Viewed from the flat stretches of the Normandy shore, the abbey of Mont St. Michel rises over the water like a ghostly apparition. This ancient citadel has been, at various times in its long history, a sacred pilgrimage for those seeking religious salvation, an unconquerable fortress, a prison, and now, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The unique character of Mont St. Michel is due in large part to its singular location. Thousands of years ago, this tiny tidal island was situated firmly on dry land. Rising sea levels over the millennia reshaped the coast, and eventually the rugged granite outcropping became an island looking out over the sea, north to England and south to the salt marshes of Normandy.
The tides in this area are the highest in Europe, and run dangerously fast. For hundreds of years the only access to Mont St. Michel was via a natural causeway that was exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide. This made construction of the huge stone abbey something of a medieval miracle — and kept it safe from invaders throughout the centuries of war that swirled around it.
Legend has it that in the year 708 the Bishop of Avranches received several visions from the Archangel Michael. The bishop was instructed to build a sanctuary on one of the small islands off the Normandy coast. He was convinced to begin construction only after the angel Michael touched the bishop with his finger, burning a hole in the holy man’s skull.
The abbey that the bishop built was only a small monastery, dedicated of course, to the Archangel Michael. In the eleventh century, however, the ruler of Normandy hired an Italian architect, William de Volpiano, to turn the site into a larger church in the Romanesque style. Later changes to the structure gave it a more Gothic feel, and the abbey was continually enlarged and fortified throughout the Middle Ages.
In 1879, the natural causeway to the Mont was built up so that it was no longer hidden at high tide. This has allowed silt to accumulate around the island, and eventually Mont St. Michel ceased to be an island. In 2009, however, the French government completed a hydraulic dam on the connecting Couesnon River which has helped to remove the silt. In 2015, a new causeway will replace the old one — allowing the water to flow freely beneath and around it, and restoring the island to its original state.
Today visitors can drive the causeway and park at the foot of the Mont — with disastrous results if they dare park too close to the shore — but when the new causeway is complete, cars and tour buses will park a distance away, and access the causeway only by foot, horse, or shuttle bus. Once on the island, a wealth of medieval charm awaits, with small shops and cafes, cobblestone walks, and stairways to the upper reaches of the dramatic church.
Over 2 million people visit Mont St. Michel each year. But right now, between January and March, is the best opportunity to avoid the crowds and experience the mystique of this sacred and historic site in relative privacy. With Normandy’s mild winter — daytime temperatures average in the low to mid-40s — and the picturesque fog that often envelops the Mont this time of year, Mont St. Michel and the beautiful surrounding countryside make a unique winter getaway.