Mont-St-Michel – The Fortress Abbey of Normandy

Set  upon  a  massive  rock  just  off  the  Normandy   coast,   the   great   Gothic   abbey church  of  Mont-St-Michel  is  often  called the   Marvel   of   the   West.   Approaching across  the  coastal  flatlands,  I  get  chills when  I  see  its  Gothic  splendor  triumphantly piercing the sky, usually cloaked in dramatic fog. Legend claims it is protected by the archangel Michael, but the abbey is guarded  by  earthly  elements  as  well—powerful   tides   churn   around   the   tiny island,  and  massive  rampart  walls  circle the  abbey  itself.  Think  of  the  engineering required to build on this sheer outcrop—it’s  a  marvel  it  has  stood  this  long,  yet  it does,  a  magnificent  pile  rising  to  a  spire with a gilded statue of St. Michael.

In the Middle Ages, this was a popular pilgrimage site, founded in the 8th century by  St.  Aubert,  the  bishop  of  Avranches, upon the divine orders of St. Michael (the bishop procrastinated at first, but he came around once the angel burned a hole in his skull,  so  the  story  goes).  Nowadays  the island  is  connected  to  shore  by  a  causeway, but medieval pilgrims could get here only  at  low  tide,  walking  across  treacherous tidal sands. (The kids eyed that causeway  with  respect,  wondering  if  the  next high tide would wash over it and strand us on the island.) In the 10th century the oratory was upgraded to a Benedictine monastery, and the monks continued to build and renovate over the next 6 centuries, as various  parts  burned  down  or  toppled over. Bristling with spires as it climbs the steep slopes, the abbey looks more like a fortress  than  a  holy  retreat—a  fact  that served  it  well  in  the  Hundred  Years’  War (1337–1453), when it almost miraculously resisted  capture  by  the  English.  The  rampant walls also made it easy to convert to a prison, after the monks were disbanded, in  the  days  of  the  French  Revolution.  It’s been  a  national  monument  since  the  late 19th  century,  and  recently  some  new monks have settled in as well.

Warn  the  kids  that  there’ll  be  a  lot  of climbing: It’s a steep walk to the abbey up Grande Rue, lined with half-timbered 15th-and  16th-century  houses,  and  inside  the abbey walls are more staircases. Secreted within  the  abbey  are  some  lovely  Gothic interiors, most notably the Salle des Chevaliers (Hall of the Knights) and graceful cloisters   with   pink   granite   columns. Crowning   the   summit   is   the   splendid abbey  church,  begun  in  the  11th  century—note the round Romanesque arches in  the  nave  and  transept,  whereas  the pointy  arches  of  Flamboyant  Gothic  were in fashion when the choir was rebuilt in the 15th century. In the summer, you can even visit the church at night—not a bad idea if you  want  to  avoid  those  modern  pilgrim hordes on day-tripping coach tours.