Mont St Michel
© Igor Plotnikov / 123RF
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Mont St Michel

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile

Our Editorial team's advice

The Mont Saint Michel is a medieval village built flanked to the sides of an islet shaped like a hill off the northern coast of France in Lower Normandy. The narrow winding streets of the village all lead to the Norman Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michel, which lies right at the top. St Michel became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, but has played an important role ever since it was used as an Armorican (an ancient region in northwest France) stronghold in the 6th and 7th centuries. The mount is even depicted in a tapestry commemorating the battle of 1066 (the Norman conquest of England). Before the Reformation, the mount was an important place of pilgrimage, which subsided completely by the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799); the abbey thus became a prison before it was reopened and restored to its former glory after the renowned French author, Victor Hugo, fought for Saint Michel's status as a national architectural treasure. Since the mount was declared a historic monument in the 1860's its popularity as a tourist spot has grown ever since.

Although no longer a site of pilgrimage, the mount's charm lies in its compact labyrinthine structure along the main causeway, which is the only way to access the village. Tourists have been known to try and access the mount via the sea, but this is strongly discouraged due to the strong currents and quicksand that surround the island. Crossing the sea to reach the Saint Michel should only be done with an experienced tour guide.

Saint Michel is a busy crowded township full of tourist traps but as one of the first touristic destinations of France; today it is the most visited place after Paris and its surroundings. The Mont Saint Michel has succeeded in maintaining its draw through the romantic image depicted by some of the most renowned French painters and authors, such as Guy de Mautpassant in Le Horla. The islet has also featured in several works of contemporary music, like Apex Twin's track Saint Michel+Saint Michael's Mount - one of the Saint Michel's daughter foundations is St Michael's in Cornwall, which is where Apex Twin is from.

Although visiting the mount is pleasant enough, don't expect this trip to be one of a lifetime!

To see

The main draw of Saint Michel lies in its Abbey of Mont Saint Michel (L'Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel): ?8.5 adult, ?5 18-25 years old (free for citizens of the EU), and free for under 18s. The abbey used to be a small basic monastery that was turned into a prison during the French Revolution before being restored back to its former glory (and beyond post-revolution). A few remnants of its days as a prison, like a human hamster wheel, are on show. Mass is celebrated every day except for Mondays. If you are in Saint Michel, the other attraction is the Notre-Dame Sous Terre Chapel, literally meaning 'Our Lady Underground'. The chapel was built in 966.

To do

When visiting Saint Michel, beware of the crowds, which can be overwhelming especially during religious festivities and the summer season. However, to make sure you get a bit of a break, have a wander around on the fortified village's ramparts, which boast beautiful views of the mainland and surrounding waters. Alternatively you should drop by the several gardens that dot the island. Something else most people seem to like doing, is to wander in and out of the plethora of tourist shops selling cheap souvenirs, which somewhat spoils the atmosphere of the village. Restaurants on the mainland are significantly less expensive. You can get around on foot or bike all over the island, which can be explored in a few hours.

pros

  • +  Picturesque islet.

cons

  • -  Too crowded.
  • -  Expensive.
  • -  Not much to do after having wandered the streets.
  • -  The food quality served in the restaurants is of a poor standard.

To think about

Before setting off to visit the area, make sure you have made accommodation plans as the hotels within the township and nearby on the mainland, are very busy, especially during the summer season and Christian festivities. However, you should only need a few hours to explore Saint Michel, so we wouldn't recommend staying unless you hold the islet close to your heart!

The steps to the top of the mount can be very steep, so make sure you are physically fit to climb up.

To avoid

To avoid the impressive crowds that fill Saint Michel narrow streets, escape to the ramparts that surround the island where it is less crowded. Always use the main entrance causeway to gain access the Saint Michel as entering it via the sea can be extremely dangerous due to strong tides and quicksand. Also, avoid eating on the actual mount as the food isn't particularly good and it doesn't come cheap!

To try

There is no particular dish to try apart from the usual French specialties, however, most devout fans of Saint Michel will insist on every passer-by trying the mount's omelets and salt marsh lamb (agneau de Pré Salé). Otherwise, as we mention below, the restaurants and cafés on the island are harshly overpriced, which may be acceptable if the food was of a superior standard - which it clearly isn't. So make sure you either plan for a meal budget if there is a large group of you, or head somewhere on the mainland.

To bring back

Most people tend to bring back a naff souvenir from one of the various shops, but in essence there isn't much in terms of things to buy.