France’s Mont St-Michel and Its Romanesque Abbey
Mont St-Michel, France
About 1,200 years ago, the archangel Michael appeared to a bishop in the west of France and encouraged him to build an abbey…and people will come. The iconic abbey towering above the mud flats of Normandy’s coast has been inspiring pilgrims and travelers ever since.
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Our next stop — an hour’s drive away — is Mont St-Michel. For over a thousand years, the silhouette of this island-abbey has sent pilgrim’s weary spirits soaring. Today it does the same for tourists. Mont St-Michel, which through the ages has been among the top pilgrimage sites in all Christendom, floats like a mirage on the horizon.
The vast Bay of Mont St-Michel, which turns into a mudflat at low tide, has long played a key role here. Since the sixth century, hermit monks have lived here in search of solitude.
The word “hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word for “desert.” The closest thing to a desert in this part of Europe was the sea. Imagine the “desert” this bay provided as that first monk climbed that rock trying to get closer to God.
The rock, capped by an abbey, was even more isolated by its mythic tides. Pilgrims crossed the mudflat quickly and carefully knowing that the sea swept in “at the speed of a galloping horse.”
In the late 1800s, a road was built, connecting the island to the mainland and letting pilgrims come and go without hip boots.
The town of Mont St-Michel — with only 30 residents — entertains over 2 million visitors a year. Its main street — lined with shops and hotels leading up to the abbey — is grotesquely commercial. It’s some consolation to remember that, even back in the Middle Ages, this was a retail gauntlet, with stalls selling souvenir medallions, candles, and fast food…like omelets.
An island specialty is quick, tasty, and extremely fluffy omelets. They were popular for eat-and-run pilgrims who needed to beat the tide and they remain a hit with visitors today. Enjoy the show as cooks make sure the traditional beat goes on.
You can skirt those main street crowds and enjoy Mont St-Michel’s fine 15th-century fortifications by following the ramparts up to the abbey. These walls were built to defend against a new weapon — the cannon. Rather than tall, they were low — to make a smaller target.
While the English took all the rest of Normandy, they never conquered this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn defense against the English through all those years, Mont St-Michel became a symbol of French national identity.
As you climb the stairs to the abbey, imagine the pilgrims and monks who for centuries have climbed these same stone steps.
Mont St-Michel has been a holy place since the year 708, when, according to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to a local bishop in a vision and convinced him to build here.
This was an immense building project evolving over many centuries. It was a marvel — a medieval skyscraper, built upon a rock…crowned by a gilded statue of Saint Michael.
The bay stretches from Normandy to Brittany. The river marks the historic border between the two lands.
Normandy and Brittany have long vied for Mont St-Michel. In fact, the river used to pass on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today Mont St-Michel is just barely — but thoroughly — part of Normandy.
The centerpiece of this extraordinary Abbey is its church. While it’s mostly 11th century Romanesque (with round arches and small windows), the apse behind the altar was built later. It’s Gothic pointed arches and bigger windows fill the sanctuary with light.
Sitting atop all this heavy construction — like a delicate flower — is the abbey’s cloister. In this peaceful zone, which connected various rooms, monks would grow vegetables and medicinal herbs. They’d meditate and read the Bible. And, for thoughtful travelers today, this Abbey still inspires.