Deservedly the most famous French landmark outside Paris, the stupendous abbey of Mont St-Michel was first erected on an island at the very frontier of Normandy and Brittany more than a millennium ago. In recent years, that island had become attached to the mainland by a long causeway, topped by a road. As of 2012, however, a lengthy hydraulic and reconstruction project – aimed ultimately at detaching the island once more, and restoring at least a little of the isolation and mystery that has made it such a major destination for pilgrims and tourists alike – has closed that road to private cars. For the moment, visitors still use it to reach the island, in shuttle buses or on foot; in due course it will be replaced by a bridge.
The island is almost entirely covered by medieval stone structures, encircled by defensive walls. Amazingly enough, less than a third of all visitors climb high enough to reach the abbey itself at the summit; the rest stay in the commercialized town lower down.
Accessing the town via the heavily fortified Porte du Roi, you find yourself on the narrow Grande Rue, which spirals steadily upwards, passing top-heavy gabled houses amid the jumble of souvenir shops and restaurants. Large crowds gather each day at the North Tower to watch the tide sweep in across the bay. Seagulls wheel away in alarm, and those foolish enough to be wandering too late on the sands have to sprint to safety.
The 80m-high rocky outcrop on which the abbey stands was once known as “the Mount in Peril from the Sea”. Many a pilgrim in medieval times drowned while trying to cross the bay to reach it. The Archangel Michael was its vigorous protector, with a marked propensity to leap from rock to rock in titanic struggles against Paganism and Evil.
The abbey itself dates back to the eighth century, when the archangel appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches, who duly founded a monastery on the island. Since the eleventh century – when work on the sturdy church at the peak commenced – new buildings have been grafted to produce a fortified hotchpotch of Romanesque and Gothic buildings clambering to the pinnacle of the graceful church, forming probably the most recognizable silhouette in France after the Eiffel Tower. Although the abbey was a fortress town, home to a large community, even at its twelfth-century peak it never housed more than sixty monks.
When the Revolution came the monastery was converted into a prison, but in 1966, exactly a thousand years after Duke Richard the First originally brought the order to the Mont, the Benedictines were invited to return. They departed again in 2001, after finding that the present-day island does not exactly lend itself to a life of quiet contemplation. In their place, a dozen nuns and monks from the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem now maintain a presence.