If you're floating through France anytime soon and be honest, you know you want to, consider a visit to the enchanting island fortress of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. You'll join a list of visitors ranging from Monet to Marilyn Monroe. And our adventurous detour to Mont Saint-Michel is the perfect example of what can happen when you make plans in pencil instead of Sharpie.
So, how did we find ourselves in an ancient castle situated in the middle of a bay? After spending a few days in Paris and Saint Laurent sur Mer, Josh and I had planned to pack up and take a bus to Germany. We wanted to see castles. Our bed and breakfast host near Omaha Beach, Emmanuel said "it must be a joke" when we shared our plans to travel from his doorstep to Bavaria. And he was right.
It would have been a grueling 17 hours on buses, trains, taxis and mountain goats (my preferred transportation method btw). Okay, so there wouldn't have been mountain goats, but Emmanuel was right. We were crazy and this plan was not good. So, Josh and I decided to visit a place I had only seen a single photo of in my guidebook: Mont Saint-Michel
We traveled to Mont Saint-Michel from Saint Laurent Sur Mer by FlixBus, but you're more likely to be coming from Paris. There are pretty much tourist buses that come here from every corner in France. Tickets are just a few dollars per person and you can enjoy some rare quiet time napping and reading before you get there. Who rests on their European vacations? Anyone? Take advantage of being strapped to a bus seat to read, listen to music, nap, pray, meditate, whatever you need to do to recharge. You'll know when you're getting close to the island - it’s impossible to miss the excited cooing of your fellow passengers when the island comes into view.
The bus will drop you at a parking lot about a mile and a half walk from the official entrance to Mont Saint-Michel. No cars are allowed on the island, so you’ll see hundreds of day travelers parking around here. If you need to freshen up before the final leg of the journey, there are plenty of clean restrooms at the Visitors Center about 100 yards from the bus stop.
It's really something to behold. The abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is situated on a rocky island connected to the shore by a long, low bridge over the bay that’s accessible by foot and shuttle bus. Josh and I took the complimentary shuttle bus, which dropped us off about 150 yards from the fortress walls. If you’re just visiting for a few hours though, I highly recommend taking the beautiful and brisk 30 minute walk!
Mont Saint-Michel is truly next level. I felt like I’d been catapulted back to the Middle Ages when I stepped through the front gate. If it weren't for the t-shirt shops and crepe stands, I would have thought his quaint village was straight out of the final episode of Game of Thrones. Dragons definitely fit in here and I wouldn't have been that surprised if I saw one fly overhead at nightfall.
As Josh and I walked up the cobblestone path toward our hotel, I felt that pure sense of wonder you get when you see something that's such a breathtaking combination of the natural environment, God and humanity. It's an architectural feat of genius to build, essentially a castle and an entire village, in the middle of a bay. I can't imagine what pilgrims must have felt when they gazed upon this masterpiece for the first time. Some of them might never have seen a stone building before. A thousand years later and it’s still breathtaking.
Over 3 million tourists visit Mont Saint-Michel annually (I worked very hard to keep extra peeps out of all my photos), but the original site was founded by an Irish hermit, who wanted to get away from it all. Obviously our hermit friend would have haaaaaated this place now. The village that's here for us to visit today was built in the 8th century to host the Benedictine abbey’s multitudes of pilgrims and spiritual seekers...it's still doing that so many years later!
Only 50 people live on the island full-time, but there are a few hotels onsite. We stayed at the La Vieille Auberge Mont Saint-Michel, which has a 2.1 star rating on Google Maps (from 369 people) but honestly forget these high-brow peeps, because we had a fabulous experience here and it's one of the most unforgettable hotel stays I've ever had. If you have time and your budget allows, I highly recommend spending a night on the island. Aside from the 25 monks who call Mont Saint-Michel home, only a few dozen tourists stay here at night. It was a unique experience to stay in such a quiet place compared to Paris, a city of seven million.
If you're not used to toting your suitcase up cobblestone stairs, maybe that's why you'd hate this place and I get that. This island demands to be walked, explored, seen so be sure you have comfortable walking shoes and a lot of energy. Staying at the Vieille Auberge isn't like staying at the Marriott, but that's why I loved it so much. We checked in at the bar in the hotel's brasserie and an employee walked us down the street to our room around the corner. To get there, we stepped under a stone arch of a petite Catholic church with a statue of 13th century heroine Joan of Arc out front. Joan loved this place. She was extremely inspired by Mont Saint-Michel's resistance to the Kingdom of England's attempts to take the island during the Hundred Years' War in 1337.
Things to Do
There are a handful of families who own everything in town including the shops, restaurants and hotels. Every menu is exactly the same, so don't waste time checking out the menus framed out front. We ate a traditional tourist dinner of omelettes, mussels and frites and watched the sunset over the bay. Our wait service was crazygood, which told us we were 100% in a tourist destination. It's like the Disneyland of western France, which locals are obviously not happy about. When you visit, be mindful of your footprint so that future generations can enjoy this place for centuries to come! The groundskeepers work hard to keep trash off the streets, but be a good visitor and pick it up if you see a plastic bag flying down the cobblestone walkways.
We went for a long walk after dinner to explore the empty ramparts that line the fortress walls. Archers haven’t had to defend these walls in quite some time, so naturally we felt pretty stealthy. It was so dang cold. Thankfully I had my grandmother's 1970s beaver coat to keep me warm, but it was starting to become tattered and would rip spontaneously when I moved.
Coming back to a cozy hotel room after being on the windy ramparts was like sinking into a hot bath. I fell asleep to the mighty wind howling across the water and rattling the walls of our little room. It felt like God was just deeply breathing into this place, inhaling and exhaling until I fell fast asleep.
And in the morning, I opened the wooden shutters and sang Belle's song from Beauty and the Beast for any pigeons who might be listening. I felt like I could stay here for a very long time. I'd love to spend a month in a yoga retreat in the gigantic abbey, doing down dog in the cloisters to the sound of the bay. Josh and I were like kids exploring every nook and cranny of this ancient playground.
Visiting The Abbey
Wander. Get lost. There are interesting architectural details at very turn. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the Gothic style abbey is a technical and artistic masterpiece as its adapted to its surreal natural environment. The abbey is a remarkable place to visit and it's easy to spend a few hours exploring its many sections and checking out the panoramic views. It was a bit rainy, but it only added to the drama of the place around us. You can see how the tides rise and fall throughout the day.
Our entry was free, because we happened to visit on the first Sunday of the month, which is an off-season rate they offer between November and March. It's still absolutely worth €10 if you come on a. different day. Plan to spend at least 5 hours wandering around the abbey. There are just a few daily guided tours in English, so be sure to check the schedule.
Mont Saint-Michel translates in English to "The Mount of Saint Michael", referring to the Archangel Michael (Michel) who is seen as the leader of heavenly angels and represents the ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil. Michael is referenced frequently in the Book of Revelations.
Anyways, this site was dedicated to the Archangel Michael in the 8th century after a local bishop called Aubert received repeated visions to build a sanctuary here. According to the Revelatio ecclesiae sancti michaelis, the oldest text recording the origins of Mont-Saint-Michel, the first foundations of the Abbey were laid in the year 708 and according to the legend, the archangel appeared to Aubert three times in a dream, asking him to establish a sanctuary in his name. As legend has it, on the third attempt, the archangel went as far as poking his finger into Aubert's skull to get him to perform his wishes.
Hm. Well then! I'm not sure if Aubert survived this skull poking but the sanctuary was built and it still stands today, welcoming visitors like Josh and I from all around the world. If you've been there, I'd love to hear about your favorite places here!