Mont Saint-Michel is one of the places to visit at least once in a lifetime. Because? An abbey and a village perched on a rocky outcrop rise in the center of a plain which, at high tide, is invaded by the sea, transforming the abbey into an island.
The phenomenon is spectacular and fast. In a few seconds, the landscape changes completely to return, at low tide, to be one with the mainland. We have created a useful guide on how to visit and how to get to Mont Saint Michel, in the north of France.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a Benedictine abbey on the border between Normandy and Brittany. Mont-Saint-Michel instead (which is written with two dashes) is the name of the very small municipality which includes the abbey and the entire fortress on which the village stands.
This rocky outcrop has always been considered a sacred place. The Celts performed their rituals and, according to legend, Archangel Michael appeared in 709 in Sant’Auberto, asking that a church dedicated to him be built at that point. The saint, who was also bishop of those areas at the time, twice ignored the request until San Michele burned his skull with a finger. The skull of Sant’Auberto with the forum is kept in Avranches cathedral.
To avoid other repercussions from San Michele, an oratory was built in a cave on the mountain and the rock took the name of Mont-Saint-Michel-au-péril-de-la-Mer.
In the 1900s the Benedictine abbey was built with a village at the foot necessary to accommodate the numerous pilgrims. In the Hundred Years War, it turned into a fortress and resisted the British for 11 years. This siege went down in history as the longest in the Middle Ages.
After the French revolution, Mont Saint-Michel became a prison, and only in the last century, it became a Benedictine abbey again.
15 Things to Know Before Leaving
Below are 15 things to know and (perhaps) you still don’t know about the island (which is sometimes not an island) and the most visited abbey in France:
1. Mont Saint-Michel is a very touristic place
It is estimated that the actual number of people reaching Mont Saint Michel is 3,000,000 per year. The number of entrances to the abbey is also around 1,200,000 tickets each year.
2. The mountain is dedicated to San Michele Arcangelo
For this reason, on top of the spire of Saint Michel church, there is a golden statue depicting the saint.
3. How high is Mont Saint Michel?
Thanks to this statue, Mont Saint Michel reaches a height of 170 meters.
4. Other measures
Continuing with the measurements, we add that the islet is about 960 meters in circumference and an area of about 7 hectares. Parking is paid, if you want to save something you will have to prepare yourself for a nice walk.
5. Souvenir shops
It is a real showcase of souvenir shops with a total of 24 stores in just 300 meters.
6. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site
Apart from these inconveniences, it is worth visiting it at least once in a lifetime: this is demonstrated by the fact that it has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979.
7. Mont Saint Michel was one of the first French monuments to obtain this recognition
Together with it, the Palace of Versailles and Chartres Cathedral have proclaimed UNESCO Heritage.
Originally Mont Saint Michel was an abbey built inside the Scissy forest. The shore was over 48 km away. From the third century onwards the ground level gradually decreased and the sea slowly engulfed the forest. According to what is said it was a particularly violent equine tide in 709 to permanently submerge the forest.
9. Is it inhabited?
Yes, just 40 people live in the monastery.
10. Originally it was a sacred mountain
Before Christianity was considered a sacred mountain and there was already a shrine that was dedicated to Beleno, the Gallic god of the sun.
11. It was also a prison
Following the French revolution, the last monks were driven out of the abbey, which became a prison: from 1793 onwards more than 300 priests were jailed for refusing the new civil constitution of the clergy.
12. Famous Visitors
One of the most frequent visitors was the composer Claude Debussy, who had the inspiration here to compose one of his most important preludes, “The Submerged Cathedral”.
13. Cinema set
The cinema also used the mountain as a film set. In Armageddon, you can see a bucolic snapshot of Mont Saint-Michel on the horizon with two shepherds grazing the sheep (mount in the film is located in Ireland). Terrence Malick, in his film To The Wonder, pays a special tribute to Mont Saint Michel in the film with Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko.
14. It was used as a video game setting
It is also present as a setting for Assassin’s Creed.
15. When does it become an island?
Mont Saint-Michel becomes an island only at certain times of the day and in particular tidal conditions. This started to happen again from 2015, thanks to the works that redesigned the bay, freeing it of debris and thanks to the construction of the walkway bridge. It hadn’t happened since 1879.
The Tides of Mont-Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel is one of the places in the world where the phenomenon of the tides is most evident. The high tide can reach up to 15 meters in height transforming the fortress into an island.
The tides are caused in part by the attraction of the sun and moon on the water masses. Low and high tides alternate every day, but only a few times a month the tide becomes particularly high and there is talk of large tides. Here you will find the tide calendar for Mont Saint-Michel to admire the incredible phenomenon of the tide.
Mont Saint-Michel Abbey
Mont Saint-Michel and its bay have been classified among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1979. Even without witnessing the phenomenon of the tides, the visit to Mont Saint-Michel is still definitely worth the effort.
The impression, just across the bridge, is to be catapulted to a place where time seems to have stopped, in a rural stone village built right under the imposing Abbey.
The abbey was originally built in the middle of the Scissy forest 48 km from the sea. It was a huge equinox tide, from what historical sources report, to determine a lowering of the ground. Claude Debussy loved Mont Saint-Michel and here he was inspired by his submerged Cathedral. Today it is a little more difficult to be inspired by the abbey, which is full of souvenir shops and is very touristy, but despite this, the atmosphere remains fascinating.
Did you know that Mont Saint-Michel has a twin? It is called Saint Michael’s Mount and is located on a Cornish island connected at low tide to the mainland by a walkway.
Access times of the Abbey
The last access of the day is allowed one hour before closing. Here are the times:
From January 2nd to April 30th: Open every day 9.30-18.00
From May 2nd to August 31st: Open every day 9.00-19.00
From 1st September to 31st December: Open every day 9.30-18.00
Closing: 1st January, 1st May and 25th December
When to Go
It is always worth planning a trip to Mont Saint Michel. However, there are particular days of the year known as the Great Tides days, in which the tides have a coefficient greater than 100 and surround Mont Saint Michel, making it become a real island. At this link, you will find the times and the tide forecast calendar year by year.
How to Get
Take the A11 towards Chartres-Le Mans-Laval and exit at Fougères and then continue towards Mont Saint-Michel. Alternatively, you can take the A13 towards Rouen then Caen, and the A84 towards Mont Saint-Michel.
Several buses lead to Mont Saint Michel.
From Rennes or Dol de Bretagne to Mont Saint-Michel. From Pontorson to Mont Saint-Michel to Granville to Mont Saint-Michel (line 6) Manéo.
On the train
With the Mont-Saint-Michel train that leaves from Paris Montparnasse to Villedieu Les Poêles station. From here, take the bus correspondence to Mont Saint-Michel.
From Paris Montparnasse you can take the TGV to Rennes (2 hours) to take the correspondence with the regional train (TER) from Rennes to Pontorson then bus to Mont Saint-Michel or direct correspondence by bus from Rennes to Mont Saint-Michel.
Alternatively, you can leave Paris Montparnasse by TGV to Dol de Bretagne (2 hours and 40) and then take the direct bus connection from Dol de Bretagne to Mont Saint-Michel.
You can reach Mont Saint Michel by bicycle, cycling along 400 km of cycle paths, green roads, and Veloscenic roads.