatic phenomena (winds, storms, tides…).

From the 8th century, under the Merovingian dynasty, this place of worship dedicated to the archangel Saint Michael began to attract the first Christian pilgrims. It was the bishop of Avranches, Saint Aubert, who was responsible for the foundation of a Catholic building by laying the first stone in the year 709. He built a modest sanctuary with the chapel Notre-Dame-sous-Terre on Mont Tombe (the island’s former name). At the instigation of the Duke of Normandy Richard I, an abbey church was built by the Benedictines from the 10th century onwards. Then, at the beginning of the 13th century, superb Gothic monuments and rooms (known as the “Merveille”) were built on three levels on the northern part of the island. The monastic buildings of the Mont-Saint-Michel, admirably erected on a granite rocky islet overlooking the English Channel, quickly established themselves as a major pilgrimage site in medieval times. They competed with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Built in wood and then in stone, the monuments were inhabited for centuries by monks. Ramparts were erected between the 13th and 15th centuries to fortify and protect the site of the Mont-Saint-Michel from outside attacks.

More recently, this emblematic site of French heritage has attracted many curious people who have come to observe the fascinating spectacle of the high tides. These can reach up to 15 metres of tidal range, the greatest difference between low and high tides in continental Europe. Threatened by the phenomenon of silting over the last two centuries, the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey has recently regained its historic maritime character as a result of major development work and de-silting by the French State. Abandoned at the end of the 18th century, the religious sanctuary is now occupied by the Catholic community of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem. A small community of monks and nuns have been providing daily prayer and monastic welcome to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey since 2001.

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  • The incomparable charm and the strong spirituality of the place; the sculptural and harmonious form of the building, combining architectural styles from different eras (the work was carried out between the 8th and 18th centuries); the majesty of the site when it is surrounded by water during high tides (an event that occurs 20 times a year); the conical appearance of the rock visible from kilometres around
  • The system of defensive buttresses; climbing the ramparts (some walls are up to 4 metres thick) and visiting the Benedictine abbey
  • The West Terrace, the Gabriel Tower, the North Tower and their magnificent views of the bay
  • The Roman naves and the flamboyant Gothic choir of the abbey (15th century); the treasures of the “Merveille” (the chaplaincy, the storeroom, the guest room, the Knights’ room, the cloister, the monks’ refectory and the 13th century dwellings); the Saint-Aubert chapel of the Mont-Saint-Michel (12th century)
  • The statue of the archangel Saint Michael at the top of the abbey church; the remains of the Norman chapel Notre-Dame-sous-Terre located in the lower levels of the abbey (accessible only by guided tour)
  • The Porte du Roy, the Porte du Boulevard and the paved Grande Rue (main street of the block)
  • Night visits, night shows and classical concerts organized in the abbey (in high season); educational activities for children
  • The impressive spectacle of the high tides in the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay; the vast expanses of sand at low tide; the salt meadows regularly invaded by the rising tides (this is an area of pastures appreciated by grazing lambs and sheep); tasting of local mussels called “Moules de Bouchot de la baie du Mont-Saint-Michel”
  • The enchanting illuminations of the site at nightfall; the possibility of sleeping among the ten or so intramural establishments present on the island of Mont-Saint-Michel (despite a perfectible quality-price ratio, this solution has the advantage of enjoying the most of the place in absolute calm); the biennial hiking event “Rando Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel” in June
  • The buildings of the Mont-Saint-Michel rest on a huge granite rock of 4 km². This magmatic rock is a stigma of an ancient mountain range that was formed 500 to 600 million years ago (the Armorican Massif) before being totally eroded.
  • According to a legend, the bishop of Avranches (who posthumously became Saint Aubert) took the decision to build a first sanctuary at the beginning of the 8th century following an angelic revelation. The archangel Saint Michael would have appeared during his sleep and would have asked him to build a place of worship (oratory) in his honour at the top of Mont Tombe. To persuade him, the archangel Saint Michael would have put his finger on the bishop’s head and caused a hole in his skull. The latter is preserved as a relic in the Basilica of Saint Gervais in Avranches and does indeed have a notable hole. However, after medical analysis, it turns out that this perforation is in fact linked to a disease called squamous cell cyst (a kind of benign tumour). This was clearly the reason why the first pilgrims travelled to the Mont-Saint-Michel. The unusual location of the site and the construction prowess of the buildings did the rest to impress the faithful and arouse the admiration of visitors (including several kings of France).
  • At the time of the construction of the first building in the early 8th century, the site was not yet separated from the mainland by the sea because it was surrounded by woods and marshes belonging to the Scissy Forest. According to the legend, a tidal wave engulfed this forest in the year 709 and gave Mont Tombe its insular character. Another mythological tale from medieval texts of the Matter of Britain claims that King Arthur fought a giant on the site of the Mont-Saint-Michel.
  • In the 15th century, the Mont-Saint-Michel earned its reputation as an impregnable fortress by being protected by the tides, quicksand and its efficient wall system. For more than 30 years it withstood the siege of the British troops during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), to the point where it became a national symbol of resistance when the entire of Normandy was occupied by the English.
  • Between the French Revolution (1789) and the second half of the 19th century (1863), the site of the Mont-Saint-Michel became a place of detention for many political prisoners, sentenced to hard labour. This prison with its appalling living conditions saw more than 10,000 inmates, including priests, women and children. The monks were given the role of gaolers in one of the largest prison sites in France at the time. It was then renamed Mont Libre (“Mount Free”). Instead of a prison, the buildings of the Mont-Saint-Michel could very well have been used as a stone quarry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • The site of the Mont-Saint-Michel was classified as a historical monument in 1874, but it was not until 1922 that mass was again celebrated in the abbey church.
  • Today, the Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most visited cultural sites in France with the Palace of Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Some 3 million visitors pass through this small village with a population of only forty or so inhabitants every year. It is nicknamed “the Pearl of the West”.
  • The Saint-Martin crypt, supporting the south transept of the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey, has a fantastic acoustic quality. The great amplitude of sound generated by Gregorian chant was considered in medieval times to be prodigious, even supernatural. The builders and the monks thus chose the precise dimensions of the building according to the sound quality they were looking for during the liturgy.
  • The statue of the archangel of Mont-Saint-Michel is almost 160 metres high (it includes a lightning conductor system to protect the abbey against lightning). Pilgrims come from all over Europe to secure the favours of the archangel and protect themselves against the forces of evil (medieval representations often depict the archangel Saint Michael defending the site against the attack of a winged dragon).
  • The Mont-Saint-Michel site has one of the highest tides in the world and the most powerful in Europe. Before the recent destruction of the road leading to the foot of the rock, the Mont-Saint-Michel was undergoing a major silting up and bogging down phenomenon linked to the accumulation of sediment. These were deposited in huge numbers by high tides and strong sea currents. The construction of a complex dam on the Couesnon River, commissioned in 2009 after more than 20 years of preliminary studies and major works, has made it possible to preserve the insularity of the site.
  • To avoid the human tide during your stay, it is advisable to get to the Mont-Saint-Michel early in the morning (from 9.00 or 9.30 am, depending on the season) by booking a guided tour. The other option may be in the late afternoon (around 5 pm), after the last groups have left in large numbers by coach. The last entry is authorized one hour before closing time (6 pm in low season or 7 pm in high season). Guided night walks are organized in summer.
  • The visit to the abbey is free on the first Sunday of each month, between March and November.
  • Since 2015, a footbridge for pedestrians and buses has made it possible to reach the rock of the Mont Saint-Michel from the new parking areas (free shuttle service).
  • By visiting the site on a day of high tide (coefficient greater than 100), you will have the privilege of discovering the Mont-Saint-Michel surrounded by water, just as the first Benedictine monks had founded it a millennium earlier. If you opt for this solution, access to the site and the abbey may be disrupted (at a rate of 2 hours per day).
  • There are many possibilities for hiking around the Mont-Saint-Michel and its exceptional bay. However, due to the dangers of the rising tide, fog and quicksand, it is recommended that you use the services of a local guide to explore its environment in complete safety.
  • The mission of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem proposes an original solution to stay on the island for individuals, couples and small groups of 8 to 10 people. It takes place in a strict framework, in the rhythm of the services (spirituality, silence and prayers are necessary in the presence of the brothers and sisters of Jerusalem).

Where to eat

  • La Ferme Saint Michel
    (pre-salted lamb is a delight)
  • La Sirène
    (traditional Breton crêperie)
  • Creperie La Cloche
    (exquisite sweet crêpes)

Where to go

  • Dam over the Couesnon
    (magnificent view of the site)
  • Scriptorial d'Avranches
    (old manuscripts)
  • Bretagne Montgolfières
    (spectacular experience)

Where to stay

  • Hotel Gabriel
    (ideally located)
  • Le Relais du Roy
    (quality hotel-restaurant)
  • Hotel Mercure Mont Saint Michel
    (very comfortable rooms)