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.