Mont Saint-Michel has been considered the “wonder of the West” for centuries and we have wanted to visit this marvel, one of the most magical places in the world, for a long time. And by chance we did it in May of this year which celebrates 1000 years of life since its construction.
The abbey-fortress between Normandy and Brittany
Very strong has been the emotion of seeing the Mont appear almost suddenly beyond the bay, the one with the highest tides in Europe that reach almost 15 meters in altitude.
To reach the abbey you have to leave your car in a large parking lot, crowded with buses and cars: those who don’t have large dogs like us can board the free shuttle called “Passeur”, which takes you right up to Mont Saint- Michel.
Who traveling with a bulky four-legged instead must opt for a good few kilometers on foot along the bridge-walkway, which connects it to the mainland and is partially submerged at high tide. This bridge over the water is 760 meters long and there were many stops to take pictures of the mountain that emerges in the bay like a mirage in the desert.
Once you have passed Porte de l’Avancée, the only one that allows access to the walled enclosure, it is difficult to avoid the crowds of tourists who wind their way through the ramparts and streets of the village perched on the rocky islet, one of the first classified sites since 1979 as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
The place fascinates but the spell is somewhat broken by the continuous comings and goings of people. Finding a place to stop to enjoy the atmosphere of the medieval village alone, full of millenary history and legends, was tough but Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited sites in all of France and also the one where we met the most Italians!
It takes its name from the patron Saint Archangel Michael, to whom the imposing Abbey is dedicated, which blends the Gothic and Romanesque styles. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared three times in a dream to the Bishop of Avranches, Aubert, ordering him to build a church in his honor at that point on the sea. The first two times the bishop ignored the requests of the Saint until the latter, enraged, pierced his skull with a touch of his finger and only then the bishop decided to fulfill the requests of the archangel.
On 16 October 709 the first church was consecrated, but soon the fame of the abbey spread and many pilgrims began to arrive there to ask for protection from Saint Michael and so in 1023 the first stone was laid for a larger and more imposing abbey, the new Eglise de Notre-Dame-sous-Terre.
From that day on, the struggles for the Norman throne, the armed expeditions against the Bretons, the intrigues, the revenges, the assaults have taken place within these walls, for which a first wall was built, then a second and finally a third with towers and ramparts around the base of the mountain to make the abbey impregnable and the mountain a stronghold where in 1496 King Louis XI established the Order of Knights. Today it continues to be a destination for onlookers and pilgrims from all over the world.
Mont-Saint-Michel was defined by the French writer Victor Hugo as “a pyramid on the sea” and is famous not only for the phenomenon of the tides but also for that of quicksand. At low tide the water retreats 25 kilometers and twelve hours later the sea returns with great rapidity in the form of a half-metre high wave which, according to Hugo’s description, “comes on as swiftly as a galloping horse”.
But there are few days of High Tides, about twenty over the year, in which they have a coefficient greater than 100 and come to completely surround Mont Saint Michel, making it a real island. Generally, the strongest tides occur 36 to 48 hours after the full and new moons and around the equinox, i.e. in spring and autumn.
We did not witness this rare spectacle but we immersed ourselves in the narrow streets of the village by crossing the Porte du Boulevard with its cannons and the Porte du Roi, on which you can see the friezes of the abbey and the city. The Grand Rue is very crowded, flanked by buildings dating back to 1400-1500 where today there are overpriced souvenir shops.
Our tour stopped at the base of the Grand Degré staircase of 350 steps leading to the Abbey, inside which dogs are not allowed. We consoled ourselves with the panorama: from the top of the walls you can admire the whole bay where the water slowly begins to rise again, creating plays of light and contrasts.
Next time we intend to go back and to visit the Abbey with all its “treasures”, from the church to the cloister, from the refectory to the monks’ ambulatory and the gardens of the “Merveille”. And we would like to stay in the area to discover the bay in other ways by walking with a guide barefoot on the sand to the fortress that emerges alone or by kayak from the sea or on the Sélune river.