Mont St Michel is one of those places that everyone assumes you’ve undoubtedly been to if you live in France. More than 3 million people visit the UNESCO world heritage site every year, and images of the fairy-tale peak surrounded by glittering water are so ubiquitous that even I felt like I’d been there, even though I’d never set foot on it during my four years living in Paris.
To correct this, Morade and I decided to go, taking our world tour truck (who goes by Suzie), and ignoring all the grumps who told me it was a tourist trap. Morade had been a few times and he assured me it was worth seeing in person.
Our first glimpse of it was on the road — it was lurking in the distance like a cardboard cutout of a Disney castle, while in front of us sheep grazed on some of the greenest grass I’d ever seen. The thing they don’t tell you about Mont St Michel is that you can see it from miles and miles away, a constant backdrop to what’s called the “pré salé” (or salt marsh) that stretches around the mountain. Apparently these sheep are a delicacy because the high salinity of the meadows they graze on gives their meat a distinct taste.
Once we said goodbye to lil Suze in the hotel parking lot, we decided to walk to the mountain to get a bit of exercise and take some pictures on the wooden bridge that leads to it. There are also little buses take people for free from the shore, across nearly two miles of sand and sometimes water, to the island (Morade told me not to call it an island, because you can technically walk to it, but I still say it’s an island, so sorry). Cars aren’t allowed on Mont St Michel, to save space, and neither are big dogs, though I think that’s discrimination.
Despite having seen countless pictures and videos of Mont St Michel, I have to admit that seeing it up close was impressive. It immediately set off a million questions in my head that I began firing at Morade.
“Do people live on it?”
“How often do the tides change?”
“Can you walk around it?”
“Can you sleep there?”
“How much does an apartment there cost?”
Morade couldn’t answer any of these questions, which disappointed me greatly.
When we finally got to the island, it was pretty packed with tourists, but not nearly as many as I imagine there are in the summer. I guess we can thank the gray skies and cold weather for that. But the town wasn’t deserted by any means… Walking up this teeny cobblestone path, we saw a poor bellhop having to carry suitcase after suitcase after suitcase up a narrow staircase for this giant tour group that was all staying in the same hotel. In the summertime, this tiny street — which I gathered was the MAIN street on the whole island — must be bursting with people.
We hadn’t eaten yet, so we looked around for a place to eat some soup. I was fiending for some French onion soup (which is just called onion soup in France…) and we saw a restaurant that had it on the specials board. The sky suddenly cleared, so we sat out on the terrace near the stone rampart that looked out onto a huge expanse of wet sand. My disappointment was supreme when the waitress told me there was no more French onion soup, so I ordered a fish soup instead.
I was first introduced to French fish soup a few years ago, when Morade and I went to this little cliffside village near Calais on New Year’s Day. It’s this incredibly flavorful terra cotta-colored blend of a bunch of different fish (whatever they have leftover at the end of the night, I guess), and then you put this orange goo in it that’s called “rouille” which is kind of garlic-flavored I think. Finally, you dump a bunch of croutons and shredded emmental into it until it’s this thick, chunky mess that tastes amazing and is exactly what you need on a brisk March day.
After lunch, we made our way up the rampart to the Abbey, which is the imposing castle-like structure that takes up most of the island, and gives Mont Saint Michel its recognizable silhouette with its pointy spire. The tour was free with our press cards, but normally costs 10 euros and an extra 3 euros for an audio guide. I picked up the guide in the hope that it would answer my many (mostly tide-related) questions.
Unfortunately, I guess I suck at using audio guides cause I was always one or two numbers ahead on the guide compared to where I was actually standing. The gist of what I learned is that a lot of monks lived there – and continue to live there – and they study the word of God and eat sometimes in the refectory. Also there was a fire at some point, so one of the facades looks different from the rest. And the whole thing is made from granite found mostly on a nearby island. Was it worth the 3 euros? Probably not. In any case, I completely threw the guide out the window (not literally) when we got to the cloister at the top.
It was breathtaking — and the afternoon light was absolutely magical, streaming down into the garden courtyard. The cloister, like in other monasteries, was meant as a refuge for the monks to meditate. (I guess that’s where to verb cloistered comes from). I haven’t studied the layout of any other monasteries, but this cloister seemed to be doing a great job. Everything about it radiated quiet tranquility. Another useful thing I learned in my audio guide was the designs on the columns were meant to be “vegetal”, or inspired by nature and flora.
Sadly, most of the tourists ignored the signs that were EVERYWHERE warning people not to touch the delicate columns. People were posing for Instagram pictures and leaning against the columns, making me and Morade cringe.
“Can you imagine, you’re that asshole who broke one of the columns on Mont Saint Michel’s cloister?”
After spending a good half hour sitting around, basking in the sunlight and taking pictures in the cloister, we finished up our tour and headed back down the hill. We ran into this absolutely ENORMOUS French flag at the bottom of the hill, and walked past a fire station. Two signs that yes, there are people living here, and yes, they are French.
A quick note on tides, in case you’re all just as curious as I am – apparently the difference between high tide and low tide at Mont Saint Michel is the biggest in all of Europe, because of its location at the very base of a bay. Mont St Michel is only technically an island 6 to 7 times a year, when the water comes in the farthest and completely surrounds it. Depending on the time of the year (the tides are highest just after a full or new moon), the difference between high tide and low tide in a single day can be up to 15 meters (45 feet)!! Legend has it the tide comes in at the same speed that a horse gallops. While that’s an exaggeration, the tide has been measured to sweep in as fast as 6 km (3.7 miles) per hour, about the speed of a brisk walker.
That means it’s actually pretty dangerous to walk around the island, even at low tide. On top of the fast-moving waters, there’s also quicksand and unpredictable weather that can change at a moment’s notice. With no distinguishable landmarks, it’s nearly impossible to find your way out of the vast desert of wet sand. So it’s required that you always take a guide if you want to explore the bay around Mont Saint Michel.