Iconically French, and a View to Charish – Mont St. Michel
Sitting in my high school French class, I can remember struggling through a watered-down French version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The illustration on the well-worn soft cover was a wood block print of Mont St. Michel. Even though the story really doesn’t take place there, it’s always one and the same in my memory. I run through the labyrinthine passageways underneath the abbey, in the depths of the massive rock that Jean Valjean’s prison is perched. Needless to say, it’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and as we drove towards it we kept catching glimpses here and there of its unforgettable profile; my heart beating faster with each kilometer.
Thankfully, my very first priority was to try and get some sunset images of Mont St. Michel, so our first trip out there was only as far as a viewpoint on the coast overlooking the marshland that separates it from the mainland. We had a great vantage point, and of course we were not alone. There was a French family, a British family, some Dutch travelers as well as our small party. We all had an immediate camaraderie as we chased the same goal, the perfect image. I was elated, in my element, and I relished every shot. We stayed until the sun completed it’s dive, and then headed back to our gite ready to get a good night’s sleep and attack the rock in the morning.
We should have known to skip breakfast and just head out. Instead, being in vacation mode, we lingered enjoying our morning coffee. By the time we reached the parking lots, they were beginning to really fill up. Pilgrims have been going to the abbey since long before 1979 when Mont St. Michel was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. At first they only went for religious reasons, and now even though it is still a pilgrimage site, there are many tourists that climb the narrow alley to the top to visit the abbey as well.
The story goes that in the late 10th century, St. Michael repeatedly appealed to the bishop of Avranches to build on top of the little islet in the bay. Apparently he wasn’t that keen on the idea until St. Michael reached out with his finger and burned a whole in his head. That quickly changed his mind, and he built the new abbey on top of the old Roman ritual site. As with many medieval edifices, the abbey was continually being added to throughout the centuries, and the central spire was not added until 1896 by an Italian architect.
We parked our car in one of the many lots and followed the signs to the free shuttle. Cars are no longer allowed to drive out to the island. Even bikes cannot go past the gates; everyone must walk. The shuttles run frequently, but still they were filling up quickly; and by the time we reached the first gate, we were in a crowd. The way up to the abbey is a long, tedious climb, but of course there are many restaurants and souvenir shops to keep you occupied on your way up. The hardest and most frustrating was trying to take photos. There were very few opportunities to take shots without tourists in them.
The higher we climbed, the more spread out the tourists, and the views just got better and better. The stone walls, intricate carvings, cobble-stoned streets, all combined to give you the feeling of an ancient and special place. It was warm outside, and entering the chapels not only brought a sense of awe and admiration, but a cool and comfortable feeling. After our visit, and on the way down, we entertained the thought of having lunch here. That is until we saw the menus. Wow! What prices! We quickly decided to hold out and get outside the steep walls with their even steeper prices.
Getting to Mont St. Michel by car is fairly easy, just remember you will need to park in the parking lots well outside of the town and take the free shuttle buses or walk the 30 minutes to the gate.
You can also get to Mont St. Michel by train and bus. Take the train to Rennes and then find the Keolis bus out the train station’s north exit. You can pay the driver when you get on the bus; check the website for current pricing and timetables. Travel Tip: booking your train travel well in advance will significantly lower the cost as well.
For a great sunset shot, exit the N175 at the D43 and drive north on the D43 towards Le Mont-St. Michel. Continue on the D43 until the D75 intersection. Leave the road at this junction by continuing straight ahead down a short 50 meter track to a parking lot looking out over the tidal plains towards Mont St. Michel.