Mont-Saint-Michel - Medieval Fortress and Tourist AttractionJust over an hours drive from our French holiday cottage, Le Mont St-Michel towers over the countryside for miles around like a mythical creature rising out of the sea and has become a popular tourist attraction with over three million tourists visiting each year.
Situated one kilometre off the coast of Normandy, the rocky island houses the famous eighth-century Norman Benedictine Abbey of St-Michel at its peak that over the centuries has been both a site of spiritual pilgrimage and battle.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the island is one of the most exceptional examples of religious and military architecture from the Middle Ages - hardly surprising therefore that Le Mont St-Michel became the inspiration the mystical Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings movies!
A Brief History of Mont Saint-MichelAccording to a 10th century manuscript the first shrine to Saint Michael was created at what is now Mont Saint-Michel after the Archangel Michael came to Bishop Aubert of Avranches in 708AD and commanded him to build a church on the rock. When the Bishop expressed doubts, the angel pierced a hole in his skull with his finger!
In the 10th century the Benedictine monks settled in the abbey, constructing the Romanesque abbey church with its high vaulted ceilings and moulded arches, monastery and crypts at the apex of the rock, whilst a village grew up below its walls at the bottom of the mount.
Through successive centuries of the Middle Ages and with increasing numbers of monks and pilgrims both the abbey and village were extended until in the 13th century they stretched down to the foot of the rock.
By the 14th century and the Hundred Years war, the abbey had to be protected behind a massive set of military ramparts, enabling it to successfully hold out successfully through many English sieges lasting over 30 years and in doing so the Mount became a symbol of French national identity.
In 1421 the original Romanesque chancel (choir) of the abbey church collapsed and was replaced in the 15th century by a flamboyant Gothic structure, marking completion of the last major construction works at the mount. The abbey today is thus an exceptional example of the full range of medieval architecture.
Over the 16th and 17th centuries religious ideals waned and the number of monks dwindled until by 1790 the monastery was disbanded and the monks left the mount. This paved the way for the fortress to be turned into a prison in 1793, a situation which lasted through the days of the French Revolution and Empire until imperial decree in 1863 finally overturned the sacrilege.
In 1874 Mont Saint-Michel was designated as a French historical monument and major works have continued now for over a century to restore the mount to its former splendour, improving both the abbey interior and exterior. With the celebration of the monastery's 1000th anniversary in the year 1966, a religious community returned to the mount, perpetuating spiritual prayer and welcoming the mount's original vocation.
UNESCO recognised the unique character and historical importance of Mont Saint-Michel by classifying it as a world heritage site in 1979.
Spend a full day exploring The MountA trip to Mont St-Michel starts with driving over the 1km causeway that links the island to mainland. The original thin natural land-bridge used to be covered during high tide, isolating the Mount, but following construction of the causeway you're now safely directed to the appropriate car park by the walls where there's no danger your car will get washed away!
On entering the Mount's protective walls through the Boulevard Gate, and then the King's Gate fortified with its portcullis, you continue up the narrow winding Grand Rue (Main Street) which leads up through the medieval 15th and 16th century village. Along both sides are arrayed a variety of boutique and souvenir shops as well as several restaurants including traditional pancake snack-bars right up to 5-star silver service with stunning views overlooking Mont-Saint-Michel bay. There are also a few hotels tucked into the walls if you fancy a truly memorable overnight stay.
Further up you reach the 15th century parish church of St Pierre (the patron saint of fishermen) and then four different museums within the walls of the Mount:
- Archéoscope - The construction and history of Mont St Michel;
- Maritime Museum - Discover the 12m tidal range in the bay and the massive works to restore the maritime character of the Mont Saint-Michel;
- Museum of History - A series of collections of weapons, paintings, sculptures in some of the prisons and dungeons of the Mount;
- Tiphaine's house - Furniture's, paintings and tapestries from the 14th century residence that Bertrand Duguesclin had built for his wife Tiphaine.
Finally you reach the Grande Degre (Grand Staircase) which leads up to the Merveille (literally 'marvel') the 3-storey 12th century monastery and abbey that crowns the hilltop. You can walk round the abbey either unaccompanied using the supplied guide booklet, or for a small supplement there's an audio-guide tour available in English as well as French.
Mont St Michel is open every day of the year apart from the 1st of January, the 1st of May and the 25th of December.
Other useful websites:Official Tourist Information website for Mont St Michel
National Monuments in France - Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel
UNESCO World Heritage - Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay
Vinz's excellent personal website on The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel including room by room floor plans and the construction history