Mont Saint Michel, an odd jewel in the Normand countryside, France

I was born in Normandy, and many years after having left the homeland for overseas pastures, it’s easy to forget how beautiful it all is. I enjoyed re-discovering the magical Mont St Michel, and sharing the experience.

Fun facts and history

The Mont is first and foremost known for its sacred and religious aspect, and the spectacular Abbey crowning it. As history puts it, in 709 the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop and ordered him to build a sanctuary on the Mont.

With a thousand years of history, many legends, stories and poems have been writen about the Mont. Here is one, written by my absolute favourite Normand author, Guy de Maupassant; his legend of the quarrel between the devil and St Michel, is a delight:

Saint Michael watches over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious, the conqueror of Satan.

But this is how the Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.

(read the full legend in English here).

I saw a lot of journalist and blogs getting this wrong: the Mont St Michel is in Normandy, and it’s always been. When the Archangel alledgedly appeared in 709, under Charlemagne, the Mont was already belonging to the diocese of Avranche, Normandy. And more importantly, the Abbey was consequently built by Normand Benedictine monks in 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, and has been run by them ever since!

heula mont st michel

A couple more for the pub quiz:

– In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.

– Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century.

– During the French revolution in 1792, when the church properties got seized, the Abbey was transformed into a prison.

– the Mont currently counts 43 inhabitants, mostly monks!

Do’s and don’ts
  • The best season to travel there is surely late spring or summer, but even then, the weather can be very variable throughout the day so do dress in layers and pack a trench or waterproof rain coat.
  • you’ll walk a lot and climb many stairs, that being said, it’s all on roads / path, so flats or light trainers are a safe choice
  • The car park is a bit of a tourist trap and I had been well advised to avoid it, that’s how we stayed in a modest and lovely b&b where we could park (for free) and walk over to the Mont in 10min. This one next door also looked just as good, maybe more suited for longer stays.
  • Remember that hotels on the Mont are expensive and don’t actually enjoy the view…
  • Nothing has changed much since Victor Hugo was there either: I would still recommend to go for a nice meal on the mainland for the island is rather touristy and you might find “rotten fish in the middle of the sea” as he described.
  • be aware that restaurants will close early in the evening (last order 9.30pm in most places). We stayed until sunset and pretty much had to skip dinner…
  • do cross the bay, walking or on horseback…it’s recommended to do it with a guide as it can get dangerous
  • do visit the Abbey, for the first time I had the chance to follow the evening path, lit for the summer…around 8/9pm is ideal as the sunset falls on the cloister…magical. Info here and there
For the foodies…

The Mont sits at the border between Brittany and Normandy and as a result you will find a lot of regional delicacies from both sides of the river.

I have previously confessed on this blog my love for cider (the sparkling alcoholic apple based beverage), and this time I even brought back home some Pommeau (aperitif based on cider and Calvados liquor). Enjoyed best with a caramel crêpe….yum

But the true local delicacy is the salt march lamb, called in French “agneau de pré-salés”. Because the area enjoys some of the strongest tides in the world, pastures sometimes get covered and soaked in sea water. The little lambs therefore graze in high salt content environment, giving the meat a distinctive (but not salty) flavour. It is a very refined dish that you may only find in high end restaurants, and normally only from end of June until Christmas.

 

 Victor Hugo to his daughter Adele:
“J’étais hier au Mont-Saint-Michel. Ici, il faudrait entasser les superlatifs d’admiration, comme les hommes ont entassé les édifices sur les rochers et comme la nature a entassé les rochers sur les édifices. Mais j’aime mieux commencer platement par te dire, mon Adèle, que j’y ai fait un affreux déjeuner. Une vieille aubergiste bistre a trouvé moyen de me faire manger du poisson pourri au milieu de la mer. Et puis, comme on est sur la lisière de la Bretagne et de la Normandie, la malpropreté y est horrible, composée qu’elle est de la crasse normande et de la saleté bretonne qui se superposent à ce précieux point d’intersection.”

Around and away

We came from London via the ferry boat and my friend drafted the following itinerary for us with her favourite beaches and areas on the coast. Feel free to use it:Lower Normandy road Map

Another way to do it would be to start from Caen (accessible by train from Paris or by ferry boat) and combine your visit with the D-Day beaches and the WW2 memorial museum. For convenience I do recommend to rent a car from Caen or Cherbourg onward.

Note that FlyBe has also opened a London Southend / Caen line a few months ago.

Other resources and useful links:

Normandy Tourism website – well done and in English

virtual tour

Video on the Unesco website

 

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