Mont Saint-Michel: France’s Emerald City
I first encountered Mont Saint-Michel during a European trip when I was 11 and let’s just say my excitement for yet another sight containing a church was, well…non-existent. Fast-forward a decade or so and I’ve fallen in love with its legitimately interesting history, adorable French charm and some of the best omelettes I’ve ever tried.
Mont Saint-Michel is situated almost smack-bang on the division between the regions of Normandy and Brittany, and you can spot it from miles away. A short car, train or bus journey from the airport in Dinard, it’s essentially a massive island towering breathtakingly over the flat countryside like something from the Wizard of Oz. To say access is restricted is a bit of an understatement – you can only get to the mountain at certain times of day when the tide is low, otherwise you can say au revoir to your car as it gets cut off from the mainland. If you’re not driving, there are plenty of shuttle buses that’ll ferry you from nearby towns like the walled city of Saint-Malo, which is another must-see.
More adventurous souls can do guided trails from the beaches around the island with a guide you had better befriend pretty fast, lest they ‘accidentally’ point you into some quicksand. The traversée, as it’s called, is the path that pilgrims took hundreds of years ago – it changes every day and it’s spectacular to watch the tour guides striding confidently through the expanse of sand as if there was a concrete path. The guides will show you what quicksand really looks like and give you a shot at dipping your leg in – if you dare.
Once you get to the foot of the mountain – whether after a trek or just in your car, it’s enormous. The tower on top of the monastery was first finished over a thousand years ago before any glimmer of electrical machinery; almost impossible to believe when you’re staring up into its expanse. Whether you’re into architecture and ancient art or not, it’s nothing short of magical to gaze up and see the intricately designed buildings wedged in all the way up the mountain.
Reaching the ‘main street’ (translation: very steep cobbled hill) of the commune, Mont Saint-Michel absolutely comes to life. Though touristy, the shops don’t sell junk – stunning Celtic silver, handmade French bowls and an authentic range of Breton tops will pull you into their clutches before you realise you’ve bought two t-shirts, a necklace and three bottles of Calvados. Oops.
With four museums even before you reach the abbey, take your time and wander through what is really, despite being completely tourist-oriented, an authentic French village. But don’t get tempted by the omelettes, apparently the best in France, just yet – save the munching for your way down. If four museums is a bit much to take in, go for the archeoscope – which contains the bulk of the mountain’s history, and the maritime museum to learn about the bay, the tides and the restoration of the island.
Apparently in A.D. 708, the Archangel Michael told the local bishop to “build here and build high” – and he certainly wasn’t shy about it.
The walk to the top of the abbey isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s been left largely in its ancient state, so the winding paths are steep and uneven – but it’s a stunning walk past some amazing buildings carved right into the mountainside, and once you reach the top the view is incomparable.
It feels like you’re the only one in the world – the sun glinting off the sea on one side and the vast countryside of Normandy and Brittany on the other, it makes you feel isolated in the best way. No wonder there are still monks and pilgrims who make the journey to Mont Saint-Michel; if I wanted to be at one with the world I couldn’t think of anywhere better to do it.
On the descent, have a little stop-off in the abbey garden. It’s bright green, filled with flowers and is where the monks sit, sunning themselves in the open space and being enviably peaceful. A minute or two of ohm-ing and ah-ing will certainly do you good.
Speaking of religion and a ‘happy place’, for food I tried the slightly kitsch but painfully delicious Mère Poulard – a theatre kitchen where the staff dress in old-time French costumes and flip the world’s best omelettes in front of your face. They make my own omelettes with a couple of eggs and mushrooms taste like cardboard; so full of creamy cheese you’ll need to lollop up to the abbey again to walk it off.
The magic continues if you want to stay at one of the surprisingly reasonable hotels on the Mount. Once the tourists leave, the gift shops pack up, the sun goes down and the mountain literally transforms. It’s floodlit as if by magic, so secluded you can’t hear or see a thing and just about the most peaceful experience you’ll ever have. Suddenly the roaring traffic of London feels like another world; as long as it involves those omelettes, maybe I’m destined for the monastery life?
Have you been to Mont Saint Michel? We’d love to hear what you thought, leave a comment below!