The impressive Mont Saint Michel abbey in France is a historic and architectural wonder that draws millions of visitors every year. Here are the top Mont Saint Michel facts to inspire your trip.
It is an island municipality surrounded by quicksand
Located off the coast of Normandy, Mont Saint Michel is an island commune or municipality of France. It can reached in three hours by train from Paris. Covering 250 square acres, Mont Saint Michel has a circumference of a kilometre and rises over 90 metres above sea level. One of the top Mont Saint Michel fun facts is that it is surrounded by quicksand.
Medieval pilgrims nicknamed the abbey St. Michael in Peril of the Sea, because of the difficulties in crossing the quicksand surrounding it when the tides are low. Visitors today are still advised not to walk across the sands, though some still try.
Despite having a population of fewer than 50 people, Mont Saint Michel has its own mayor, Yann Galton. As the son of a previous mayor, Yann grew up on the island and won the mayoral election in 2014.
Mont Saint Michel was inspired by a dream
According to legend, in the year 708 AD, Saint Aubert, the bishop of the nearby commune of Avranches, dreamed that Saint Michael the Archangel instructed him to build an abbey on the small rocky island.
It started off very modest and over the centuries became an imposing fortified building. It is dedicated to Archangel Michael, who appears as a golden statue at the top of its spire.
In March 2016, a helicopter was used to temporarily remove the statue, in order to restore its lightning rod device, in what was a dramatic but successful operation.
It has a twin in England
Mont Saint Michel has a strong connection with England. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which France has just agreed to loan to the UK for display in London’s British Museum. The famous artwork commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. In the tapestry, King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, is portrayed during a battle with the Duke of Brittany, rescuing two Norman knights from the area’s quicksand.
In recognition of Mont Saint Michel’s support of William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne in 1067, the abbey was rewarded with properties and grounds in England. These include a small island off the coast of Cornwall, on which a castle was modelled after Mont Saint Michel and given the same name, translated into English: St Michael’s Mount.
Centuries later, during the Hundred Years’ War in the 15th century, the Kingdom of England made repeated assaults on Mont Saint Michel but were unable to seize it due to the abbey’s fortifications. This turned Mont Saint-Michel into a symbol of France’s resolute resistance against England.
Mont Saint Michel was once used as a prison
Noting Mont Saint Michel’s natural defences and isolation, Louis XI of France converted it into a prison. By the time of the French Revolution, this island prison held up to 300 priests who opposed the new French Republic.
Inside, you can still see the large treadwheel crane, that prisoners would rotate by walking inside it, to hoist supplies and other heavy objects up the prison walls.
Forty years later, influential figures including the famous French writer Victor Hugo – who penned Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – launched a campaign to recognise Mont Saint Michel as a national architectural treasure and restore it to its original purpose. In 1863, Napoleon III closed the prison and ordered the 650 prisoners to be transferred to other facilities. In 1874, it was officially declared a historic monument.
It is France’s most visited tourist attraction outside of the Parisian region
Every year, over three million visitors are drawn to Mont Saint Michel and it has become one of France’s most recognisable landmarks. Only Paris’s Eiffel Tower and the nearby Palace of Versailles receive more tourists. Indeed, since 1979 the island has been a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and its impressive architecture has inspired the makers of movies such as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Tangled and Snow White and the Huntsman.
As well as the abbey, there are around fifty shops and plenty of restaurants to enjoy on the island. There are even some hotels, though be prepared to bring your luggage either on foot or by shuttle from the car park, which is 2.5 kilometres away on the mainland.
Otherwise, the nearest town and train station is Pontorson, where you can find some more affordable options. We stayed in a crêperie called Penn Ar Bed, which rents out its lovely double bedroom and sunny terrace, plus you can eat lots of yummy sweet and savoury crêpes!
Because Mont Saint Michel is so popular, it can get very busy with queues stretching along the bridge. To avoid this, I recommend you visit it outside of the high tourist season or try to arrive for the morning and afternoon opening times at 9am or 3pm.
More Mont Saint Michel facts can be found on its Facebook page. Guided tours of the abbey are conducted in English all year round by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN), who kindly hosted my visit.
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