Le Mont St. Michel is a very unique combination of characteristics: island, mountain, castle, monastery, medieval town, geological phenomenon, architectural marvel, and a place of legend. Built sometime around 700-800 CE, the town and its fortifications have served a strategic role in the region over the centuries. Le Mont has a special place in the hearts of the French. Many songs, stories, and movies have referred to it. I’ve personally wanted to visit it since I was young. Finally seeing it in person was amazing.
Le Mont is located in a shallow bay in Normandy (northwestern France). It is classified as a “tidal island,” which means it is surrounded by water when the tides are high. During low tide, you can walk over from the mainland. Just don’t get caught when the water rises; the water level goes up quickly, and the quicksand can be deadly!
Inside Le Mont St. Michel
There’s a single road that connects the island to the mainland. The road gets lots of traffic – 3.5 million tourists and Christian pilgrims visit the town every year. They are currently renovating the area, changing the water flow with a new dam and building a new raised road leading to the town. There are a few small but expensive hotels on the island itself. We stayed on the mainland, however. It was much cheaper, and you can just walk or take a bus over to the island.
When you first enter the island, you walk through the tiny medieval town. Less than 30 people officially live on the island today. Le Mont has never had more than 1500 inhabitants over its entire history. The town probably had some interesting shops back in the day – carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. Today, it is only for tourists: souvenirs, food, and lodging. You need no more than a couple hours in town and less than a day at the site in general.
The fortifications of Le Mont are quite impressive. The island is completely surrounded by city walls. The central core of the mountain is situated at the top of the mountain and covered with more walls. Imagine launching projectiles from a catapult from the top!
The top of the mountain is reserved – for God! There’s a Gothic-styled Benedictine Abbey up there. It is dedicated to Michael the Archangel. To get there, you need to walk up a bunch of stairs, but the view is amazing. You can also pay a fee to tour the Abbey, but we chose not to do it.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Le Mont is the tidal flow. I’m not aware of any other landmark in the world that is sometimes part of the mainland and sometimes an island. It just takes about 60 minutes for high tide to cause the town to be completely surrounded by water. We climbed the steps to the abbey and watched the tidal phenomenon happen.