Mont St Michel, the Holy Fortress of France

Mont St Michel, the Holy Fortress of France

When I was a senior in high school, I saw a poster of Mont St Michel, France. It was the most romantic, spellbinding, and fascinating place I had ever seen. At that point in my young life, it had not even occurred to me that places like Mont St Michel actually existed in the real world. Seeing that poster may have been the very moment when my travel addiction was born. So when I booked my solo trip to Paris, of course I spent a little extra for a side trip. Here’s a review of my Mont St Michel day trip from Paris.

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Why Choose a Mont St Michel Day Trip?

Few places are as romanticized as Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. Built upon a rock, the abbey juts out of the sea with its spire reaching heavenward. It is akin to something you would see in the illustration of a fairy tale. More than three million people visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site each year, vastly outnumbering the mere 50 individuals who call it home.

Surrounded by water, the tidal island of Mont St. Michel at one time could only be reached at low tide. Higher tide levels left the causeway submerged below water. Yet despite its location, it was a renowned center of learning and, for about 1000 years, a popular religious pilgrimage destination. The fact that it was so hard to reach did not deter the medieval pilgrims, who nicknamed it “St. Michael in peril of the sea.” Thankfully for modern day visitors, a bridge now allows full time access to the island regardless of tide.

History of Mont St. Michel

According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, the archbishop of Avranches, in 708 AD and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island. Aubert was reluctant to act upon his command, however, and resisted until Michael appeared three times. On the third visit, Michael touched Aubert’s head and burned a hole in his skull. Apparently, that was enough to persuade him; a church was built the following year. Later, a Benedictine abbey was built on the site in 966 AD.

In 1067, the monastery of Mont St Michel gave its support to William the Conqueror, who was fighting for the throne of England. In appreciation, he rewarded the monastery with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall. The English island was modeled after Mont St Michel and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance. (I’ve been there, too. Read about my visit here.)

In 1203, King Philip II of France tried to capture Normandy, including Mont St Michel. As a result of the battle and a very large fire, the abbey was destroyed. He compensated the monks for their loss by paying for the construction of the monastery known as La Merveille (“The Wonder”).

Construction of the monastery was followed in 1256 by fortifications on the island. This proved to be a wise move. Over the centuries, Mont St Michel grew and flourished, resisting multiple attacks during the Hundred Years War and the French Wars of Religion. However, by the eighteenth century, its glory days were behind it. By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), only seven monks called the monastery on Mont St Michel home.

Under Napoleon’s reign, Mont St Michel became a prison, referred to as the “Bastille of the Sea.” This era saw the construction of a treadwheel crane in an old ossuary. Six prisoners walked inside the 12 foot diameter wheel in order to hoist necessary supplies up to the prison.

Mont St Michel day trip -- massive treadwheel used to hoist supplies up to the monastery when it was a prison.

Mont St Michel: the Details

The structures built upon the island of Mont St Michel symbolize the class structure of medieval Europe. God, the abbey and monastery are at the highest point, some 300+ feet above the sea. Below the monastery lie the merchants’ stores and housing, and at the very bottom, outside the walls, the fishermen’s and farmers’ housing.

At the very top of the steeple there is a gilded statue of St. Michael, sword pointed down toward the vanquished dragon he stands upon.

Mont St Michel day trip - a golden statue of the Archangel Michael tops the abbey steeple

This statue is one of only a few examples of ornamentation, however. By and large, the structures of the abbey and monastery are empty. As I toured the buildings, it seemed most of the rooms looked like this one:

Typical room at the abbey as seen on Mont St Michel day trip

Even the church nave was rather barren and plain. Impressive in size, yes, but still rather unadorned.

Photo by Jorge Lascar via Flickr

The cloister at Mont St Michel abbey is different from what you would see at most medieval cathedrals and monasteries. It is not in the center of the monastery. It served as a place for spiritual meditation for the monks who lived there.

Mont St Michel day trip - the abbey cloister

Hands down, this was my favorite spot.

Getting to Mont St Michel

From Paris, you can catch an early morning high speed train to the city of Rennes, the capital city of Brittany. The train leaves from Gare Montparnasse, and travels the 220 miles in about two hours. From Rennes, you can catch a bus that will take you the rest of the way in a little over an hour.

Car parks are located about 1.5 miles from the Mount, but you can take a shuttle bus (called Passeurs) from the visitor’s center. Shuttles operate from 7:30 am to midnight. Alternatively, you can ride a horse drawn carriage (called a Maringote). At 45 minutes, the carriage is considerably slower, but so much more romantic.

A horse drawn carriage takes visitors to the car park - Mont St Michel day trip.

Booking a Mont St Michel Day Trip with a Third Party

Because my primary interest in a side trip was seeing Brittany, I chose a day trip package that offered Mont St Michel as well as St. Malo and Dinan. (I booked my trip through Link Paris. I paid full price, out of my own pocket, and they had no idea I write this travel blog. So you get a 100% completely honest review!)

The Link Paris driver, Marc, picked us up at the train station in Rennes and took us to St Malo first, where we happily explored for an hour or so. Then it was on to Mont St Michel, followed by another quick stop in Dinan. Marc, who spoke English, was friendly and informative. Additionally, he provided us with maps, brochures, and recommendations at each of our stops.

The best parts of booking my Mont St Michel day trip this way: I didn’t have to worry about logistics. The folks at Link Paris took care of buying all the tickets I needed. I also didn’t have to take more than one method of transportation (no bus transfers, no car rentals).

The worst parts of booking my Mont St Michel day trip this way: I did not get to set my own schedule. I would have preferred more time in Dinan, for instance, but I was at the mercy of the group schedule.

However, all of the above would likely be true for any group travel experience booked through a third party. I am in no way implying that Link Paris is better or worse than any other agency.

If you’re wondering what this sort of day trip costs, I paid a little over $300. The package included all expenses except meals and any souvenirs I wished to purchase.

My Take on Mont St Michel

In all honesty, I found Mont St Michel to be somewhat disappointing. As I mentioned, the abbey was fairly empty, devoid of furnishings and art. There weren’t even many informational signs to read.

The town below the abbey was just the opposite – overcrowded with tourists and souvenir shops.

Mont St Michel day trip - the streets are narrow and crowded.

The crowds, combined with the narrow streets, made me feel almost claustrophobic at times. Ultimately, I decided that I could best appreciate Mont St Michel from a distance. But as always, your mileage may vary.

I will say, however, that even though it wasn’t an ideal destination for me, I’m still glad that I went. It was great to satisfy that 18-year-old me who fell in love with it at first glance and dreamed of going there someday.

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Mont St Michel Day Trip from Paris
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Mont St Michel Day Trip from Paris
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A Mont St Michel day trip is a great chance to get away from the hubbub of Paris and steep yourself in the rich history outside the capital city.
Julie Peters
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