I was thrilled to explore Normandy during our recent trip to France and to cross a couple items off my bucket list – one of which was touring the famous 1,200-year-old abbey at Mont Saint-Michel.
We rented a car at Charles De Gaulle airport on Friday morning and set off on a four-hour drive through the Normandy countryside to Mont St-Michel.
For more than a thousand years, the distant silhouette of this island abbey has sent pilgrims’ spirits soaring … For centuries devout Christians endeavored to make a great pilgrimage once in their lifetimes. If they couldn’t afford Rome, Jerusalem, or Santiago de Compostela, they came here, earning the same religious merits. Today, several million visitors – and a steady trickle of pilgrims – flood the single street of the tiny island each year. If this place seems built for tourism, in a sense it was. It’s accommodated, fed, watered, and sold trinkets to generations of travelers visiting its towering abbey.Rick Steves France
Approaching Mont St-Michel was an experience unto itself – from far away we began to see it floating in the distant mist. We pulled over at a sheep-filled field that stretched all the way to the water, a bike path winding through the pastures in the direction of the historic island.
There’s a modern village on the mainland where all of the tour buses park, and after a few wrong turns we made our way to the car parking area. After a brief walk by the restaurants, shops, restrooms, and shuttle staging area, we came to the boardwalk that winds toward the vast mudflats the surround the island at low tide.
There are three ways to get to the abbey from the parking area – you can take a shuttle, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or walk. I loved our walk to Mont St-Michel because we had ample time to take in the abbey and island from different perspectives as we approached. It didn’t take long on the well-maintained and flat boardwalk, and before I knew it we were crossing the bridge and stepping foot on the island.
Pro tip: Get Rick Steves’ France guide and follow his advice for avoiding the main tourist thoroughfare. There were tons of people milling about and the main road to the abbey is lined with trinket shops (aka junk) and over-priced restaurants. We followed his directions and found the alternate cobbled ramp up to the abbey, arriving at the doors just in time for our reserved entry slot. It was easy ordering tickets online in advance and allowed us to walk right in.
The first area we explored was the west terrace, which resulted from a 1776 fire that destroyed the western side of the church. The remaining, open-aired terrace offers amazing views over the Bay of Mont St-Michel. There were a few tour groups exploring the mudflats, and I enjoyed our overhead views of the messages people had written in the mud.
Brian was intrigued by the stone mason marks below our feet – only exposed for our viewing pleasure because of the fire.
Built in the 11th century on top of four immense crypts (to create a level foundation on the very unlevel island) the abbey church is quiet and cold.
There was an interesting assortment of very old tiles, art, and statues, as well as some more recent pieces like a pirate ship dangling from the ceiling! The center area was roped off but they didn’t seem to mind people climbing over the ropes and taking a seat for a more leisurely look around.
We wandered from the chapel into the cloisters, refectory, guests’ hall, Hall of Grand Pillars, and crypt, reading about the purpose and unique aspects of each space as we moved along at our our pace.
From 966 until 2001, this was a Benedictine abbey and at the height of its popularity it was home to 50 monks. In 2001 a new order of monks from Paris took over. Although we didn’t see any residents as we made our way around, it was clear we were only touring a small portion of the overall space.
One historically fascinating area to me was the area that held the hospital, morgue, and ossuary (eg room where they kept the skeletal remains of the monks who passed away).
During the French Revolution when monasticism was abolished, the government took over the abbey and made it into a prison. The ossuary was equipped with the treadmill featured below in 1820 and teams of six prisoners were made to walk two-by-two within the wheel to power two-ton loads of stones and other supplies up the track and into the abbey.
After wrapping up our self-guided tour of the abbey, we headed to the 15th century ramparts and followed them back down toward the base of the island. We came out near the entrance to the main pedestrian street, which was still packed with people shopping and eating, and made our way to the bridge for our walk back to our car.
Our day came full circle as we set off for Caen – we once again encountered flocks of sheep, this time being herded across the road! As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the babies making their way among the adults, my favorite aspect of this scene was the sheep dog who did not stop barking and herding until every sheep was safely across the road. One particularly ornery sheep was not having it, and the owner had to tell the dog to stand down while he chased after it on a four-wheeler. Team work!
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