The impressive granite tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel rises to a height of 300ft and is surmounted by the Great Church of St Michel. This Catholic Abbey is run by the monks of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem and was the destination for many pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. The sanctuary of “Mont Tombe” was founded in 708 by the Bishop of Avranches, and the later Benedictine Abbey begun in 1017, took five centuries to build. It was constructed from stone imported from the nearby Isle of Chausey and incorporates both Romanesque and Gothic styles. At the Abbey summit is a gilded statue of the Archangel Michael added to the spire in 1897.
During the Hundred Years War, the island became a garrisoned fortress and the Abbot, who was appointed by the King of France, also became commandant of the island. Beneath the Abbey is a mass of part-monastic and part-military buildings known as the Marvel “la merveille”, which were built over three floors. These include the Knights’ guest hall, a scriptorium, refectory, dormitory, cellar and cloister. Below theses Abbey structures is the small fortified village which contains a variety of interesting shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, houses and museums, including the Archeoscope, History and Maritime Museums. These C15th and C16th buildings line a single curving street that rises from the King’s Gateway entrance to the Abbey above and includes 350 steps up the Grand Degre (Staircase).
The Abbey housed political prisoners (including Victor Hugo) during the Revolution and Empire but the original buildings were later restored and a religious community returned in 1966. Every evening throughout July and August (except Saturdays), there is a night time tour of the Abbey which includes music and lighting effects.
The Mont sits in the Bay of Saint Michel which forms France’s largest salt meadow and polder (pasture) zone. The bay has dangerous sinking sands and a daily rising tide of 15m that travels “faster than a galloping horse” and a rare spring tidal bore. Many pilgrims perished trying to cross the perilous sands but a permanent causeway was built across to the island in 1888.
If you wish to explore the area safely, there are official low-tide accompanied crossings, which depart from three points around the Bay. The Island of Tombelaine is a 30 minute walk from the Mont and also horse-riding tours are on offer from a several nearby farms. There is a colony of thirty harbour seals on the island and interesting bird life including waders and gulls may be seen on the nearby salt meadows, sand and rivers.
At over million visitors a year it is a popular Normandy tourist attraction and became classed as a World Heritage Site in 1979 by UNESCO.