Mont St. Michel — Is that a real place?

goatWhen I shared this picture of the goat grazing in a field near St. Michel on Facebook, one of my daughter’s friends queried:   ‘Where is that?  Is that a real place?’   That is a fair question.  Mt. St. Michel does evoke thoughts of fantasy novels or worlds constructed for computer games.  And the best thing about it is that view from a distance rising above fields and mud flats.

It is one of those places we knew we had to see once.  This October we found ourselves with 5 unplanned nights on a trip to Paris before our apartment would be available.  A quick tour of some of the places we had always wanted to visit in Normandy seemed manageable.  We trained to Caen (it was only 15 Euro apiece with Prems tickets booked far in advance and printed on our computer)  We picked up a car and drove to St. Michel and a B&B on shore for our first night.  I had though we would prefer to be off the Island since the view at night would be so wonderful.

We were not thrilled with the B&B, shabby room, lousy bed and lame breakfast, but the view from the side window that evening hinted at the magic of Mt. St. Michel. goatbbview

Late October is a fairly uncrowded time for this site and only a few of the parking lots, which cover acres, were in use when we drove over to see as much as we could that first afternoon and evening. goatparkingThe lots are a long ways — maybe half a mile — from the bus stop for the shuttle that takes people across the causeway to the Mont.  Alas this set up seems to be designed to force people to walk through a tacky strip mall as it would be simple for the shuttle to run from the parking lots.  There is a bus for employees and the handicapped that comes a little closer to the lot, but even that requires a fair hike for the disabled.  We saw people on crutches struggling their way to the disabled pick up. On the other hand it is hard to imagine a site less suited for someone with mobility issues than Mt. St. Michel as the island itself is all steep stairs.  There is a magnificent view of the Mont from the parking lot itself.goatparkinglotviewThen the visitor is treated to a stroll by first ugly worker housing:goathousingAnd then several blocks of ugly strip mall and souvenir stands. goatgauntlet2goatgauntlet3In the old days, people drove across the mud flats and parked in lots that were underwater at high tide.  There are many stories of people being caught by the tide coming in and drowned or foundering in the quicksand or losing their cars to miscalculation of the tides.  This is all a thing of the past with the causeway.   The shuttle only goes a short distance across the causeway; and this is actually the most scenic part of the walk.  The tourist would be better served with a shuttle from the parking lot to the causeway and then walking across the causeway enjoying the magnificence of the Mont rising ahead.

The causeway is to be demolished and be replaced by a bridge which will supposedly prevent the silting up of the bay caused by the daming effect of the causeway.

goatbusThe final stop of the causeway shuttle bus  leaves you with a block or so walk to the base of the Mont. goatwalkfrom bus stopAs we approached we could see the sea walls that protected the lower parts of the village and get a sense of the island.  The Mont itself rises 300 feet above sea level and is topped by the Abbey.  There are about 300 residents.msmwallsheadlands

We were too late to visit the Abbey that evening, but we did have time to walk on the ramparts, have dinner and see the Mont at night.

I had read that to avoid the crowded central tourist packed commercial street, a traveler could walk up the ramparts to the left of the main entrance to the village, but it was blocked by construction when we were there so we walked up the center, stopping for hot chocolate early on.  To reach the Abbey you run a gauntlet of boutiques, food vendors and souvenir shops.

We quickly found some  stairs to the ramparts to avoid tourist hell.  As you can see from the view down, the main street is exceedingly narrow.  We were there in late October when there were relatively few tourists.  I cannot imagine trying to negotiate this pathway when it is filled with the outpourings of dozens of tourist buses.


Our first evening we enjoyed exploring the ramparts.  Buildings are of course stacked on top of each other. msmroofsheadlands2msmjanetrampartsThe island gets the brunt of ocean weather and the buildings are either stone or shingle.  This jagged pattern at the window is typical of the shingle edging at windows and edges of roofs.


Lead roofs and Lead gutters and downspouts are also common in the island’s robust weather resistant architecture.



It is possible to walk along both sides of the island approaching the Abbey on the ramparts.  There are watch towers here and there affording a defensive view out over the mud flats and bay.  During the 100 years war, the Mont was the center of many battles but resisted being captured due to its easily defended structure.


Before the causeway was constructed, people walked across these mudflat to the island.  I remember reading a mystery novel years ago where some fiddling with the clocks caused the victim to be caught by the galloping tides rushing across these mudflats; unable as all are, to outrun the tides, he drowned.   Apparently these folks were paying attention to the tide tables.msmpeopleonsandWe had dinner in the evening in a restaurant on the ramparts near the top of the Mont with a nice view out onto the bay although since service didn’t begin until 7 pm (early for a French dinner) it was soon to dark to take advantage of.  We had heard terrible stories about overpriced lousy food, but we had a reasonably priced and quite tasty  if not spectacular dinner of the sort one can count on anywhere in France.   The tide was coming in and would soon lift these floats.

msmredfloats2msmredfloatAfter dinner and a cold stroll on the ramparts, we hitched a ride on the little navette used to ferry employees and the disabled to the parking lot.  The little bus was virtually empty and it was cold, but this was an enormous mistake since we then missed out on some of the most spectacular views of the Mont at night close up.  Here it is out the back of our bus.


And here is snapshot from the parking lot.  The pictures don’t do justice to the beauty of Mont St. Michel at night — we stopped a couple of times on our way back to the B&B just to look at it.msmnightview

The next morning, the weather was a bit more promising and we were excited to catch a glimpse out our window.


Below us, sheep were being ushered out to graze in the salt marshes.  Agneau de pré-salé or salt marsh lamb is a specialty of the area.msmmorningbbsheep

We arrived at the Mont prepared to hike up to see the Abbey before driving on to Bayeux to see the Tapestry.


We walked up the central tourist gauntlet which as you can see is relatively crowd free on this October morning. msmmainstreetlevel
There is a small church dating from the 15th century that serves the local residents about half way to the Abbey.msmchurchinteriorIt is named for St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen.
msmchurchstatueThe last climb to the Abbey is steep.  It was virtually deserted on this cold October morning.

msmstairs1The Abbey is built on the remains of a romanesque church built over the remains of a Carolinian church.  The first Abbey was built in the 8th century.  Because the Abbey backed the right horse in the Battle of Hastings, it was granted lands in England by William the Conqueror.  Included was an island on which a similar Abbey was constructed and which was called St. Michaels of Penzance.  msmstairsintoabbey

A Romanesque Abbey was constructed in the 11th century but much of it burned during siege in the 12th at which point Philip Augustus who felt guilty that his allies had ruined the Mont, authorized construction of new refectory and cloisters in the Gothic style and there have been a series of further constructions over the years. msmwaterbasin

The tallest towers and spire were added in the 19th century.

When we got to the great terrace at the top of the hill and outside the Abbey church, we were greeted by this rainbow.

There is a terrific view of the bay and surrounding islands.msmrainbowMy favorite view of the Mont is across the fields with cattle and goats and sheep grazing in the foreground.  (picture at head of this post)  This is probably my second favorite.  The shadow of the Abbey on the salt flats was stunning.
msmshadowFrom this terrace at the top of our climb, we could enter the Abbey church here.



What furnishings were originally in the Abbey have been largely stripped out, so most of the visit is through empty corridors and rooms.

There are occasional chapels or religious artifacts or statues.  This Madonna was carved in the 13th century from limestone found in Caen and polychromed; it was originally in the priory Montois de Ballant.

msmmadonaThe refectory has a barrel ceiling designed using tools and wood used to construct ships.

msmchapelsidewallCloisters are usually the high point of any abbey visit and this is definitely true of Mont St. Michel.  Although heavily restored (the original limestone columns were replaced with granite in the 19th century and a garden created then also — before this time, it was not possible to build a garden on a roof of buildings because of water management issue) it is a lovely and inspiring spot.  The shape of the Mont meant that the cloister could not be on the ground at the center, but rather on top of much of the structure.

msmcloislongshotThere are several original carvings of Christ and one of St. Francis done just two years after his death, but most of the limestone carvings are of a floral design.

msmcolumndetailThe columns that line the cloisters are done in a doubled gothic style which gives a lacy airy feeling.

Here and there one’s gaze is distracted from the heavens to the mudflats below as one  makes one’s way through the corridors.

Once we had seen the church, cloisters and terrace at the top of the Mont, the route took us into the structures below.msmpassstairsmsmpassage msmcirclestairs

Here is a black Madonna placed randomly along the way.

This giant wheel could accommodate several monks walking to provide energy to live construction materials and necessary supplies up the mountain to the Abbey.

Here is the chain and track for the transport cars.msmgearlift2Having viewed the Abbey we headed back down to continue our trip.


I am not sure we would have loved Mont St. Michel in summer since we have a real aversion to crowds but it is a place that lingers in memory.  It doesn’t seem like a real place.  It is the stuff of dreams.msmshadow2

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14 Responses to Mont St. Michel — Is that a real place?

  1. Kate says:

    What a great post – with lovely photos. (We have a goat just like that one!) We are heading back to France in September and will visit MSM. I’ve heard the crowds can be bad in the high season. We’ll try to be there early in the morning and are hope to avoid the most of the masses. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog. Cheers!

  2. Your blog is wonderful, Janet! I’ve enjoyed seeing your lovely pictures and getting psyched for seeing MSM this September. We’re staying overnight at Hotel Du Guesclin with a view of the bay. We also plan on going to Le Vieux Belleville in Paris, based on your write-up of it. Can’t wait.
    Thank you!

  3. Diane says:

    Lovely blog about Mount St. Michel. We are going to visit this summer. Thank you for the information and beautiful pictures

  4. Sue Carter says:

    Loved this post. We are planning on visiting MSM in mid October this year. I was told that I MUST spend the night on the island so we can enjoy it without crowds and view it at night. Do you recommend this? Also would it be better to arrive later in the afternoon if planning on spending the night? I am excited to read all our posts regarding France.

    • Janet says:

      We stayed on land to get the night view — I would stay on the Mont if I had it to do over. And I would arrive mid- day to do the Abbey and would plan to get off the island briefly at night to see the MOnt at night at a distance, which is pretty stunning.

  5. Sharon says:

    We are planning a 4 night stay in Normandy this May. We are only now plotting out our trip and appreciate this post. Your pictures are fabulous!!

    • Janet says:

      If we had it to do over we would add St. Malo (I had not read ‘All the Light you Cannot See’ when we were in Normandy. We would also stay ON the mont rather than nearby. The view of the thing at night from a distance is however pretty fabulous.

      Have a great trip.


  6. Pat Henry says:

    I am also planning a visit this Fall and appreciate your blog! We will take the train to Caen from Paris as well but cannot decide if we should stay there or Bayeux because I read that it is easier to rent a car in Caen. I thought we would tour and then drive to MSM and Malo–and then back to Paris. I noticed that you rented your car in Caen. Any suggestions? Is it easy to rent a car in Bayeux? I assume the train will take us there as well.

    • Janet says:

      I am no great expert but my impression is that renting in Caen is easier than Bayeux but you could check on auto europe and see if they have good hours and options in Bayeux. I think Bayeux itself is quite interesting — the Tapestry is a must see and it is the best base for touring the beaches. I liked the Overlord tour because it made the logistics easy — and we normally don’t do tours and dislike the ones we have. This was an exception — a small enough group and well done. (no stops at souvenir shops)

  7. Shore Griffin says:

    Stumbled upon your lovely post complete with fabulous photos…I am off for the first time to France and MSM in a few weeks…you have inspired me to consider walking up…thank you for your detailed pictures, captions, and tips, they are all so very helpful!

  8. Barbara Corrigan says:

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful report…great photos too.

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