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The Two Mont Saint-Michel Islands

The island of Mont Saint-Michel has attracted pilgrims for over a thousand years. As we planned our trip to France, there would be no doubt that we’d also make our pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michael. What we found completely surprised and delighted us.

Mont Saint-Michel at sunset
At sunset

The idea for many of our travels comes from something in our past – often an experience on a prior trip. Our decision to come to Mont Saint-Michel in France came about because years earlier I had visited Epcot at Disney World. In the Impressions de France film shown in the Showcase of Nations, there was a clip of this beautiful island, set to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals. Years later, this image has been burned into my memory.

Views of the bay from the walls of the abbey
Views of the bay

For over a thousand years pilgrims have come to this island. Now, over three million tourists visit the rock every year, making it one of France’s most visited destinations. Everything about this island rock has the potential of being an over-rated tourist trap. However, up on the rock, there’s something magical happening.

The Abbey above the town on Mont Saint-Michel

The small church on the island was consecrated on October 16, 709. The Benedictine monks moved in just before the year 1,000 AD. Since then, the church has been expanded and rebuilt, creating an island fortress.

During the Hundred Years War, the fortress withstood a seize lasting nearly three decades. This impregnability caught the attention of the monarchy, which turned the Abbey into a prison for a time during the French Revolution and throughout the 19th Century. The security of the island makes for an interesting contrast with the extreme openness of the Versailles Palace.

The masses of visitors in the narrow lanes of Mont Saint-Michel
By day, the narrow lanes swell with day trippers

Yet, we discovered there were really two Mont Saint-Michels. During the daytime, we encountered thousands of visitors. We hiked up the rampart walls, enjoying the views of the sea and experiencing the Abbey town. As we walked down through the town, we experienced clogging congestion as thousands of tourists filled the narrow streets. Many of the small shops were open and selling all manner of souvenirs, some of it quite kitschy.

We left the island in the late morning, just as dozens of tour buses were arriving, mostly with day trippers from Paris. It was almost enough to make a visitor regret coming to this island…almost.

View of the island and abbey at night
Mont Saint-Michel at night

However, there is another Mont Saint-Michel. In the late afternoon we returned the island, just as the day trippers were leaving to go back Paris. As the sun begins to set, a charming little village of less than 100 full-time inhabitants is revealed.

It can be an intensely romantic experience as serene views of the ocean and quaint eateries can be enjoyed in total isolation. We felt a sense of peace as we headed up to the summit to experience the Night Walk at the Abbey.

In the evening during the summer, the Abbey is specially illuminated and is open until almost midnight for visits. There were almost no other tourists there. The Abbey had three musicians (a cello, a flute and harpsichord) in various parts of the Abbey giving solo performances. The haunting music in the beautiful abbey was perfect!

Columns inside the Abbey, which is illuminated at night
Inside the Abbey

As we made our pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel, we knew we’d encounter other tourists. During the day, the island was anything but tranquil. However, we didn’t realize that in the evenings, we’d have the Abbey and most of Mont Saint-Michel to ourselves. It was magical!

The view of Mont Saint-Michel from the causeway
The view from the causeway

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Wednesday 24th of June 2015

Loved this article on France. I'm heading there next spring and looking for the perfect two weeks full of ideas!

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