The main attraction on Mont St-Michel is the Gothic Abbey, perched on the top of the island. Of the 3.5 million people that visit the island each year, only about 1 million of them actually pay a visit to the Abbey. I wonder if it has something to do with the very steep climb required to get up to the Abbey?!
The Abbey was built from the 13th to 16th centuries. A visit to the Abbey in June 2006 cost us 8 euro. This price allows you access to wander through the Abbey at your leisure. You can also join a guided tour at no extra charge, or hire an audio guide for another few euro.
We opted for the guided tour (in English). It was quite interesting, though our tour guide spent a lot more time talking about himself and his time living in England than explaining about the Abbey!
The tour starts at the Abbey Church, which sits right on the summit of the island, and is constructed from a mix of architectural styles due to parts of the building collapsing over the years. It also covers the cloister, a pretty garden area for contemplation, the refectory and a Gothic guest hall, amongst other things.
Although the setting is fabulous, the inside of the Abbey wasn't as impressive as I expected, though I still think it is well worth a visit.
If you don't order a guided tour, you run the risk to miss a lot of details.
They abbey of St Michel is a pearl among the abbeys, and especially the well conserved wheel to lift weights is an attraction.
The Abbey and its church occupy an impregnable position on the island. At the top of the spire sits a golden statue of St. Michel with a set of scales representing judgment day, and a drawn sword to fend off damnation.
In 1017, Richard II ordered construction of a Romanesque church on this site, it took 60 years to complete (and we complain about constuction time?) however, Abbot Hildebert II ordered the 250-foot summit be demolished to build another church. It was finally completed in 1520 in the now Gothic and Romanesque style.The people of Mont St Michele were given charge of the abbey in 1622 until the French Revolution (1785-95) when it was turned into a prison.
It was severely burnt in 1856, but thorough restorations were not undertaken until 1874. With the celebration of the monastic?s 1000th anniversary, a religious community moved back to what used to be the abbatial dwellings.
A unique plan
The abbey is a unique monument, built on 3 floors, constrained by the pyramidal shape of the rock. The abbey church (80m long) is situated at the top, stands on crypts that create the suitable platform.
The abbey know as the "merveille"is a jewel evidence of the architectural mastery of its builders who succeeded in stacking two blocks of 3-sorey buildings on a rocky slope (but the roman chapel collapsed in 1421 and was rebuilt after).
The structure become lighter toward the top, supported by the platform itself and by robust pillars, mixing several styles (Roman, flamboyant gothic, ...)
My top list
Upper floor: The abbey church, the cloister, the refectory
Middle floor: The guest's hall
Notre Dame sous Terre (Our Lady underground)
The original spirtual center of the Mont (for Christians)
The chapel, built around 966, was hidden within the abbey's foundations and rediscovered in the late XIXth century. This church was erectedat the very place of the oratory erected by Saint-Aubert in the early VIIIth century.
Visiting the church is could be received as an emotionnal step back in the vestiges of Saint-Aubert's sanctuary
Warning: Notre Dame sous terre visit requires a guided tour
If you arrive by bus in the morning, make sure to get to the entrace of the abbey by 11:00 for 1 of 2 Guided Tours in English, the other is at 3:00. The tour is free with your entrance fee (8.50 Euro). The other option is an audio guide. Without one of these 2 things you are basically looking at big empty rooms saying, "Wow this is neat". The signs on the wall which explain the purpose of each room are in french. The English tour lasts about 1 hour and we enjoyed sticking with the group and listening to the explaination and then coming back for a 2nd pass to take our pictures and maybe take a few without tons of people standing in them. There is another tour that is in French which I was told was longer than the english and allowed you to see some rooms that were not open for the regular tour. If your French is halfway good and you want to see a little more, give it a try. Your entrance fee is good for 15 days, so you can come and go as you please throughout the day and if you happen to stay the night and miss the bus as we did (see dangers/ warnings) then you can use your ticket to enjoy a 2nd day of viewing.
The Abbey Church built in the early years 0f 1000, is located right on top of the rock, 80 metres above sea level, on a platform 80metres long.
Inside are Arches, Galleries and tall windows. The Romanesque chancel which collapsed in 1421, was rebuilt after the 100years war in a gothic style.
It is quite plain, I was expecting more.
As they say in the classics, St Michael (St Michel) and I "have history".
I went to St Michael's Convent Grammar School for Girls - an anachronistic North London establishment that could so easily have been the prototype for Muriel Sparks' classic novel , "The Pride of Miss Jean Brody". It was a government (non feepaying) school, but affiliated to a particular religion and admitted only children who had passed the 11 Plus exam ... even at that time, it was an odd fish.
We were a girls only school further set apart from our peers by a purple school uniform ("The Imperial Colour" as I was informed in all seriousness when I started in 1974) whose school outfitter was the exclusive Dickens & Jones department store in Regent Street: I just thank my lucky stars for the fact that I missed the regulation school hat by a couple of years! On September 29th, we had a half day off in celebration of our patron saint's day, better known in the old church calender as Michelmas. Hell, over quarter of a century later, I am still word perfect in my (tuneless) rendition of our school anthem, "Dux Michael" ("Our Leader Michael") in Latin ... yes, well, it was that sort of school, and my capacity to retain the utterly useless decades later still astounds me ...
St Michael is an interesting saint, as (along with Gabriel) he wasn't a real person. He is an archangel (essentially God's 'A Team') and nemesis of the fallen archangel, Lucifer. He is big into dragon slaying - which is usually how he is depicted - but unlike St George, this is symbolic of the fight over good and evil. Under the statue you will see his motto: "Quis ut es Deus?" ("Who is as God?")
Why should he be the namesake of island monasteries in both Cornwall and Bretagne? This bit I have yet to work out, but he certainly seems to have cornered the market on location!
The abbey can be best explored on a guided tour. The huge construction, that has been expanded in height throughout the centuries (on the small rocky island there was no other option then go up into the sky), has left a true labyrinth of corridors, staircases and tunnels, that connect magnificent halls, decorative rooms and many other spaces with wonderful or dreadful stories. The guide will tell you all details and backgrounds on the various rooms and halls, as well as a perfect overview of the history of Le Mont Saint Michel. Don't worry, almost all (usual) languages are available (French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Russian).
The Abbey seems a mirage after climbing the hill of Saint Michel. When you are on the top you can have a great vieuw of the area, and it worths almost a visit!
The Abbey is a gothic Monastery built up in XIth centuries. The hill where the Abbey stands was dedicated to the Arcangel of Saint Michel in 708. Tourist can visit it almost the whole year, but I recommend to go there especially in springtime or summer (may and june are the best months to me). It is open until 7 p.m. in summer and it is closed after 5 p.m. in winter.
Visit the Mont Saint Michel Tourist office site below:
When you walk around Le Mont Saint Michel, you will notice that this actually looks more like a castle then it looked like an abbey. This is very true as Le Mont Saint Michel was indeed a extremely fortified island, to prevent loothing in this extreme turbulent times in an even more turbulent environment. Normandie was for a very long time the place where the borders between England and France shifted. As Le Mont Saint Michel was from the beginning more willing towards the French, one could imagine that the English would have not been mild when the rock would fall in their hands. However, even though this was attempted several times, Le Mont Saint Michel always stood strong to invasions, thanks to it's magnificent position and the strong fortifications that surrounded the island. Twice a day for several hours, the island became invinsible, as the tides rushed in and washed besieging enemies away.
One of the wonders on the island of Le Mont Saint Michel is the actual sanctuary, the abbey of Saint Michel. High on top of the rocks, this abbey has been lifted higher throughout the centuries, until it has become the magnificent stories high building that one sees today. The crown on this jewel is - for me at least - the courtyard within the abbey. This green aosis within the rocky island that is completely filled with buildings, breaths a true heavenly spirituality. It must have been here that the monchs (that actually still live here too) were closest to God. The trance that surrounds the courtyard is a graceful adding to the small garden, and from some windows on the other side of this trance, one enjoys a breathtaking view over the bay of Mont Saint Michel.
Walk around this abbey a must thing to do, cos it will make you always amaze that Mont Saint-Michel was built on a strong rock that measures 84 meters high. It is pure granite and is so hard that it has resisted the passage of time.
The church is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Through the ages, the legend of Le Mont Saint Michel spread over Europe and more and more pilgrims were attracted to it's doors. This ment business and fundings to expand the abbey roled in. On a small island it was of course impossible to expand around, therefore the abbey already soon was expanded upwards, becoming one of the first buildings with four to five stories on top of which a (church)tower crowned the complete abbey. The stories also became a mirror to society in those days. Then there were three classes, the clerces (religious class, such as priests, monchs, bishops, pastores etc.), nobility (including royalty) and the common people. These three classes also were in status at that order and the stories in the abbey simulated that closely. The upper floor, with it's courtyard, the abbey church, the rooms of prayer and diningroom of the momchs, was the closest to heaven. Under that floor came the royal hall, where nobility was welcomed and audiences were given by the king, duke, count or earls of that time. The lowest floors were the places where the common people (among which of course the mayority of the pilgrims), were welcomed to get their blessings and in better days even something to eat and drink, as well as a place to sleep.
For centuries, pilgrims travelled here from all over Europe to visit this medieval abbey. Today, it's a museum as well as a church. Like Durham Cathedral in England, it stands on a natural strong point and it part church and part fortress. It also has a fascinating interior, with exhibits on its long history. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The support of the church required a substructure which was designed into the many areas required by such a religious complex. The chambers surround the central rock core on the three sides not occupied by the Merveille. The oldest are on the west side: below the mid-level is the Aquilon (where the early pilgrims were greeted) and above that on the mid-level is the Promenoir (which may have been the first cloister or a dormitory for the Monks). These are early 12C and are rare examples of what is called a Transitional Style moving from Romanesque to Gothic. Moreover, they are secular examples! Note the heavy columns, the sculpted capitals, the heavy ribbing and the groin vaulting. On the South side is St. Martin's Crypt (under the South Transept) and further East the Crypt of the Great Pillars ( a 1446 replacement support for the collapsed original apse above, probably reuising remnants of the old crypt). Nearby the hoist wheel is not as old as other things. It is a used 19C copy of a medieval original that still employed human walking power (last active by utilizing 19C prisoners).