FEATURE SERIES: Quinessential Europe - Mont St. Michael, France
Catching your first view of Mont Saint-Michel in one of those memorable moments any traveller will not forget. This tidal island sits one kilometer out in a sandy bay at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The island used to be cut off from the mainland by the high tide but today a wide causeway keeps access open. The causeway is due to be replaced by a low bridge with shuttles for visitors so Mont Saint-Michel will surrounded by water again at high tide.
In 708, legend has it, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to St Aubert the bishop of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island. Aubert hesitated and after repeated requests the Archangel burnt a hole through Aubert's skull with his finger as a punishment. St Aubert' quickly built his church which can still be seen on the seaward side of the island.
In 933 when William I, Duke of Normandy and later King of England, took control of the region and realizing the strategic importance of the Island had it fortified. The Normans were great Christians benefactors and financed an abbey on the Island. Designed by the Italian architect William de Volpiano, the original Romanesque Medieval Abbey church sits on highest point of the island which was a massive feat of engineering requiring crypts to be dug into the rocks, and massive buttresses to support the weight of the Abbey buildings. In the process strong fortifications and sea walls were built. After the island was sacked in 1204 by the Franks further fortifications were added and the Abbey was given a Gothic makeover. At the top of its church spire is a golden statue of The Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Chivalry.
The Abbey became an important center of theology and remained so until 1793 when French revolutionaries took it over, expelled the monks and converted the Abbey into a prison. In 1874 the Island was taken over by the French Historic Monuments department becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in the 1980s. In 1969 monks returned to the Monastery again and resumed monastic life on the island.
When you pass through the fortified gates of Mont Saint-Michel you enter its main and only street. Lined with charming Normandy style half timber buildings the street winds up to the monastery entrance.
At low tide it is possible to walk on the mud flats around the Island and see St Aubert's small chapel. It is wise though to find out when the tides change because the incoming tide races across the sandy bay at the pace of a galloping horse. An awe inspiring tidal bore is sent rushing up the Couesnon River past Mont Saint-Michel and the bay fills with water rapidly. The tidal range can be up to 14 meter (46ft) between low and high tide. The island earn't the name "St. Michael in peril of the sea" from medieval pilgrims who had to risk crossing the sand flats to reach the island.
Mont Saint-Michel deserves its UNESCO World Heritage site status. As with all popular tourist destinations it is best to visit the Island out of season and stay in one of its small hotels like the famous La Mère Poulard. Its restaurant specializes in the light souffle omelets typical of the region. You can watch commis chefs whisking eggs in large copper bowls for hours to get as much air into the mixture as possible. By staying on the island you will also have the town to yourself to explore in peace before the first tourist buses arrive.
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