Mont-Saint-Michel is a French commune located at the mouth of the Couesnon River, near Avranches, in the Normandy region. Its name comes from the rocky islet dedicated to the archangel Saint-Michel, from which the famous abbey rises. The tourist site is one of the most visited places in France with more than 2 million visitors each year. The islet and the coastline of the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Its history is fascinating and the site has many other historical monuments that are worth seeing. The 3rd most visited French tourist site after the Eiffel Tower and the palace of Versailles, Mont-Saint-Michel has become an emblematic symbol of French heritage.
The history of Mont-Saint-Michel
In the 8th century, Mont-Saint-Michel, known at the time as “le mont tombe”, was a place of pilgrimage supervised by twelve canons. They welcomed the first villagers who were fleeing the Vikings. Stonemasons, masons and carpenters were the first trades needed to build the first sanctuary on the site. The laity then supplied the community of the mountain and the first dwellings built of wood and cob adorned the small winding streets near the church of Saint-Pierre. During the Middle Ages, the mount was nicknamed “Mont-Saint-Michel at the risk of the sea”. In 867, the Treaty of Compiègne, signed between the Kingdom of France and the King of Brittany, granted the Cotentin and the town of Avranches to King Solomon of Brittany. But in 933, when William I of Normandy obtained an extension of his territory including the Cotentin and Avranches, the site officially became part of Normandy. In 966, after the departure of the canons, the Benedictines took possession of the island. In 1417, the abbot Robert Jollivet divided the lower town and the foot of the mountain by a rampart and access to the town was via a fortified gate, enabling the mountain to resist the English invasion in 1420. In 1731, Louis XV took possession of the place and transformed it into a state prison. In 1862, Napoleon III classified the place as a historical monument.
Classified as a historical monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the abbey is located on the islet of Mont-Saint-Michel. The Archangel Saint-Michel crowns the spire of the abbey’s bell tower and culminates at 156 meters above sea level. A real technical feat, the religious architecture of the abbey defies the laws of balance, while offering a jewel of Gothic art. It includes a refectory, a cloister, a scriptorium (place reserved for the writing of manuscripts), a chapel and a crypt. It offers a unique panorama over the bay and a spectacular spectacle during high tides. The abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is open all year round and the visit is free for those under 26 years old. Night shows are organized in July and August to discover the abbey at night and in a completely different atmosphere. Concerts, exhibitions and contemporary shows are also regularly organized within the abbey.
Other monuments on the island
- The parish church of Saint-Pierre : built in the 15th and 16th century, this small church is dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen. At the entrance, a statue of Joan of Arc pays homage to the Archangel Saint-Michel who guided her during the 100-year war. The village cemetery which is next to the parish church of Saint-Pierre houses the tomb of the Poulard couple.
- The Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre chapel: this small building, 12 meters long by 9 meters wide, once stood in the open air. In the 11th century, the chapel was transformed to serve as a foundation for the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel and it was not until the 1960s that the chapel regained its original appearance.
- The Saint-Aubert chapel : located at the northwest end of the place, this tiny building dedicated to Saint-Aubert dates from the 12th century. It has been listed as a historical monument since 1908.
- The Saint-Aubert fountain : legend has it that at this place a source of fresh water springs miraculously from a rock. Until the 15th century, the fountain supplied the monastery.
The bay of Mont-Saint-Michel
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bay is the scene of the highest tides in Europe. At this place, in fact, the English Channel displays the greatest tidal range with an average amplitude of 10 meters, or even 15 meters during high tides. Located between Cancale and Granville, its surface extends over more than 500 square kilometers and the bay is home to exceptional fauna and flora, including 130 species of birds and a hundred species of fish. A protected site, the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel is a place where you can see seals or dolphins in summer. The bay is also known for its dangerousness linked to siltation and the presence of quicksand. Its crossing in the absence of an experienced guide is dangerous.
The shops and restaurants of Mont-Saint-Michel
Many brands are accessible in the alleys of the islet, such as restaurants or souvenir shops. The most famous of the brands is undoubtedly the Auberge de la Mère Poulard. Founded in 1888 by the couple Annette and Victor Poulard, this inn prepared meals for pilgrims and visitors to Mont-Saint-Michel. Annette Poulard has for more than 40 years developed many recipes, the most famous being that of the omelette cooked over a wood fire in the large fireplace, which has become a symbol of French culinary art. The free-range egg soufflé omelette has been served for more than 130 years at Mont-Saint-Michel and the establishment is also a hotel for short stays.
Practical information for getting to Mont-Saint-Michel
- By train : to get to the islet from Paris, take the TGV towards Rennes, then the regional train towards Pontorson. Buses and shuttles make daily trips between Pontorson station and Mont-Saint-Michel.
- By car : from Paris, take the A13 motorway towards Caen, then the A84 motorway towards Avranches or, still from Paris, take the A11 towards Le Mans, then the A81 towards Fougères and finally the A84 towards Caen . Parking is available opposite Mont-Saint-Michel and shuttle buses or horse-drawn carriages (horse-drawn shuttles) are available to access the mountain.
- By plane : Dinard-Pleurtuit and Rennes airports are located approximately 70 kilometers from the site.
If you wish to stay a few days at Mont-Saint-Michel, we invite you to visit the website of the tourist office www.ot-montsaintmichel.com to consult the list of available hotels in order to organize your stay, whether you are alone or in groups. And don’t forget to book your table at the Mère Poulard restaurant if you want to taste the famous omelet!