Time for a day trip! During our Normandy adventure in France with my parents, we spent our time relaxing and taking little day trips and adventures here and there. One of the main things to see in this region is the impressive Mont Saint-Michel.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a landing pad for thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year, it is most easily recognizable as a church that sits on a mountain in the middle of the water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist.
The mount is located about 1.5 hours from where we were staying, so we all jumped in the car in the late morning and made our version of the pilgrimage, across Normandy, through the countryside, and as close as we could get to it…in order to park our Nissan Qashqai rental car as close as possible to the site itself. (What the heck is a ‘qashqai,’ anyway?)
Not exactly a traditional pilgrimage. But hey, this is our vacation.
Mont Saint-Michel sits in the bay here, just out of reach of the mainland. In the past, it was only accessible at low tide. When the tide came in, it’d be an island. It’s still an island when that happens, but there’s now a bridge that doesn’t have to worry about what the water is thinking.
This spot has one of the greatest tidal variations in all of Europe. I’m not sure how far the tide recedes, but it’s gotta be for miles. When it’s low tide, the mount sits in its ever-long location, surrounded by a massive expanse of mud, quicksand, and plenty of warnings that one should not walk around in there without a guide.
The first fortification here was built back in the 8th century, along with its monastery of the same name. There’s an abbey and a church on top, as well as an actual town winding its way around the mountain like a spiral. Sure, less than 50 people live here, but it’s still a town – mayor and all.
In this day and age, given the vast quantity of tourists that arrive each year, there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops to keep people occupied, and more importantly, spending their money.
And that’s totally understood, despite a few complaints I heard now and then. It’s 2015, and as long as the integrity of a historic site isn’t destroyed, let people live and earn.
Back when I first visited Mont Saint-Michel in 1997, one could park a mere 100 meters or so from the site. There was a parking lot right there, and I distinctly remember our bus only sitting a hop, skip, and a jump from the entrance to the isle.
In 2015, it’s a different animal. Various projects have been put underway to both accommodate its growing tourism, and bring a bit of ecological correctness back to the area. All sorts of waterways were filled and diverted over the years, creating a bit of an issue for how nature is supposed to do its thing here.
So, a new bridge was built, and the original waterways that flow in and out and around the island are being dredged. This is a good thing, in my mind, because it accomplishes those two important goals for the visitors and the ecology.
But, that also meant that the parking lot had to be moved over a kilometer away from the entrance to the mount. A huge lot was built, along with a little museum, and free shuttles now take visitors to and from the lot all day, every day.
I’d like to say that those people who don’t agree with this setup haven’t seen it both before and after.
It used to be madness of cars and traffic and waiting and confusion. Sure, you could park closer to the entrance, but it’s better to have a parking lot and a shuttle. There was pretty much zero traffic when we were there, and the shuttle took us to and fro with no problem at all.
It’s touristy, but what else are you going to do, close the island and ban everything? Doubtful.
Right. So, up we went and immediately stopped. Why? Because there’s a cafe right there. And a cafe needs our presence. It just does. It’s the siren song, and our mini, usually mulitple-times daily pilgrimage.
After a coffee that could have been better – but was still coffee! – we made our way around the back and hoofed it up the mountain on the non-touristy side.
While it’s still a climb, note that there are less stairs and more ramps on that side, in case you ever go with people who don’t do endless staircases too well.
We decided to visit the abbey at the top, something I had not done on my previous visit. There is plenty of history and gorgeous views from above.
What there are not, are exits. We ended up being stuck, winding our way through the abbey and its endless rooms for a couple of hours. One cannot just leave the abbey at any given time. One must see the entire abbey.
It is clearly beautiful. That is not the question here.
One thing that certainly fascinated us was the pulley system they used back in the day, to bring goods up to the abbey.
Just, imagine that.
But, it also has more than a handful of empty rooms that cannot be skipped for any reason whatsoever.
The jealous, lonely, empty rooms that gotta be just like all the other rooms, seen by each and every person who decides to visit the abbey.
To that, I say, Non, merci!
Unless you think you may spot a giant Santa Claus in the giant chimney.
Or you need a hug from a really big column.
The abbey is worth a visit, surely. But I’d advise that you ask someone where a freaking exit is before you enter its labyrinth. Otherwise, you’ll wind up exiting – finally – dazed and light-deprived, wondering how you ended up in there in the first place.
I felt like a combination of Game of Thrones (or whatever your medieval pleasure is…I recommend The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King) and Labyrinth was enveloping my psyche after being in there for so long.
The views and parts of the abbey are 110% worth it.
Just…ask about those exits, or be prepared to donate a couple hours, at least, of your hard-earned life and/or vacation time.
After making our way through and out of the abbey, and rubbing our eyes for the change in light, we caught some more views of the historic town and fortifications, and made our way to the nearest cafe on the mount with a view of the surrounding area.
We relaxed there for a while, as one does, taking in the fresh air and recounting our visit to this grand and very unique locale.
Winding down the town’s streets on our way to the bottom, it was easy to imagine how this place came to be and how it evolved over time into what it is today.
Despite the rampant and fairly necessary tourism of the whole thing, it retains its history and its ability to marvel all those who come across it.
And with that, we shuttled our way back to the Qashqai and headed back to our abode in Grandcamp-Maisy.
Check out this link if you’d like to read more about our time in Normandy and the great experiences we had during our week there.
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Have you ever been to Mont Saint-Michel? If so, what’d you think? If not, what say ye? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!