For everyone from Joan of Arc to Walt Disney, the sight of Mont Saint Michel’s soaring towers and impenetrable walls, emerging from a glistening mirror of water, has proved inspirational.
I last visited the site in August 2013 and was, as ever, struck by its beauty. Standing hundreds of metres in the air, within a perfect walled garden, surrounded by the scent of roses, the sound of bells, and the feel of ancient stone beneath my fingertips, it was as if I was being taken out of the here and now, to a time of medieval splendour.
Mont Saint Michel is an island, now connected to the mainland by a modern causeway. It occupies an important location, between Normandy and Brittany, on a 12-mile stretch of tideland that floods twice daily. Before the construction of the causeway, visitors to the island would take their lives in their hands by crossing the sandbanks on foot, threatened by a tide that is said to approach at the speed of a galloping horse.
Once a weary traveller reaches the island, and enters through one of two impressive gates, there is then a demanding climb through the winding streets, up numerous stairs and slopes, to the abbey. Indeed, the incline is so steep at times that even the fit and young struggle to get to the top without stopping to catch their breath. Reaching the highest point of Mont Saint Michel feels like both a physical and spiritual undertaking.
The abbey, island and its surroundings are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the basis of being “one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilisation”.
The first chapel on this site was erected in AD 708, when (according to legend) the Archangel Michael told Bishop Aubert to “build here and build high”. Michael must have foreseen the stream of tourists that still flock to the island, for he said to the bishop: “If you build it… they will come.” Aubert needed some persuading, and it wasn’t until the archangel burnt a hole in his head that he acted. His skull – complete with divine scar – can still be seen in the Saint-Gervais d’Avranches basilica.
It was under the Normans that Mont Saint Michel gained its crowning glory – the Abbey Church of Saint Michael. Made with stones hauled across from the mainland at low tide, construction of the abbey began in earnest around 1060. The Romanesque church stands on top of many underground crypts and chapels, designed to raise the church heavenward and support its great weight. Exploring these as darkness approaches is one of my favourite experiences on the island.
The Gothic cloister, refectory and ‘Merveille’ (monks’ living quarters), were added at the instruction of Philip II of France after 1204. The cloister is unusual, in that it doesn’t link up the abbey buildings, but stands separate, facing the sea, as a place for monks and modern travellers alike to meditate. I love to stand in the recreated Benedictine garden and soak up the smells of herbs and flowers, blended with the sea. Wonderful!
The great and the good have gazed upon the walls of Mont Saint Michel: the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson dragging Norman knights from the quicksand. And at one of the gates, two bombards (cannons) abandoned by the English after a failed siege in the 1430s stand as witnesses to another major moment in the island’s history.
Following Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415, Mont Saint Michel was one of the few places in Normandy that stood defiant against the English. Henry was enraged at the audacity of this small town, less than half a mile in diameter. He never succeeded in taking it. News of the island’s stand against the English travelled across France, reaching a young peasant girl in Orléans. Inspired by the thought of St Michael and the French resistance, Joan of Arc turned the tide of the war, and regained France for the French.
Mont Saint Michel’s design is a literal rendering of the medieval feudal system: at the bottom, outside the walls, live fishermen and farmers. Most pilgrims to the island would have found humble lodgings at the base of the mount, dining on simple omelettes much like those served to hungry tourists today.
Noble visitors resided in the great halls, feasting on delicious lamb, which acquires a particular flavour due to the nutrient-rich grass the sheep graze on around the island. The dish is a delicious local speciality, and was thought to be a gift from St Michael. At the top of the island is the monastery, with the island’s protector, St Michael, enjoying the best views of all. Make your way to the highest point and soak up his heavenly vista.
Dr Janina Ramirez is a lecturer, TV presenter and author. Read more about Janina’s experiences of Mont Saint Michel at historyextra.com/monttstmichel