Detailed review by magdadh
Highlands, United Kingdom
An abbey complex and the fortified village that surrounds it, Abbaye du Mont Saint Michel has been included on the UNESCO list of the world's cultural heritage and has a special place in the French soul and is one of the most frequently mentioned must-sees in the country that abounds in wonders of nature and architecture. And no wonder.
There are a few places where the interplay between the natural setting and the human-created architecture is as impressive as at St Michel. The abbey has been built on an islet in the Canal La Manche (or the English Channel for the Brits), about a kilometre off the Normandy coast east of St Malo at the mouth of the Couesnon River.
The islet is not much more than a large rock and is almost completely covered by the abbey complex. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway that remains dry at all times, but the area around the islet is subject to high tide difference and thus, depending on the time of the day, can be covered by sea or open up into vast tidal sands.
Sea or sands, the situation of the abbey is most impressive and in a way the best experience of St Michel is to see it from a distance, raising from the waves (or on the somewhat flat tidal sands). The 19th century slim spire/pinnacle grates a little bit, incongruent with the medieval block below, but altogether the combination of the architecture, sand and sea has an unearthly, magical quality that is worth travelling for.
It's also possible to walk on the sands around it (better with the guide as the tide raises as fast as 1m/s and people drown every year) as well as visit the islet itself. The latter is also worth doing, but be prepared for a tourist trap that opens up immediately on entering the walled area. There are hotels, overpriced eating places and numerous souvenir shops as well as pseudo-museums and other “attractions, all encircled by thick walls (you can walk a section of the battlements for less crowds and pretty amazing views). The narrow, steep streets and alleyways are packed with tourists but still worth walking for the views up the walls.
All paths converge at the abbey. The abbey complex, high up on the islet above the village, incurs an entrance charge as steep as the alleyways that lead the visitor to its door (9 Euro per adult at the time of writing in 2011).
The history of the Mont St Michel abbey goes back to as early as the 8th century. A legend claims that the archangel Michael himslef appeared to the bishop of Avaranches and ordered him to built a church on the Mont. The current structure is mostly later medieval construction, with substantial parts dating to the 11th and 12th century and even as late as the 16th century (plus this unfortunate neo-Gothic spire, of course). It was a place of pilgrimage as well as a powerful local landowner and a location of strategic significance. Only the arrival of the Reformation marked the fall in the abbey's importance.
The architecture of the abbey is formidable, combining surmounting the engineering challenges of building the church and the surrounding abbey into a steep rock with the aesthetic and spiritual - achievements of sacred architecture to which the Romanesque and Gothic styles are so well suited. The abbey church is the undoubted highlight, although the cloisters are rather charming and many connecting passages and staircases are pretty grand too.
Most of the abbey is pretty bare, the grandeur of the architecture left to speak for itself, but there is several areas to the whole site and you will easily need an hour or more for a visit.
The islet sees over three and half million visitors a year and as it's a small site, the numbers, squashed in narrow alleyways and on steep staircases, can get overwhelming. The best way to experience the magical qualities of the site is probably to stay in one of the hotels if you can afford. Otherwise, try to time your visit to avoid the school holidays (and in fact, the whole of the July and particularly August summer season). Visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon will also lessen the crowds, though there is always many people milling about the islet.
The car parks are along the causeway, and some do get submerged at higher tides, so do pay attention to the signs.
The Mont Saint Michel Abbey