The day after our D-Day tour in Normandy, we took a guided tour of Mont St. Michel. If you have a chance to visit Normandy, I would put this as a must-see on your travel itinerary.
A Visit from St. Michel: If you build it, they will come
Mont St. Michel is about a 1.5 hour drive from our base in Bayeux through the Norman countryside. Along the way, you can see some of Le Bocage, an area of Normandy known for large hedgerows (some taller than a bus and virtually impenetrable). You’ll hear a lot about these if you study the WWII battles in Normandy. As a side note, our guide told us that the French government is now taxing the hedgerows if they are taller than a person so many farmers are cutting them down, reducing their intended purpose of shielding fields from harsh winds and erosion. But that’s another topic entirely… 🙂
Once we got close, around the city of Avranches, we could see St. Michel off in the distance, which looks like a castle rising from the sea.
As legend has it, the bishop of Avranches was visited in a dream by St. Michel who told him to build a monastery on the rock.
When he woke up, he dismissed it as a figment of his imagination and as an impossible task. Not to be deterred, St. Michel visited him again and this time, he touched the Bishop and left a mark (more of a hole) on his forehead so that he would know it wasn’t just a dream when he woke. With such evidence at hand, the bishop had no choice but to do as St. Michel said and so he did.
It was a perfect place for a monastery, isolated from the rest of the world and unreachable other than by boat or by walking the considerable distance from the mainland at low tide.
It also served as a fortress for some French kings, equipped with ramparts, arrow slits, gates, and other fortifications. In the pictures below, you’ll see a courtyard in between two gates, one of which would have had a portcullis and the other secured by a drawbridge. If a hostile force managed to somehow get through the first and the second gates, they would be trapped in the courtyard where archers could fire on them from above.
Around the time of the French Revolution, it also served as a prison, primarily for political prisoners, until prominent figures like Victor Hugo advocated for it to be restored. There are still a few signs of prisoner activity in various rooms and buildings of that time.
Today, Mont St. Michel is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and remains one of the 3 most popular pilgrimages in Europe (the other 2 are Rome/The Vatican and Camino Santiago/Santiago de Compostela). Some day, I would love to do the Camino.
An engineering marvel
The results are breath-taking, both visually and also purely from an engineering perspective. Upon this tip of this sharply pointed rock around the year 1000, they built a large monastery, along with a huge cathedral at the very top and of course rooms for the monks to go about the business of monastic living. There are even a few small gardens at the top.
All of this is constructed mostly of stone, which was quarried from a nearby island and ferried to St. Michel, where it was then hauled to the top. No small feat, I can attest after just climbing the stairs to the top laden with only a handbag.
The monastery and cathedral have 3 levels made from tons of stone, all balanced on the peak of the rock. Picture the peak like a fulcrum with structures on either side balanced against this point. The first level supports the second, and the second supports the third. Pretty impressive, particularly given that it was built in the Middle Ages using relatively rudimentary tools and materials.
The Birthplace of Gothic Architecture
It was here, according to our guide, that Gothic architecture got its start, although they didn’t attach that label until centuries later. Now y’all know how much I love Gothic architecture, particularly cathedrals, so this was a really cool bit of knowledge to pick up. I’m also particularly pleased that I was able to find a small grotesque for my desk in a gift shop here. I don’t really know why, but I like them.
In one of the chambers in the lower levels, you can see where the monks practiced since this style of architecture was new. There, you can see how the decorative arches in the domed ceiling don’t quite line up with the center of the wall between windows and other evidence of less-than-perfection. By the time they worked on the upper level, they had worked out the math and everything lines up exactly precisely centered.
In the cathedral itself, we can see that the original part of it was done in Romanesque style, with the choir and altar area constructed later in the Gothic style after a fire destroyed part of the cathedral.
The Village and Views
At the base of the mont is a village, complete with gift shops, restaurants, and hotels. I think it would be super cool to stay for a night or so in a hotel here. If I get back to this area in the future, I may just so that. 🙂
The oldest gift shop, which was established to serve pilgrims, dates from the 1200’s (if I recall what our guide told us correctly). In the village, you can also get a world-famous fluffy omelette at La Mère Poulard, dating back to the late 1800s, using the original recipe of Mère Poulard herself. I’ll just tell you that these omelettes are fairly pricey so you may want to grab a less expensive omelette or snack elsewhere it the village.
Today, around 45 people make their permanent home here.
Here are a few other pics of this beautiful place. Hope you enjoy!