I can still remember the first time I saw Mont St Michel. It was tenth grade French class and we had either been really good or the teacher was really tired because in the name of educating us about French history she let us watch The Scarlet Pimpernel, a movie from 1982 set during the French Revolution. There is a scene where the Royalists who are trying to rescue the young French crown prince ride across the tidal flats with the island of Mont St Michel rising up out of the ocean in the distance and even then I know that I just had to see it myself one day.
I did get my first chance to see the island on one of my backpacking trips back in 1999. I visited on a day trip from Bayeux and as I rode the bus towards the coast it was just as amazing as I had imagined. The streets of the lower town and the beautiful cathedral were crowded with my fellow day trippers but it was still magical and I always dreamed of coming back again.
When we began planning our quick trip through Northern France I knew that we couldn’t miss a visit to Mont St Michel, but this time I wanted to do it a bit differently. Instead of visiting as a day trip, we would arrive in the evening once most of the tourists had gone home, spend the night there, enjoy having the place to ourselves for the morning then leave before it gets busy. We had tried this approach when we visited another popular day trip destination in Inishmor, Ireland and it had worked out well, so for Mont St Michel we decided to do a reverse day trip as well.
We managed to arrive at Mont St Michel just before sunset and we were able to leave the car in the parking lot on the mainland and catch the free shuttle to the island in time to catch the last light of the day. On my first visit the island was linked to the mainland by a causeway but recently it’s been made a true island again when the causeway was replaced with a bridge. At seven pm the departing busses were packed full but ours only held one other family and a few people who worked on the island.
It’s impossible to get lost on the island since there is only one main street winding uphill, making a few steep switchbacks before ending at the steps up to the cathedral which caps the island. It’s surrounded by well preserved walls and the overall effect is absolutely enchanting, especially as dusk descends. We went all the way to the top of the street to our little hotel, then all the way back down to the sister hotel when we found a sign telling us to check in there, then all the way back. All in all this took about five minutes.
Our hotel was one of only three on the island, one medium sized and fancy and two small and more basic. Our room was tucked right up at the top with a little loft that just fit two single beds above the main room. After we had settled in we went out to find dinner. I had looked at a few menus along the street and had noticed a strange similarity in all of them. Every one had the same font and layout and nearly identical options and prices. It seemed that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of competition on the island. We ended up eating at the place just below our hotel and it was….okay. It’s a good thing we hadn’t come for the food.
Mont St Michel actually does boast a few culinary specialties. The fancier hotel where we had checked in had an open kitchen in it’s restaurant where chefs were theatrically whipping up the fluffy omelettes that supposedly date back to the days of the medieval pilgrims. The slightly fancier restaurant came with significantly fancier prices so we settled for watching the show but our daughter did take the chance to make friends with the only other English speaking child on the island.
The next morning we got up early and spent some more time wandering the nearly empty streets. We found a small garden near the top with great views of the coastline that used to be the schoolyard back in the days when the island’s population was large enough to support a school. We were even able to find a small geocache tucked into another terrace nearby.
Once the abby opened we joined most of the other visitors to the island buying tickets to tour the sight. By this time there were a few tour groups in the line and for the first time the island was beginning to feel a bit busier. We were able to combine the information in our guidebook with the English explanations at the sight to get a good overview of the abby. There were scale models that showed the development of the island through the centuries, starting as a small monastic settlement at the top of the island where monks could worship in seclusion, near the mainland but apart. The church grew and expanded over the years, eventually taking over the entire island with a warren of support buildings along the shoreline with walls and fortifications added as the wealth of the abby grew.
The only disappointment for me was that the beautiful cloistered gardens at the top of the abby, which I remembered as green and peaceful, had been totally ripped up for restoration with the sound of hammers and clanging tools replacing the quiet and greenery. Oh well, I guess once my children were there it wouldn’t have been peaceful or quiet anyway.
We emerged from the abby after a few hours to find the streets humming, not packed or unpleasant this early in the year, but definitely not as magical as early in the morning. We checked out of our room and headed back to the car to begin our long drive to the Loire Valley. Before we left we stopped at the surprisingly well stocked shop at the base of the causeway and picked up some snacks for the drive while the kids played on the fun, random cow sculptures that were dotted around the area. The next day I asked my son what his favourite part of Mont St Michel was and he said, “the funny cows”. Oh well, I can only hope that some day they’ll appreciate it as much as I do.