Mont Saint-Michel, France
Every now and then, a place captures your heart and imagination in a way that words can’t describe. Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the serene bays and the crowded alleyways of the small township. Maybe it’s the spiritual essence of the island’s long history captured in the brilliant architecture of the abbey.
I traveled to France for around seven months. I find the culture to be fascinating, the food delicious and the scenery spectacular. The south coast of France is well known for its golden beaches and classy cities, from the home of the little wheel, Monte Carlo, to home of the Grand Prix, Monaco. But the north has a lot to offer, too, and Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most spectacular places in Europe.
Mont Saint-Michel is now a rocky tidal island, though it was once part of the mainland. The ocean chopped and changed the surrounding bay to isolate the monastic people of the Mont, and now close to year-round access is provided by a causeway connecting the island to the Normandy coastline.
The causeway allows visitors, of which there are over three million per year, and thousands per day in high season, to cruise straight to the walled town of Mont Saint-Michel via shuttle bus on foot or even by horse and carriage. Of these, walking is my recommendation. The approach offers unmissable views across the bay toward the magnificent abbey ahead.
The bay itself is a marvel and well worth exploring, but you should never wander around alone — the tides can come in quickly and cut off chances of an exit. Add patches of quicksand to this equation and you start to see that the hazards are real. Get a guide if you want to go off the road.
Once in the town, enter straight through the medieval gate to start the exploration. Mont Saint-Michel is not a big place, but there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the keen observer. There is a kind of main “strip” through the town, which winds up the steep hills toward the abbey. This road is littered with mediocre tourist trap shops and cafes, but nevertheless, I couldn’t help but grab a drink and a slice of pizza for the journey.
Though it’s easy enough to follow the crowds, I had been tipped off to look out for a small alleyway off to the right-hand side near the start of the trail through the town. This exit took me up some steps and toward much quieter courtyards and alleyways. Weaving my way up and around the castle, I managed to have a serene experience in what is a busy place — adding to the sense that this was somewhere special.
The main attraction is the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel at the top of the town, an architecturally beautiful building that impresses upon the senses and mystifies the soul. The massive amount of visitors mean that exploration of the abbey follows one-way systems. Off-peak visits in spring or late autumn are preferable. Despite this tour-like effect, every room has a surprise, be it a carving, chapel or a great hall.
In terms of where to eat, the famous La Mere Poulard is an option. It’s a modish restaurant that has been around since the late 1800s, be sure to try their specialty — a soufflé-style omelet. Eat outside of the walls and bay for the high-quality food that the French are renowned for.
Staying over at Mont Saint-Michel is also a possibility, and there are a few hotels within the walls that allow you to walk around the town at night, with no tourists other than the ones that are spending the night. Given that the town has a population of only 50, this is the best opportunity to see Mont Saint-Michel in a more spiritual context, free from commercialism and crowds. Still, a visit in the daytime is an unforgettable experience and one that would be silly to miss for anyone visiting the North of France.