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. Until recently, however, that island was attached to the mainland by a long causeway, topped by a road. Now, thanks to a vast hydraulic and reconstruction project, it has become an island once more, connected to the shore by a futuristic curved bridge, surfaced with wooden decking. Crucially, that has enabled tidal waters to sweep all around, and thus flush away centuries of accumulated sand.
The real point of all this work was to control access for the millions of tourists who come here. It’s therefore no longer possible to drive all the way to Mont-St-Michel in your own vehicle; instead you have to park on the mainland, roughly 2km away, and access the island either on foot, by bike, or riding in a shuttle bus or horse-drawn carriage.
The 80m-high rocky outcrop on which the abbey stands was once known as “the Mount in Peril from the Sea”. Many a medieval pilgrim drowned while crossing the bay to reach it. The Archangel Michael was its vigorous protector, leaping from rock to rock in titanic struggles against Paganism and Evil.
The abbey itself dates back to the eighth century, after the archangel appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches. Since work on the sturdy church at the peak commenced in the eleventh century, new structures have been grafted to produce a fortified hotchpotch of Romanesque and Gothic buildings clambering to the pinnacle, 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.
After the Revolution the monastery became a prison, but in 1966, exactly a thousand years after Duke Richard the First originally brought the order here, the Benedictines returned. They departed again in 2001, after finding that the present-day island does not exactly lend itself to a life of quiet contemplation. A dozen nuns and monks from the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem now maintain a presence.