Baie du Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel, a fascinating, enigmatic and magnificent medieval abbey perched on a rocky cliff in the middle of a vast bay.
No wonder it is known as The Marvel of the Western World and has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979.
The small river Cousenon, now channeled and deflected, once flowed into the sea on the northern side of the island.
It then marked the boundary between the Duchies of Brittany and Normandy and the Mont St Michel was in Brittany!
The Baie du Mont St Michel is well known for its unique colours and its vastness.
However, it is also known for its treacherous waters and its sandy banks that move with the tides and sometimes turn into quicksand.
The excessive flatness of this vast seabed allows spectacular tides.
The water recedes towards the horizon only to rise again “at the speed of a galloping horse”, as Victor Hugo wrote during the 19th century.
More than one inattentive or ignorant pilgrim was indeed caught in the rising waters!
An extensive dredging program was put in place several years ago in order to counteract this excessive accumulation of sand and mud produced by the tidal fluctuations.
The difference in water level between low and high tides could indeed reach up to 12m.
As a result, the causeway built in 1875 in order to reach the abbey, was often submerged.
Work is completed and the Mont St Michel is now back to being an island.
Mont St Michel – Mont Tombe
In 708AD, Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, chose a deserted island in order to build an oratory dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
The Mont Tombe quickly became a major place of pilgrimage.
A church replaced the modest edifice during the 9th century.
An abbey soon appeared; it was enlarged and embellished over the centuries.
Mont St Michel is therefore a perfect illustration of 1000 years of religious and military architecture of the highest quality.
The monks shipped huge blocks of granite from Brittany and the Chausey Islands.
They had no other choice than to hoist them up to the rocky promontory on foot because of to the narrowness of the path.
Notre-Dame-sous-Terre and Crypte des Gros Piliers
1- Between 1017 and 1144, they erected a new church on the foundation of the 9th century church.
In the late 15th century, they converted this ‘new’ church into a crypt in order to support the vast nave of the current church.
The old Romanesque church has since been known as Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre.
2- The monks built additional crypts, in order to support the extension of the church.
The most impressive of these crypts is the Crypte des Gros Piliers (big pillars).
It indeed contains a dozen pillars of granite from the Chaussey Islands.
These pillars have a 5m circumference!
The Marvel of the Western World
The monks kept enlarging their abbey over the centuries.
They partly rebuilt the current church between the 13th and 16th century.
Between 1211 and 1238, they erected two splendid three-storey buildings with donations from King Philippe-Auguste.
These monastic buildings, which complete the church, are a perfect illustration of the purest Gothic architecture.
They include the spacious Salle d’Accueil for the pilgrims, the bright Refectory, the Almonry and its Romanesque vault, the majestic Salle des Chevaliers (Knights’ Hall), the old vaulted cellar and the cloisters.
They are known as La Merveille de l’Occident.
One of the major transformations of the Mont St Michel Abbey was undoubtedly the church’s chancel.
The old Romanesque chancel collapsed.
It was rebuilt in the purest Gothic Flamboyant style between 1446 and 1521.
It beautifully enhances the elegant sobriety of the Romanesque nave.
A 157m high spire, crowned with a statue of the Archangel Michael, tops the church’s spire.
Emmanuel Frémiet sculpted this iconic statue in 1879.
The church bell-tower was rebuilt in 1897.
The cloisters boast a superb views over the Baie du Mont St Michel and the church.
Finally, the gardens are a little oasis of greenery.
They unfold at the foot of the abbey, among the rocks, on the seaside.
Fortifications and Grande Roue
1- The ramparts were built in the 14th century, in order to protect the abbey during the Hundred Years War.
The impressive fortifications and unique geographical situation made the abbey impregnable!
The Mont St Michel was indeed able to withstand a siege of 30 years.
It therefore became the symbol of national identity!
It remained an important place of pilgrimage, even in time of war, when the region was under English occupation.
Indeed, worshipers still flocked to the abbey from all over France, as the English let them access it in exchange for a toll fee!
The monastic buildings were built on the southern side of the abbey during the 18th century.
These were the last buildings to be added, as the French Revolution broke out.
The monks were expelled and the abbey converted into a prison.
2- The Grande Roue is witness to this era.
Five or six prisoners operated it.
They indeed walked the wheel in order to action the huge mechanisms that hoisted food and various equipment into the buildings!
The Mont St Michel Abbey served as prison until 1863.
Fortunately, it was listed Historical Monument in 1874.
This saved it from further neglect and deterioration.
UNESCO listed the abbey as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
In 2007, it integrated La Baie du Mont St Michel to the listing.
It has since been extensively restored and mostly returned to its past glory.
Mont St Michel – Village
Nothing is flat on Mont St Michel: you either have to walk up or down stairs!
The houses are nestled at the foot of the abbey, along the slopes, and there is only one way in-way out.
1- The massive fortified gate Porte Bavole leads straight into the Cour de l’Avancée.
2- This courtyard displays a series of English mortars fired during the Hundred Years; the inhabitants nicknamed them Michelettes.
3- The Maison des Gardes today accommodates the Tourist Office.
Both the gate and guardhouse were built in 1540.
4- The Porte du Roi boasts an impressive portcullis.
It spans the village street at the level of the Maison du Roi, the current village hall.
5- The Grande-Rue is the only street in the village!
It leads to the abbey and is lined with attractive medieval houses.
6- Many have retained their obsolete medieval names.
You will therefore discover the Maison de la Sirène (Mermaid), Maison de l’Artichaut (artichoke) and Maison de la Truie qui File (Sow).
7- Farther up the lane, you’ll come across the Logis St-Etienne or Logis Tiphaine.
Bertrand du Guesclin built this house for his wife Tiphaine Raguenel in 1365.
8- The same lane leads to a steep flight of steps known as Grands Degrés and to La Merveille.
9- The apse of the Eglise St-Pierre, the parish church, spans the lane.
The church was built in the 11th century, but was considerably altered over the centuries.
Mont St Michel and St. Michael Mount
The foundation of Mont St Michel has always been compared to St Michael’s Mount Abbey’s, off the coast of Cornwall in England.
According to the tradition, St. Michael Mount was built on a small rocky islet, where the Archangel Michael appeared.
The Celts from Cornwall left their country during the 5th century.
They landed on the shores of Brittany where they introduced their religious beliefs and legends.
They certainly saw in the Mont St Michel a replica of the island they left behind.
Indeed, the similarity between the two abbeys is such that many people often confuse them.
The Mont St Michel Abbey is the second most visited tourist site in France after the Eiffel Tower.
It is always overcrowded and this can spoil the pleasure of the visit.
It is therefore better to visit outside the peak season … if you can!
Coordinates for Mont St Michel: Lat 48.635794 – Long -1.511205