Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel
Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel

Perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides between Basse-Normandy and Bretagne stands the 'Wonder of the West', a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael, and the village that grew up in the shadow of its great walls. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the abbey is a technical and artistic tour de force, having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.

The island, around 960 metres in circumference and at its pinnacle standing 92 metres above the sea, is connected to the mainland via a thin natural landbridge, which until recently was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. Thus, Mont Saint Michel gained a mystical quality, being an island half the time, and being attached to land the other: a tidal island.

Over the years the the insular character of the mount has been compromised by several developments, the coastal flats have been polderised to create pasture, thus reducing the distance between the shore and the Mont. In 1879, the landbridge was strengthened and became a causeway. During the 20th century the Couesnon river was made into a canal, thus reducing the flow of water and causing the bay to silt up. In 2006, the government announced a plan, “Projet Mont Saint-Michel” that would involve removing the causeway and replacing it with a bridge, at the same time building an hydraulic dam that will assist with the removal of accumulated silt, thus making Mont Saint-Michel an island again. This 150€ million project is expected to be completed by 2012.

Some History

During the 6th and 7th centuries it was an Armorican stronghold of Romano-Breton culture and power, until it was wrecked by the Germanic tribes, thus ending the cross-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 459.

Until the 8th century the island was known as Mont Tombe (Tomb on the Hill) when the building of the first monastic establishment began. In 708, according to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to St.Aubert, Bishop of Averanches, telling him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert totally ignored the archangels request until Michael burned a hole in his head with his finger!!!

Two centuries later, the Mont was to gain strategic significance when William “Long Sword”, Duke of Normandy, over ran the Cotentin Penninsula, thus taking the Mont under Norman control. Those of you that have visited the Bayeux Tapistry will have noticed the Mont is depicted therein. It was because of the support given to William, “the Bastard”, Duke of Normandy at the time of the Battle of Hastings, that it received ducal patronage in the following centuries.

During the Hundred Years War, 1337 to 1453, the English made repeated attempts to sieze the island, however they failed due to the abbey’s improved fortifications. Two wrought-iron siege cannons (Les Michelettes) ver left behind left by the English after their failed siege of 1423-24. These can are still be seen near the outer defence wall.

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 during the Reformation, and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. Those that reamined were ejected, the abbey closed and this splendid building became a prison, initially to holding clerical opponents of the republican régime. With unconscious irony, the name of the place was changed from Mont St-Michel to Mont Libre. 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 Town

As you enter this “Marvel of the Western World” through the only breach in the ramparts, the Bavole Gate, built by Gabriel du Puy in 1590, you are confronted with a fortified courtyard. To your left is the Citizens’ Guardroom, a 16th-century building that is now home to the Tourist Informatioin Office. On your right are a pair of wrought-iron siege canons abandoned by the English after the Montois repelled an assult on the Mont in 1434. The victors then recovered these and put them on display at the entrance of the town, today they are referred to as “Michelettes”. Passing through the Boulevard Gate with it’s gun embrasuress and loopholes, you are in a second courtyard where, in front of you is the King’s Gate with its portcullis and machicolations. The later being very useful for pouring boiling oil on ones enemies!! Within the gate was where a small contingent of soldiers ver garrisoned to assert the rights of the King over the Mont. Above the gate is the King’s House, now the Town Hall.

Passing through this third gate, you are into Grande Rue, a picturesque narrow street that climbs between the 15th – 16th-century shops and houses, many of which have retained there original names: Logis Saint-Etienne, Vieux Logis, Sirène (The Siren’s house) and Truie qui file. The pretty timber-framed acrade house to your right, straddling the street is the Artichoke House, so named because of its ornate roof. Further along is the Archéoscope, a small theatre that has a L'Eau et La Lumière (Water and Light) show that celebrates the legend and lore of Mont-St-Michel and its role as a preserver of French medieval nationalism.

Almost opposite is Église St-Pierre, the parish church, an 11th-century edifice that was completely restored in the 17th-century and whose apse spans the narrow street. Inside you will see a statue of St.Michel covered in silver: a 15th-century statue of the Virgin and many pilgrimage banners.

Today, this former 12th-century Pilgrimage route is alive with tourists, crowded and lively cafés and restauants, stalls selling souvenirs and the sound of many languages.

Now comes the hard part, the climb up the Grand Degré stairs to visit Logis Tiphaine, a 14th-century house that was built by Bertrand De Guesclin, Captain of the Mont, as a safe haven for his wife Tiphaine Raguenel, an attractive and well-educated lady from Dinan, daughter of Robin III Raguenel, Seigneur de Châteloger and Jean de Dinan, Viscountess La Bellière. Today is is a museum, displaying furniture, paintings and tapistries in three rooms.

There are four museums within the town and it is possible to buy admission tickets at each one. However we would recommend that you purchase a combined ticket for all four, as you will see from the prices below:

4 Museums - Adult 15€
Students 11,50€
Children 9€
1 Museum - Adult 7€
Children 4,50€

The Abbey

This Benedictine Abbey sits, like a crown, on top of the islet, 73 metres above sea-level. The original building dates from 709AD, over the centuries it has suffered three collapses, been burnt down (some say by accident), rebuilt, extended, and restored many times. Built from granite, its delicate contours are an extension of the shape of the island and encompass a range of architectural styles, from Norman to Gothic. For centuries, it was a place of pilgrimage but it has also variously served as a prison, a fortress against the English and a monastery.

Having negotiated the Grand Degré, a steep narrow staircase that leads to the entrance, you will find a wider flight of granite stairs that leads you to a terrace, Saut Gautier Leap (named after a prisoner who jumped to his death from here) beside the south door of the church. Your tour starts here!!

Be warned, your tour of the Abbey can be very tiring, as you will have climbed over 900 stairs. The tour, approximately one hour, best made with a guide, does not take you from building to building nor from period to period but from floor to floor through a maze of corridors and stairs.

The tour incudes Abbey Church with its three crypts, Romanesque nave and Gothic chancel: La Merveille (The Marvel), which includes the Refectory, a mysterious phenominum as is has only two small windows in the end wall, yet is full of light: The Guests Hall, where the Abott receive royalty and other important visitors: The Almonry, a Gothic room with a Romanesque vault supported on a row of columns: Knight’s Hall, where the monks illuminated manuscripts: The Cloisters, a magical place that seems to be suspended between sea and sky, with elegant marble columns and gallery arcades displaying scupltured foliage: The cellars, a huge storeroom divided into three by square pillars: And the “Grande Roue”, a huge wheel operated by five or six prisoners who would walk inside it, thus hoisting provisions and pieces of equipment, a very basic historic crane!! 

INFORMATION

The abbey is open every day except: 1st January, 1st May and 25th December.
From 2nd May to 31st August: 9am to 7 pm, last admission at 6 pm
From 1st September to 30th April: 9.30 am to 6pm, last admission at 5 pm.
On the 24th & 31st December: last entrance at 4 pm & closing time at 5pm.

Self guided tour or one hour guided tour (Reservations accepted)

Pets are not allowed in the abbey

Tickets available at the entrance of the abbey only

Admission Rates:

Adults: 8 euros

18 to 25 years old: 5 euros

Children: UNDER 18 years: Free of Charge

Groups (20 persons): 6,20 euros

The Tides and The Bay

The landscape is wild and beautiful, part of the magic is the visual impact of the tides.There is a tidal difference of 15 metres at certain times of the year and the base of Mont Saint-Michel is covered by the sea. At low tide it is possible to walk on the expanse of sand, barefoot, either between the Mont and the little island called Tombelaine or following the ancient pilgrimage routes from Genêts to Mont Saint-Michel, but we strongly recommend you do so only under the supervision of experienced guides as the bay is a dangerous place, with pockets of quicksand that have caught out inattentive fishermen or children collecting shells, frequently trapping them and the occasional drowning. Do not be tempted to venture out alone, even close to Mont Saint Michel.

The tides are very strong in the area, especially in Spring and Autumn, easily reaching speeds of 10 miles per hour. The waves were said by Victor Hugo to progress and reach their victims 'á la vitesse d'un cheval au galop' (as swiftly as a galloping horse). The tide actually comes in at one metre per second.

The number of casualties has probably been overrated by the legend over the years, but unfortunately, it is not only a rumour: a little girl drowned near the car park three years ago, as nobody was quick enough to rescue her!

For those that do not like walking it is possiblre to arrange a trip in a special horse-drawn carriage called 'maringotte', which once brought tourists form the train station at Genêts to the Mont Saint-Michel, we were enthralled by the experience. For more information about this amazing 5 hour trip, please contact:

DÉCOUVERTE DE LA BAIE DU MONT-SAINT-MICHEL

La maison du Guide • 1, rue Montoise - 50530 Genêts

Should you be staying at one of the hotels on the Mont, DO NOT leave your car in one of the car parks, it will drown, ALWAYS park on the causeway. Your hotel receptionist will sell you a parking ticket (4€ per day) and give you all the advice you need.

If you wish to watch the rising tide, you MUST be present 2 hours before the times indicated on spring tide days. A copy of the tide timetable is available from many of the shops on and around Mont Saint-Michel

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