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aerial-photos.com / Alamy Stock Photo

Magical Mont Saint-Michel

High, holy and dry

Mont Saint-Michel

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Tony Roddam / Alamy Stock Photo

Once upon a time there was a holy island, which was only accessible at low tide. This reads like a fairy tale, but Mont Saint-Michel is 100% real. Rising out of the sea like a mirage, this impressive rock still holds a magnetic appeal for travellers from around the world.

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Swallowed by the sea

The Eiffel Tower may be France’s best known symbol, but Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most eye-catching. The islet lies just off the coast of Normandy, about a 3.5 hour drive from Paris. Mont Saint-Michel was originally a tidal island, and until 1879 the island was completely isolated from the mainland at high tide. During that year a causeway was built allowing people to reach the island without getting their feet wet. 

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Mont St Michel 01 Verzwolgen Img 01
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However, the causeway formed a barrier that led to the formation of sandbanks in the bay. For that reason it was replaced by a brand-new bridge a few years ago. Now the island is accessible day and night except during spring tides, when Mont Saint-Michel briefly becomes a mysterious mirage once again: an inhabited rock completely surrounded by the sea.

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Journey back in time

Once you cross the bridge, you step directly into the Middle Ages. Most of the buildings on Mont Saint-Michel, including the monastery complex, were built between 1300 and 1500. The abbey certainly deserves its nickname La Merveille (the Miracle) as it is one of the most impressive gothic buildings in the world. The foundation for this complex was laid in 708 A.D. The island was then completely enclosed by the sea at high tide.

The sea didn’t deter the French from expanding, beautifying and fortifying the abbey over a period of 1300 years.

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That did not deter the French from expanding, beautifying and fortifying the abbey over a period of 1300 years. They built parapets and watchtowers and transformed Mont Saint-Michel into the impressive sight it is today. That did not deter the French from expanding, beautifying and fortifying the abbey over a period of 1300 years. They built parapets and watchtowers and transformed Mont Saint-Michel into the impressive sight it is today.

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Burnt by an angel

Mont Saint-Michel is steeped in legend. The most famous one tells the origin story of the abbey. Archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches, the holy Aubert, in a vision and commanded him to build a church in his name. Aubert twice ignored the vision because he thought it was just a dream. However, St Michael wanted his message heard.

So when Aubert was asleep he burnt a hole in his skull with his finger and repeated his command. Aubert woke up, felt his sore head and realised that it was a vision and not a dream. He took the request seriously and built a church, dedicating it to his patron St Michael. Mont Saint-Michel – and a new pilgrimage site – was born.

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Remember to visit La Merveille, the abbey, which is known as a wonder of medieval architecture. The best way to explore Mont Saint-Michel is to simply stroll around. Take your time because you no longer have to keep an eye on the tides.

The road to the top

Mont Saint-Michel consists of one street, the Grande Rue. It runs along the parapet and is lined with medieval houses that were once homes to farmers and fishermen. Follow this street and you will ascend about 200 metres to reach the Grand Degré, which is a stairway with 350 steps that leads to the entrance of the monastery complex. The adjacent garden is the perfect spot to recover from your climb.

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