The Abbey of Mont-St-Michel

The Abbey of Mont-St-MichelWhen you think of the engineering required to build this immense church on this tide-scoured outcrop, it’s a marvel it has stood this long. Short-sighted renovations that built the causeway and altered natural tidal patterns has exacerbated the silting up of the bay.

Approaching across the coastal flatlands, you see its Gothic splendor erupt toward the sky, usually cloaked in dramatic fog. Set upon a massive rock just off the Normandy coast, the great Gothic abbey church of Mont-St-Michel rises dramatically from its rampart walls to an ethereal spire topped with a gilded statue of the archangel Michael, the abbey’s guardian spirit.

Yet in the last couple of centuries, St. Michael seems to have let down his guard. The narrow land bridge that once connected Mont-St-Michel to the mainland, exposed only at low tide, was beefed up in 1879 into a permanent causeway, accessible at all hours. Meanwhile, the local folks kept on tinkering with the natural tidal processes—polderizing shallow parts of the bay to create pastureland, making a canal out of the Couesnon River—until the bay gradually silted up. Finally, in June 2006, the French government took action, initiating a hydraulic dam project to make Mont-St-Michel a true island again, by 2012 if all goes well.

In the Middle Ages, this was a popular pilgrimage site, founded in the 8th century by St. Aubert; medieval pilgrims could get here only at low tide, walking across treacherous tidal sands, a challenge that increased the spiritual value of the journey. Enhanced over the next few centuries, however, as the abbey’s monks grew richer and more powerful, the abbey came to look more like a fortress than a holy retreat—a fact that served it well in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1451), when it almost miraculously resisted capture by the English. The rampart walls also made it easy to convert to a prison after the monks were disbanded, in the days of the French Revolution. Since the late 19th century it’s been a national monument, not a church, although recently some new monks have settled in as well.

It’s a steep walk to the abbey up Grande Rue, lined with half-timbered 15th- and 16th-century houses. Inside the abbey walls are more staircases to climb. But it’s worth it to investigate the abbey’s stunning Gothic interiors, most notably the Salle des Chevaliers (Hall of the Knights) and graceful cloisters with rosy pink granite columns. Crowning the summit is the splendid abbey church—note the round Romanesque arches in the 11th-century nave and transept, transitioning to the pointy Flamboyant Gothic arches of the 15th-century choir area. In the summer, if you’re staying on the mount, you can visit the church at night—not a bad idea for avoiding hordes of day-trippers.