Difference between revisions of "Mont Saint Michel"
Revision as of 13:48, 17 August 2012
Mont Saint Michel  (often written Mont St Michel, with other variations) is a small UNESCO World Heritage site located on an island just off the coast of the region of Lower Normandy in northern France. The island is best known as the site of the spectacular and well-preserved Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Michel at the peak of the rocky island, surrounded by the winding streets and convoluted architecture of the medieval town.
Mont Saint Michel was officially inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460.
Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called "monte tombe". According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William "Long Sword", William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman co Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Norman Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island located to the west of Cornwall, which was modeled after the Mount, and became a Norman priory named St Michael's Mount of Penzance.
During the Hundred Years' War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's improved fortifications. Les Michelettes – two wrought-iron bombards left by the English in their failed 1423–24 siege of Mont-Saint-Michel – are still displayed near the outer defense wall.
When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended that the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel be the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. However, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation, and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures – including Victor Hugo – had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, and it was listed with criteria such as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty. 
Driving is probably the cheapest and easiest way of visiting Mont Saint Michel, although the queues for entry to the carpark are often very long. Within the region of Normandy, drive from Caen along the A84 south-west to Pontorson, then continue a few more kilometres to Avranches. Merge with the D43, following the signs to its Mont-St-Michel at its end. Parking costs 8.50 euro.
From Paris the total driving time is about 4 hours.
By public transport
There are no direct train services between Paris and Mont St Michel, but it is possible to travel to Pontorson by train and then complete the last leg of the journey by bus. The best option is the TGV from Gare Montparnasse to Rennes, where a bus run by "Keolis Emeraude (ex Courriers Bretons)"(tel. 02-99-19-70-70, http://www.destination-montstmichel.com;) provides a 90 minute transfer to the island (there are 4 departures from Rennes per day, most departures are timed to match to the arrival of the TGV in Rennes but it is always better to check the timing for last minute changes). The bus station is immediately outside the Rennes train station, at a bus terminal building on your right, after leaving the station by the north exit. The bus costs €11.70 , with a reduction to €8.78 for people under 25 or older than 60, a it's free for children under 12. Bus tickets are sold by the driver when boarding the bus, and in advance at the bus terminal. On off-season Sundays, the Rennes connection is often unavailable; take the TGV to Dol-de-Bretagne (listed by RailEurope as Dol, France), then the Keolis bus to Mont Saint Michel, which costs €6.10 for adults, €4.58 for under-25 or over-60, free for children under 12.
Note that the bus stops at the entrance to the Mont St Michel itself. You can also ask the driver if you want to stop to the hostel before Mont St Michel. The trip into Mont Saint Michel in the morning can be jammed up with traffic. Similarly, expect to be in a traffic jam on the way out as there is only one road leading into and out of the site. During summer, the jam can be up to an hour or more when there are lots of vistors. This meant that you may run a risk of missing your return train to Gare Montparnasse if you are on a day trip from Paris. There is a good chance that the train might wait for the returning bus from Mont Saint Michel in the afternoon if the timing is slightly off.
Another option is to take a TGV train to the Pontorson-Mont St Michel train station (up to 4 a day), with a stopover in Rennes. The Pontorson train station is no more than 15 minutes from Mont St. Michel. Buses are available several times a day. You can get a schedule from the Pontorson train station.
There are also two buses daily from Saint-Malo to Pontorson (line 17, 1 hour, 3.20 € single trip), which are timed to connect to buses to Mont St Michel (2.20 € single trip)..
Parking for bicycles is free, and the ride from Pontorson to the Mount is not particularly difficult.
The only way around Mont St Michel is on foot, and there are two gates into the walled city. The Porte de l'Avancée, the main gate at the end of the causeway, leads straight to the Grande Rue, which is packed chock-a-block with souvenir shops and tourists. Escape right up the stairs to the ramparts, which are a little less packed and offer great views of the mudflats. The lesser-used Porte Eschaugette, to the left of the main gate, is the quietest route up. All three routes converge at the Abbey on top of the island.
The Carolingian church named Chapelle Notre-Dame-sous-Terre (Our Lady underground) was built around 966 by the first Benedictine monks at the very place of the oratory erected by Saint-Aubert in the early VIIIth century.
On the Mont
The culinary specialities of Mont Saint Michel are Omelettes, whipped until frothy and light, and saltmarsh lamb (agneau de Pré Salé) dishes from the sheep that wander around the coast. None of the eateries on the island are particularly good (and they are all vastly overpriced) so if you are planning on staying on the Mont itself be aware that you might prefer eating in a town in the surrounding countryside.
The old town at the base of the abbey hosts a wide selection of restaurants, cafés, fast food outlets and other food venues. Note that Mont Saint Michel is more than slightly a tourist trap with regard to refreshments and travellers' needs - check a number of places for the best deal before ordering. Even then, do not rely on good service.
On the mainland
On the approach road to the mont is a small area of shops, restaurants and supermarkets, although not cheap, they are less un-reasonably priced than getting food on the island. There is also (limited) car parking there.
Mont Saint Michel has a number of small hotels located within the island township. A selection of much larger hotels are available on the mainland opposite the island and in the nearby town of Pontorson, but many visitors choose to daytrip from Rennes or Saint-Malo instead as the island can be comfortably covered in a few hours. The car park allows motor homes to stay overnight as part of their standard parking fee.
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Due to the tourist nature of the Mont it can get very busy, especially in high summer. Because of the steep steps up to the abbey, people can sometimes feel unwell, and may want to rest in the numerous gardens throughout the mont with plenty of seats. Keep walking when others are behind you as causing a blockage is likely to annoy them. In July and August 2012, the Abbey is open until midnight with last admittance at 11:00 p.m. A great time to visit as the crowd has really thinned down in the evening.
The local Office de Tourisme is located in the Corps de Garde des Bourgeois (the Old Guard Room of the Bourgeois), at the left of the town gates (tel 02-33-60-14-30). Open daily all year except for Christmas Day and New Years Day.
The tidal mudflats surrounding the island contain areas of deep mud and quicksand. Visitors to the island are advised not to attempt crossing the flats by foot. However, if you decide to attempt the crossing, be prepared to take off your shoes and clean up your feet afterwards, as the flats are extremely muddy. The tide here is one of the fastest-rising in Europe, and as such you should never attempt any walks on the sands without checking the tide tables. It is also advisable to only attempt the crossing with a qualified guide.
The Mount has several steep staircases, sheer drops, and uneven ground. Keep your children under close watch and ensure that you pay due attention at all times.