Is it a castle or an island? Is that the desert or the sea? Is it Bretagne or Normandie? Each day, this castle becomes an island, then the sea withdraws to leave treacherous sands behind. Meanwhile, a whimsical little river draws the border between the two realms, making Mont St. Michel part of Normandy.
The mountain has always been a place of awe; beautiful and inaccessible, it caused many to perish at the mercy of tides. And as it happens with so many places of awe and beauty, it has always been a site of worship. In the early days of Christianity, monks were using Mount Tomb – that was the first name of the island – as a sanctuary. It was in 708 that Saint Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches, commending to build an abbey on top of that mountain. The abbey was consecrated in Saint Michael’s name, and since anno domini 708, Christians continue their pilgrimage to the holy mountain, searching for absolution from the mighty archangel who defeated Satan. The abbey that we see today is the result of centuries of enduring works, fierce sieges and architectural wonders; but the mountain is much more than that: it is a fortress, a village and an island like no other on Earth.
This region between Saint Malo and Saint Michael’s Bay sees the highest tides in Europe. Hundreds and thousands of years ago, Mont Saint Michel was a simple island. A pastoral river called Couesnon meandered through the fertile plane and flowed into the bay, just a step left of the mountain. When borders were drawn, everything left of the river was Bretagne and everything right of the river was Normandie, Mont Saint Michel included. The quarrel stays forever though, and each time the old rivalry flares up, a mocking saying settles the matter: “Le Couesnon en sa folie a mis le Mont en Normandie” / The Couesnon in his folly, has thrown the Mountain in Normandy.The microclimate of the bay is quite unique; I wrote here about the pré salé, the mussels and the lamb that are simply to die for. Still, the centuries of agriculture, tourism and the works to master the river and prevent over flooding of pastures have taken the toll on the waters. In time, the land advanced and the sea became shallow. Yes, the spectacle of wet sands at low tide is amazing: a still, magical mirror to reflect the beauty of the mountain. But science showed that, sooner than later, the land would have claimed it forever.
In 2002, the project called Projet Mont Saint Michel was set in motion. It aimes to restore Mont Saint Michel’s maritime character and revolution the area so that, with the aid of science, the millions of tourists could still visit and not harm the wonder. It is an ongoing project that will be completed in 2022, but the most significant part is already accomplished. When I first visited in 2010, there was a road leading straight to the mountain and you could park your car right there at the bottom. It often happened that cars parked outside the safe zone were carried away by the growing tide.
Now there is a dam on the Couesnon and a tourist welcoming complex built in the vicinity. You have to leave the car in a huge car park 2.5 kilometers away and come by authorized shuttle, or by foot. A gorgeous light bridge has been built over the bay, more of a slender boulevard where you can witness the tides and admire the mountain, even at night. If you check the calendar of tides, you can plan your trip to actually be there at high/ low tide.
- Do not fall into the trap of the One Day trip from Paris offer for tourists. Mont Saint Michel takes time, and the whole bay is wonderful to discover. Food exceptional.
- Yes, at low tide you can actually walk on wet sands to the Mountain. No, do not do that on your own. There are guides to accompany you and to keep you from being stuck in sinking sands.
- When the calendar of tides show a tide higher than 12.8 m, the bridge will be temporarily closed.
Ever since the Middle Ages, locals have called Mont Saint Michel “la Merveille” – the Wonder. About visiting the Wonder, next chapter.