Northwest France, near Avranches - Department: Manche (50)
In Normandy, but right on the border
358 km by road .
Caen 126 km Rennes: 91 km
: Pontorson, on the line Caen-Rennes. There
are buses from Pontorson station to Mont Saint Michel.
access from Paris
: TGV train to Rennes, then connecting
bus service. Click
for more details.
Apart from monuments in and around
Paris, Mont Saint Michel
is the most visited tourist
in France. And it is not
difficult to see why.
This remarkable mediaeval walled city, crowned by its great
gothic abbey, is built on a small granite outcrop standing all by
itself in the flats of the estuary of the river Couesnon, in
area now known as Mont Saint Michel bay. Mont Saint Michel was one of
the first monuments to be classed as a UNESCO world heritage site, as
far back as 1979.
Le Mont Saint Michel is not just a church on a rock; it is a whole
mediaeval city, one of the few places in France to have
intact its mediaeval walls and defences. The city, though small, has to
this day inhabitants - not many full time inhabitants - and a mayor,
and in addition to its religious monuments, has old houses, narrow
streets, hotels, restaurants and shops, all catering for the
over-a-million tourists who come to visit this magnificent site each
The first Christian oratory was founded on the
island as far back as 708 AD, by Saint Aubert of Avranches,
naturally it was dedicated to Saint Michael, the patron saint of
sailors. In those days, and for the ensuing centuries, the island of
Saint Michel was a proper island out in the bay, surrounded by water
for much of the time and by sand at low tide. Access was by boat or
across the sand when possible.
However, over the
course of the centuries, as the bay gradually silted up, the shores got
closer and closer to the mount. The process was accelerated by
successful attempts over the years to reclaim some of the flat fertile
wetlands at the edge of the bay, for use as agricultural land. Mont
Saint Michel bay is thus now several square miles smaller than it was
in the Middle ages, when the first Benedictine monastery was set up on
During the Middle Ages, le Mont Saint
Michel was an important and iconic location in this north western part
of Europe . Its monastery flourished as one of the great places of
learning in the twelfth century, before becoming a place of symbolic
importance in the struggles that convulsed western Europe in the late
mediaeval period, pitting Normans against Bretons, French against
Normans, and French against English.
As part of
Normandy, the Mount belonged to the successors of William the
Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy who had conquered England in 1066 and
set up his court there. Normandy, and with it the Mount, had thus
become an English possession, just as the nearby Channel Islands (known
in French as the Anglo-Norman isles) remain to this day.
The town was captured and burned down by the
1204, who then proceeded to rebuild it. Later, during the Hundred
Years' War, it was besieged by the English, but not recaptured.
The Abbey that most visitors climb up to
see is a
fine example of mediaeval architecture, different parts dating from
different periods as is common in old cathedrals and abbeys,
particularly those that have experienced wars and natural disasters.
The impressive gothic choir dates from the period following the
departure of the English. However, like much of the building it was
seriously and extensively renovated in the nineteenth century following
a visit by France's great gothic revivalist architect Viollet Leduc.
Thus it was that in 1896, the Abbey became crowned by its landmark
spire, which is not mediaeval at all, but the work of the architect
By that time, the Mount had
already been classed as a historic monument, and was beginning to
attract tourists, for whose benefit an insumbersible causeway had been
built in 1880. But the effect of the causeway and other land management
schemes - as well as bringing increasing numbers of tourists to the
mount - was to considerably accelerate the silting up of the bay, to
the point at which there was a serious risk that the Mount would before
long be landlocked if nothing was done.
the nineteen-eighties, measures have thus been undertaken to dredge the
bay and put the process of silting into reverse, in order to return the
Mont Saint Michel to what it once was, a small granite island
the Baie de Mont Saint Michel is one of the most steeply tidal points
in Europe, with a tidal variation of almost 50 ft or 15 metres. The
highest tides (spring tides) occur in the day or two following a new
moon and a full moon, and most particularly at the spring and autumn
equinoxes. On these occasions, the sea can completely surround the
mount, except for the insubmersible causeway. During periods
neap tides (when the tidal variation is least) the Mount is not
surrounded by water at all, even at high tide.
Mont Saint Michel in 1905
- a photograph from the US Library of Congress