Mont St. Michel – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

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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.

Mont St. Michel World Heritage

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Practical Information:

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.

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27 thoughts on “Mont St. Michel – A UNESCO World Heritage Site”

  1. Hi Corinne,

    Amazing. My SE Asian centric self needs to get out and visit…Europe 😉 Not seen France or even been there as my focus has been in other spots. Tourist trap or not, gotta see this place. Thanks much 🙂

    Ryan

  2. All the famous sites are indééd super busy and overrun with tourists. My best visit there was years ago at dawn, long before the majority of the tourists had rolled out of bed. It was the only time possible to get a sense of what it might have been like back in the day…

  3. I was there long ago,in 2002, so maybe I am romanticizing my visit but it may be my favorite place I have ever been. It was winter, on a cold and clear weekday and there were no crowds. The climb took us a long time but we had the whole day to meander. And we saw monks, just like Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, ringing bells. In fact, Mont St Michel is one of the few places that I really would like to go to again. Thanks for the photos that brightened my day.

  4. I always enjoy your photos and your commentary. It has a similar feel to another place I cannot remember off the top of my head in Austria. Nevertheless, France, hmmm, on my do-go list 🙂

  5. Myriam Frontera

    Corinne, Two questions : 1) Where is the best town to spend the night to see Mont St Michel early in the morning?
    2)Could you please recommend some places to visit next Mont St Michel? I’ve been thinking that Dinan and St Malo could be a good choice. What do you think? Thank you!

    1. Hi Myriam, Good questions. We stayed in Brittany for one week and rented a gite, a cottage online. It was wonderful because we were able to have our own space, make breakfast, etc. But for accommodations, to be honest, most of the towns were very cute and had plenty of choices. My husband thinks Pontorson would be a good place to stay. It is a charming downtown with some cute hotels. Also, right there, not far from the parking lots are some hotels. Many of these had tours booked in them, though. We loved most of the places to visit in Brittany. I think St. Malo was one of my favorite spots, but also Dinan, Dinard, and Fougeres was really pretty as well. I don’t think you can go wrong.

  6. Great photos. I’ve always wanted to go to Mont St. Michel, it always looked to me like this fabulous structure rising out of an emptiness around it. And I’m sure I’ve seen photos of it surrounded by water (high tides?).
    Pity though about the tourist hordes. I just wrote about Plitvice and its the same thing and I guess the way of the world today…
    Nice post,
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Frank, Yes, It’s the way it is at some of the iconic sights around the world. Thankfully, there is plenty more to see in each country that the hordes ignore.

  7. Beautiful photos, what a stunning location. I would have lingered in the morning as well, I am not great at getting up and out early – unless I know for sure it is necessary.

  8. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

    Its rare that anyone actually shows the practicality of getting to Mont St Michel and as I haven’t been since I was a teenager it’s good to see how it’s done today. Getting up early definitely seems to be the thing! And hanging around for sunset – your photo is stunning!

  9. Well, you didn’t come right out and say it directly, but you sure implied it. Mont Saint Michel is little more than a tourist trap these days. A great view from a distance, and a naked money grab the closer you get. As I recall, it was €13 for parking, and just went up from there. Shameless rip off.

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