Breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely fascinating, Mont Saint-Michel is a place like no other. Located in Normandy, France (approximately 4 hours from Paris), Mont Saint-Michel is a 1000 year old Abbey perched atop a little village on an island in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. Known as ‘The Wonder of the West’, this magnificent testament to medieval architecture is a UNESCO listed world heritage site, and is visited by more than 3 million people each year.
Mont Saint-Michel began as a small church, commissioned by Archangel Michel in 709. In the 11th century the first monastery buildings were added and over subsequent centuries many additions were made. Over time the abbey has been a place of worship, of learning and of pilgrimage and was also used as a prison during the French revolution. Today Mont Saint-Michel is predominantly a tourist site, with it’s main street (Grande Rue) boasting many museums, shops and restaurants. The Abbey is open to the public most days of the year and offers both guided and self guided tours.
We have visited Mont Saint-Michel twice now, once in winter and once in summer. Each visit was quite a different experience from the other but still both were highlights of our travels.
Our first visit was in winter, in February 2010. I can clearly remember the drive there and this overwhelming pang of excitement I felt when Mont Saint-Michel first came in to view. It was like something out of a fairytale. Just magical! To this day, I have never been to or even heard of anywhere as unique and wondrous.
We drove straight on to the island and parked right at the base of the monastery. (This car park has since been removed. So too has the causeway leading to the island which was regularly covered by water at high tide. They have been replaced by a much larger car park on the mainland, 1.5 miles from the island, and a new, raised footbridge and road).
Walking through the narrow entry way and into the village below the abbey was bewitching. This narrow, winding cobblestone path, lined with quaint little shops and restaurants, felt like something straight out of an enchanted novel. The air was cold but the subtle ascent kept us warm and as we walked past the shops and restaurants we could feel little bursts of warmth coming from open fires. It wasn’t snowing, but had been the night before and the little patches of pure white snow added to the mystique and beauty of the whole place.
As we had small children and a pram with us we didn’t venture very far into the monastery. We did go up high enough however to experience some spectacular views and see just what a magnificent building Mont Saint-Michel is. On the way down we took our time, looking in (and warming up in) the shops, buying souvenirs and sampling some warm, fresh French pastries from one of the many little restaurants which, on our way up, had filled the surrounding air with sweet, tempting aromas.
We left Mont Saint-Michel buzzing. What a unique and memorable experience we had just had!
Our latest visit in summer, in August 2015 was a different experience all together compared to our visit five years earlier. For a start, it took us nearly an hour just to get into the car park! Traffic leading in was bumper to bumper, moving at a snail’s pace for at least a couple of miles. We thought there must have been an accident or road works but it was just due to the sheer volume of people arriving for a visit. Once we parked, it took us quite a while to walk through the massive car park to “Place des Navettes’ (the shuttle hub located next to a tourist information centre). We then queued with what felt like a thousand other people, and eventually squished into a bus for the 12 minute ride to the island. The kids thought it was fun. I did not. 12 minutes, squashed up against sweaty strangers will never be fun for me!
Once we arrived on the island, the driving, the walking, the queuing, the squishing, was all worth it. It was just breathtaking! All seven of us were mesmerised by the size and beauty of Mont Saint-Michel right there in front of us. It was without a doubt just as exciting as our first visit years earlier! Just spectacular! We stayed on the muddy sand surrounding Mont Saint-Michel for quite a while before entering. We took photos, admired the views and curiously watched people covering their arms and legs in the mud…
When we did decide to enter the grounds, even just getting through the gates was crazy. You could barely move and people were pushing and shoving. Once we did manage to get through the narrow entry way , the whole path leading up to the monastery was almost as crowded. It was overwhelming yet exciting at the same time. The entire place is just enchanting and even masses of people can’t take away from the surrounding magic and beauty.
We climbed the Grande Staircase into the Abbey but didn’t venture much further. The heat, the crowds and the many, many stairs made it just a little too difficult to go all the way with all our kids. We did stop however to take some time to sit in and look around the gorgeous parish church.
We decided not to queue and wait for the shuttle upon leaving Mont Saint-Michel, instead opting to walk the long path back to the car park. It really was a long walk, and there was some complaining from the kids, but it was definitely worth it for the views and photo opportunities along the way. I highly recommend doing the walk at least one way. Your photos will be worth it!
We took so many amazing photos, too many to fit into this post, so check out the gallery below and note the vast contrast between our winter and summer visits. Mont Saint-Michel is such a beautiful, serene and magical place to visit in winter; in summer, a tourist mecca, busy, bustling and buzzing.