Thomas’ parents live in a small village nearby Amiens, a city located north from Paris in a region called Picardie. We spent our summer vacations there in 2016 and Thomas took me to visit the highlights of the region. I remember having asked him about Mont-Saint-Michel since I read it is also located in the North of France, but he told me it was far from his parents’ village, actually it is in another region called Normandie, so we did not go then. However, the idea of visiting Mont Saint Michel did not leave my mind and we took the opportunity of the long weekend of All Saints’ Day of 2017 to visit his parents and planned a trip for checking this magnificent master piece.
As it takes around 5 hours to go there by car from Amiens, we couldn’t make it a day-trip and had to sleep one night nearby (we reserved a nice B&B in a close-by city called Pontorson) and therefore we had time to visit one of the beautiful cities around. We looked for some options around and Thomas’ parents suggested one they had visited and loved: Saint-Malo, a historic fully walled-port city located in Bretagne, transporting us to the corsairs’ times.
As we wanted to see Mont-Saint-Michel not only at day but also at night, we planned our trip in the following way: we would leave early and go directly to Saint-Malo, late evening we would head to Mont Saint Michel and visit it by night and in the following day do it by sunlight, and also do the tour of the abbey.
We must confess that even if it was not our first intention to go to Saint-Malo, we were really glad we followed the advice to go there. The completely-walled old town and its cobbled streets transport you to the time of the privateers, a private person or ship that were authorized by the government to engage in maritime warfare (pile up ships from other nationalities) under a commission of war. Or, as we understood, legal pirates.
The city thrived with privateers and its intra muros part (“inside the walls”) turned into a live example of the navigation times and architecture of such an époque: granite ramparts gunned to protect from invaders, big gates which were closed at night or in case of siege and protected quays built for embarking and disembarking goods. At its peak (in the XVII and XVIII centuries), it was figured as one of three main French ports, being active in shipbuilding and maritime trade.
A WALKING TOUR THROUGH THE CITY
It is not permitted to park your car inside the walls, but there are parking lots all around it with electronic panels showing the availability of parking space. It is parking meter based so you must have in mind how long you plan to stay to leave a corresponding ticket. We would advise you something around 4 to 5 hours, so you don’t need to be in a rush.
1. Starting the walk at the Porte de Dinan
To start-off having an overview of the city, we recommend you to go directly to the ramparts and do the full circle around. You can start the walk at Porte de Dinan and go until Porte Saint-Thomas. This walk provides great views of the buildings and narrow streets inside and of the turquoise water down at the surrounding beaches. There are different points you can climb up and down to the ramparts if you don’t want to do the complete tour or if you want to just check out something you saw from up there.
2. The Bastion de la Hollande
As part of the defense system of the city, this fortified tower was built in the end of the XVII century with 24 cannons to protect the city from attacks of the Dutch fleet, which gave the new tower's name. Under this tower there was a kennel of bull dogs used to defend the Porte Saint Pierre, the gate located just underneath the tower.
3. The Bidouane Tower
Being 23-meter high, this tower first built in the XV century was also used as the storage of gun-powder. Not only it offers a privileged point of view of the surrounding turquoise sea water but it is also the finest perspective of the ramparts and the "cityscape" of Saint-Malo with the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent dominating it.
4. Explore the plage de l'Éventail and Petit Bé, Grand Bé and the Fort National
We advise you to go down near the Place Chateaubriand so you can go out through Porte Saint-Thomas and check the Plage de l'Éventail if the tides allow. This tiny little beach offers a nice view of Petit Bé, Grand Bé and Fort National which are some small fortified islands located just a few hundred meters away and that can be accessed by walk if the tide is low (attention to the warnings of the rising tide). In Grand Bé island is located the tomb of the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, a nationally famous local citizen (the word ”bey” means tomb in Celtic language).
5. Continue to the Porte Saint-Vincent
From this beach you can continue east until the first exit that will lead you to the Port Saint-Vincent and the Grand Place in front (where the Tourist Center is located). It is a very nice location offering a privileged view of this entrance and the Château where nowadays is located the Town Hall and the Museum of the city. In a nearby quay, there is a typical corsair frigate called l'Étoile du Roy that can be visited for a glimpse of the life of a privateer in his most loved home and also offers rides through the surrounding sea to visit the beautiful shore of Bretagne (or Brittany region). Then you can stroll around the cute littles streets in the intra muros and imagine all the privateers business and commerce that would happen during the prime time of Saint-Malo.
6. Enjoy local food and eat moules-frites and crêpe bretonne rue Jacques Cartier
Entering the inner city, you can walk around by any small street and we can guarantee you will feel like taking photos of everything. If you turn left into Rue Jacques Cartier you will find many options of restaurants where you can eat local specialties (moules-frites and crêpe Bretonne).
7. Have a break and taste the delicious Kouign-amann
Do not leave until you had a Kouign-amann which is a traditional Breton round cake consisting of layers of butter and sugar folded and cooked until caramelize. There are some places around where you can find it, but we tried a regular one at Les Délices du Gouverneur, just nearby the cathedral, and it was very good. There are some variations with Nutella, salty caramel and others.
8. Cathedral Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo
Then you can turn right and go up to the Cathedral Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo, an impressive Roman and Gothic styled church built in the XII century.
Though there are some other cities nearby Saint-Malo which are worth visiting (heads up for Dinard and Cancale) we had very limited time, so we headed to our B&B in the nearby city of Pontorson to leave our luggage before going to check Mont-Saint-Michel by night. There are many options to stay a night near Mont-Saint-Michel: staying inside the walled city, near the parking lot from where the buses get off (2.5 km) or in nearby cities. For those seeking spiritual retreat, the abbey offers the possibility to stay with its monks and sisters.
When going to Mont-Saint-Michel by car, you are obliged to leave your vehicle in a parking lot nearby and from there you get a shuttle bus to the walled city. The price of the parking is 11.70 EUR per day and there is no other alternative that allows you decent time do a visit but if you enter after 7 p.m it is free until 2 a.m. So, we decided to visit it by night as well and see its lights (they leave them lit till midnight). The views from outside are beautiful at night, but when we entered the city it is not as magic as it is in the morning, so we did not stay for long.
WHEN TO VISIT?
When visiting, we thought it would be nice to stay inside the walled city, though more expensive than other options, but at night the city gets super empty and loses a bit of its charm. Thus, as we had a car and there are buses frequently to Mont, we decided to stay in the nearby city of Pontorson.
Mont-Saint-Michel is visited annually by more than 3 million people, the busiest months being during summer vacations (June to August). Though we visited in late October, we went during a holiday, so we returned early next morning to try to take some photos without a crowd. It was very difficult, but if you want to do the same we advise you to get there as early as possible to do so with a good lighting. I know when you hop off the bus and see it so close for the first time you want to take the perfect picture, but we would strongly advise you to try to control this urge to do so because the streets will get crowded and you can take photos from outside in your way out after visiting the abbey (in our case the weather was even better later so the waiting was worth).
The beauty and architecture of this UNESCO world heritage are impressive, but it gets even more impressive when the tide is high and there is the reflection of the whole walled city on the surface of the sea water. Unfortunately, we visited it during low tide, but you can check the tide schedule here to plan your visit during high tides.
The history of this monument is very curious. The legend says that Aubert, Bishop of Avranches was visited three times by the Archangel Michel (the warrior angel known as the chief of the celestial militia) who requested him to build a temple on the top of a mountainous island originally called Mont-Tombe at the sea shore. The first small church was erected on 16th October 709 and, due to the dreams stories, it became a pilgrimage place. In 966, a community of Benedictines monks settled and started building a bigger church and an abbey that grew larger with the decades. In the XIV century, with the Hundred Years War between England and France, Mont Saint Michel turned into a strategical place for France’s defense, so the abbey got protected by building walls and set of military constructions that enabled it to hold out against a 30-year siege. At the same time of the development of the abbey, a small village grew on the south-east side of the rock since the Middle ages due to the businesses brought by the pilgrimage and the military activities.
ONE DAY WALK AROUND MONT-SAINT-MICHEL
1. Walk through the Main Street and head towards the abbey
We recommend you to start the visit going up through the main street until the abbey on the top. The narrow little ways reminded us of Diagon Alley, the cobblestoned wizarding alley and shopping area of Harry Potter, due to the displays of the stores and their decoration. You can stop for some photos on the way up, taking advantage of the interval of the shuttle bus arrivals so not to have a lot of people on the background. There are a lot of souvenir stores and restaurants serving the famous local specialty: souffléed ommelete cooked in an open fire. We were not really keen on trying this dish though... As it can be very expensive (one omelette can cost more than 30 EUR in the notorious La Mère Poulard), we decided to take snacks from home and also have more time to visiting.
2. Visit the abbey
The Abbey is open for visit every day from 9:30 until 6 p.m and costs 10 EUR (more information here). There are included guided tours in French and English that do not require previous booking and can be checked in a timetable at the entrance (though I later discovered it is polite to tip the guide after the visit). It is possible to have audioguides for an extra fee of 3 EUR per person, allowing you to visit it at your own pace.
We checked that there was a guided tour just as we were entering, and it was very nice. Though it follows the same path as the normal visit, the guided tour gave us a lot of historic details while the guide made funny remarks and impersonation of the monks’ lives in the abbey. Furthermore, as it was not holidays period, the group of English speaking tourists were very small, making it more personal and approachable. The only downside is that it follows a rhythm that does not allow us to enjoy and take as much photos as we would have liked. But oh well, you cannot get everything!
In contrast to the grandiosity of its architecture, the inside decoration of the Abbey reflects the simplicity and restraint of the daily life of Benedictines monks: grand common salons with little furniture, the cloister with a garden for the contact with nature and rooms and chapels for prayer and meditation.
3. Stroll around the cute streets
The exit from the Abbey grounds is at a point of the walls from where you can start to do the way around the town and observe both its interior and exterior from a privileged point of view. Afterwards, you can go up and down through the narrow little streets and discover enchanting paths around the town and its gates and towers. We swear we could’ve spent hours strolling around taking pictures of all the beautiful details of this "potterish" village, but unfortunately we had to hit the road.
4. Do the tour around Mont-Saint-Michel itself
Before getting the shuttle back to the parking lot, however, as the tide was low and there was no risk of it getting higher, we decided to wander a bit through the sand to take some photos of Mont-Saint-Michel from a different perspective and we were very happy with the result thus we recommend you to do it. We also did the whole tour around the Mont (while listening Thomas complaining all the way), but we wouldn’t advise you to do the same. Instead, you can go out through the gate in Tour Gabriel and walk clock wisely to the Chapelle Saint-Aubert, a small chapel built outwards the walls to praise the bishop responsible for the construction of the first temple in honor of Saint Michel. From there you can return anti clock wisely until a bit after the main gate to take a picture from the sandbanks and guarantee a nice memory from your visit to this wonder of faith and architecture.
While wandering freely around the bay is highly discouraged due to the perils of the tides, there are guided tours around it with professional guides that can guarantee your safety while enjoying unique perspectives and opportunity to see infrequent visited places (more information here).
Personally, we are not people of faith, but the greatness and awe brought by the Abbey and all the structure built around it on such early times is undeniably moving. For Harry Potter fans, it may seem your dreams came true and you finally got your Hogwarts’ acceptance letter and are arriving for the first time for the Start-of-Term Feast while strolling around through the magic items’ stores in Diagon Alley. No matter what you believe in, the only certainty is that Mont-Saint-Michel will provide you the magic experience you are looking for!
DETAILS OF THE TRIP
- By car: from Paris, you can go to Mont-Saint-Michel by car (4 hours) which costs around 100 EUR round trip counting gas and tolls;
- By train: you can reach the city of Rennes, and from there you can get a bus to Mont Saint Michel (the times of the trains and buses are synced);
- By bus: day-trips leaving in buses from Paris very early in the morning. They are organized by different companies (here is one of them with lunch included).
- Many options: from the expensive option of staying inside the walled fort of Mont-Saint Michel to more affordable options in nearby cities.
- Le Grenier du Jardin: a small and cozy B&B in Pontorson. We were very happy with the choice. The room was very spacious, comfy and clean. The breakfast was delicious and the owner very friendly and helpful.
- Many restaurants in the intra-muros part offering local cuisine Lunch menus ranging from 12 to 20 EUR with mussels and fries and crêpe bretonne.
- Les Délices du Gouverneur: don't forget to try the Kouign-amann there.
- Le Grillon: a restaurant with crêpe bretonne for specialty that was recommended to us by our host for having a taste of local cuisine paying a reasonable price.
*All prices are referred to January 2018
And now it's your turn to let us know your impressions, thoughts and also tips to visit the Hogwarts of the Muggle world. Have you already visited Mont-Saint-Michel? And the city of Saint-Malo? We look forward reading your comments in the section below.