The Rock of the Ages

Mont-Saint-Michel Still Captivates...until the Tides Roll In
Mont-Saint-Michel at a Glance
Name: Mont-Saint-Michel
Date of Inscription: 1979
Why you should go: Being deserted on an island has never been so educational, or architecturally rich.

First a shrine, then a monastery, then a prison, and now a must-see tourist destination, Mont-Saint-Michel sits atop a 264-foot (80.5 meter) rock surrounded by sand or sea, depending on the time of day. Catch it during a dry moment and vast mudflats encircle the walled city. But come high tide, when the waves roll in with a fury, watch out! At the very best, you could be stranded inside an exquisite Gothic abbey or at a cafe eating a fluffy omelet. At the worst, you could get soaked.

Mont-Saint-Michel was begun in 708, after the Archangel Michael appeared to a local bishop in a dream, urging him to build a shrine in his honor. In 966, the shrine was turned over to the Benedictine order, which embarked on one of the most beautiful—and lengthy—construction projects in Western history. Over a period of 500 years, the monks built what to them was the image of Heavenly Jerusalem on earth: a self-sufficient spiritual center, including a church, abbey, living quarters for the monks, and even a small village. The three-story church perches on the summit, like a Gothic cherry on top.
The architectural elements at Mont-Saint-Michel run the gamut: crypts and spires, flying buttresses and bays, Romanesque and Gothic styles. Linking all the structures is the street known as the Grande Rue, which has given way to a museum, knick-knack shops, cafes, and pilgrims of a new sort.

Practically Speaking

No getting around it: Mont-Saint-Michel is touristy. Best to avoid the peak tourist summer months (but plan for a chilly visit in winter). The island can be reached by foot, shuttle, or car (but you must park outside the walls) on a 19th-century causeway that crosses the Gulf of Saint Malo. If you're not planning to attend Mass, be sure to get a schedule of the Masses nevertheless; secular tourists are not allowed in the church during that time. You can stay at a (pricey) hotel on the rock, or go for a day trip and hire an on-site guide. For cheaper accommodations, pitch a tent at the mainland campsite or find a room at one of many budget hotels in Pontorson, a town just across the bay from the islet attraction.

Published: 17 Apr 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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