Mont-St-Michel: Tourists, not pilgrims, now flock to the abbey built on rock

Mont-St-Michel at dusk. The first church built on this small island off the French coast was constructed in 709. Later, an abbey church was built on the top of the rock and fortifications were added. Today it is one of France's top tourist attractions.


By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 18, 2014

It rises nearly 500 feet out of the water and can be seen from miles away. It is perhaps, with the exception of the Eiffel Tower, France’s most distinct tourist sight. It is the fortified medieval abbey of Mont-St-Michel.

Its beginnings are as fantastic as its appearance. As the story goes, the Archangel Michael had Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, build a chapel on an outcrop of rock off the French coast, then called Mont Tombe. Later, Benedictine monks settled the island at the request of the duke of Normandy.

The abbey church was built in the 11th century and from then until the 16th century, construction on the rock continued until it was a mightily fortified, magnificent abbey that never fell to an enemy.

Mont-St-Michel was for nearly 1,000 years a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked to the rock, taking horse-drawn carts across the causeway that linked it with the mainland at low tide, and wading or swimming to reach it when the tide was high.

Eventually, however, the importance and influence of the abbey declined, and Mont-St-Michel was used as a prison during the French Revolution. In the late 19th century it was declared a historical monument, and since 1979, Mont-St-Michel, along with its bay, has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Instead of pilgrims, tourists now flock here. More than 3  million visitors a year make it almost Disneyland-like during the day. In the evenings things quiet down, making it a better time to visit.

The mighty doors to the abbey church shut an hour before it actually closes, so arrive early enough to visit (we, unfortunately, did not), before wandering through the narrow, cobblestone lanes that lead up, down and around the abbey. Nearby, the Musée Historique traces the history of the island throughout the centuries.

From the Tour du Nord (North Tower) there is a good view of the abbey, the fortifications and the Bay of Mont-St-Michel. You can walk a good section of the ramparts, looking down into the courtyards and streets below.

Be sure to check out the 11th-century parish church of St. Pierre with its silver-clad statue of the Archangel Michael before having dinner at a restaurant in Mont-St-Michel.

Finally, take the shuttle back toward the car park, getting off at the Place du Barrage stop. From the dam, watch as the sun sets over the bay as the lights come on at Mont-St-Michel, making an enchanting, ever-changing light show.



Mont-St-Michel, France

Getting there

Mont-St-Michel is off the French coast near where Normandy and Brittany meet.

If you are coming from the D-Day Beaches, take highway A84 (E3) south past Avranches, then follow signs to Mont-St-Michel taking N175 toward Pontorson, then D43 and D75.

From the Brittany American Cemetery at St. James, take D30 to Pontorson, then D975 north to Mont-St-Michel.

GPS coordinates: Latitude: 48.635826; Longitude: -1.510725


The abbey is open daily except Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 2 to Aug. 31 and 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 1 to April 30. Last admission an hour before closing.


Admission to the abbey is 9 euros for visitors older than 25, 5.50 euros for ages 18-25; for those under 18 and a citizen of the EU, admission is free.

A day of parking at the new lots on the mainland costs 12.30 euros. If you think you can make the visit in less than two hours, it will cost 6.20 euros to park. If you come for the sunset, parking is free from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The shuttle from the visitors center, where there are toilets and luggage lockers, to Mont-St-Michel is free.

More information

The Mont-St-Michel website is www.ot-montsaintmichel.com. Its tourism office is located inside the walls at the entrance to the village and is open all year except Christmas and New Year’s Day.

If you visit Mont-St-Michel, plan to make a side trip to Brittany American Cemetery at St. James. See Stripes story at http//tinyurl.com/l2pf4tz.

A gull sits on a wall that makes up a layer of Mont-St-Michel's fortifications. The gull population vastly outnumbers the permanent human population of the island, which hovers around 40.

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