Destination - Le Mont Saint Michel, France

Imagine a whole village built on a hilltop … imagine a whole village surrounded by water and quicksand at high tide … imagine a tiny rocky islet about 1 km in diameter visited by 1,500,000 tourists per year… Welcome to Mont-St-Michel.

Surrounded by sea, jutting defiantly above glistening sands, Mont St Michel is one of the most enchanting sights in France. It is located on the north coast of France, near the border of Brittany and Normandy, and is home to centuries of tradition. Perched on the isle of Tombelaine in the midst of vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides this Gothic-style Benedictine abbey is dedicated to the archangel St. Michael. With its rich and influential history, and glorious architecture that combine to make it one of the most magnificent of all abbeys of France it is of no surprise that it has been called ‘The Wonder of the Western World’.

The isle, accessible by land at low tide, is also linked to the mainland by a causeway (built in 1879). Before it was built, the only approach to the Mont was on foot. When the tide is out, it is separated from the mainland by approximately one kilometre of sand. Due to its uniqueness the Mont is recognized from miles away, each angle is so different that a 360-degree tour is required and a detailed insight to the history of Mont St Michel is certainly a must.

One of the most spectacular features that makes this site look so fairylike both during the day and at night is the tide. Normally the difference between high tide and low tide varies from a few centimetres to several metres. The exceptional range of the tides in the bay of Mont St Michel is mainly due to its geographical position. The difference between these tides can be as much as 15 metres. They rise and fall with the lunar calendar and can reach speeds of 10km/h in spring. When the sun, earth and moon are aligned, a phenomenon takes place which provokes extremely strong tides, or spring tides. This is particularly evident during the spring and autumn equinox and more spectacularly so at times of the new and full moon. On the other hand, when the sun and the moon are at right angles to the earth, the gravitational pull of these two celestial bodies is in contrast and the range of the tides is much smaller. All this sounds like fiction, but is very much scientific fact!

Its historical events date back to as early as 708, when, legend has it that a dream led St. Aubert, then bishop of Avranches, to built a shrine in honour of St. Michael on the island, then known as Mont Tombe. In 966, the Duke of Normandy entrusted the sanctuary to the care of the Benedictine monks who in turn built a magnificent abbey. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a Romanesque monastery was constructed with the church on the top of the hill. A part of this abbey burned down in 1204 and was replaced by the famous "La Merveille" (The Miracle), a building often regarded as the jewel of the abbey’s architecture. From the middle of the 13th century to the beginning of the 16th century, the monks completed the ring around the church constructing the abbot's residence and buildings to house the abbey's legal and administrative services. During the Hundred Years' War the construction of fortified walls with imposing towers was undertaken. The abbey is thus an exceptional example of the full range of medieval architecture. In 1790, the monks left their monastery which was then used as a prison until 1863. In 1874 the abbey was declared a historical monument and was then restored to its former splendour. The belfry, spire and statue of St. Michael were added in 1895.

Upon entering the fortified city through Porte Bauole, a gate in the ramparts added in 1590, one finds oneself in the Grand Rue, the city’s main street now crowded with restaurants, souvenir shops and a few small hotels. A pilgrim’s route from as early as the 12th century, the street is steep, winding its way up and around the Mont, finally reaching the abbey gates.

The Abbey is a feast of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The present buildings bear witness to the time when the abbey served both as a Benedictine monastery and as a political prison for 73 years after the French Revolution. The highlights of the abbey include the 13th century monastery (La Merveille), the Refectory, the Knights’ Room, the Cloisters and, of course, the Church.

Built in the early decades of the year 1000 the Romanesque church was constructed on the island’s highest point. The nave, whose structure is covered with a wood-panelled lined vault, is divided in seven identical bays, separated by the half-columns engaged in the walls and rising jet-like from the ground to the top of the wall. Each bay is divided in three levels in which large archways give way to aisles lighted by tall windows.

The Romanesque choir, which collapsed in 1421 was rebuilt after the Hundred Years War and today one can admire a very homogeneous ensemble in the purest style of the flamboyant Gothic.

The Cloister, situated at the top of the Merveille, comprises a covered gallery surrounding an open-air garden. This gallery provided communication between various buildings and was a place of prayer and meditation. Built during the early 13th century, it gives access to the refectory, church, dormitory and to various stairways. The garden we admire today was built during the restoration of 1965.

In the Refectory, or dining hall, the monks took their meals in silence whilst one of them gave a reading from the pulpit on the southern wall. Located on the 3rd floor of the Merveille, just above the Guest Hall, it is a long narrow hall with light flooding through the tall windows, each framed within an arch supported by two columns that offer a perspective of closed space.

The Guest’s Hall beneath the refectory was a princely hall, decorated with paintings, stained-glass windows and tiles, missing today, and was designed for receiving royalty and nobility. It was originally equipped with a fireplace, two great hoods to prepare meals, and a small chapel in the southern wall.

The Knight’s Room is located on the second floor of the Merveille and is illuminated by large round bay windows, placed high up. It was originally equipped with all the necessities to face the hard climate of the place, its two large fireplaces, direct access to the Cloister and the Refectory. This hall, divided by columns, was the work and study room of the monks.

On an outcrop of rock is the small 15th century chapel dedicated to St Aubert. At high tide this chapel is isolated by water. With its wealth in history, Mont Saint Michel erases boundaries between the imaginary and the real. It is open all year, day and night.

Rising up from an indefinable point in the sand and waves, Mont Saint Michel appears like a human challenge to the elements and time. Perched on its summit, the abbey is an invitation to come and discover its builders' wild inspiration - one which has driven so many to make this isolated place a universal meeting point for many years. From up here, everything comes as a surprise: the amazing feats of medieval architecture, the power of nature, the light ... everything.

No one can remain indifferent to this edifice. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, the abbey of Mont Saint Michel is one of those ‘must-visit’ destinations in any traveller’s books.