FRANCE – The ancient Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, located off the coast of Normandy, France, came to life over 1,000 years ago from a dream and is now one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
Covering nearly 70,000 square meters, Mont Saint-Michel Abbey sits just off the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1 kilometer from the mainland. It was constructed in the Gothic architectural style, featuring pointed arches and large windows commonly found in churches and palaces. Construction began in 1023 on top of a large rock formation, with materials transported by boat from the mainland. The construction process spanned various periods and was finally completed in 1523.
However, as early as the 11th century, Mont Saint-Michel Abbey became a prominent pilgrimage site for devotees of the Christian faith. They came seeking protection and salvation for their souls from Saint Michael. The abbey has hosted several French and English kings and queens, including Henri II Plantagenet, Saint Louis, Louis XI, Anne of Brittany, and François I.
The statue of the Archangel Michael, situated atop the highest tower of the abbey, is one of its notable features. The northern buildings, known as La Merveille, are surrounded by an intricately carved covered walkway. All of these structures have been meticulously preserved in excellent condition. Additionally, within the abbey, you can find the Gothic Salle des Hôtes (Hall of Guests), built in 1213, featuring two massive fireplaces, and the Chapelle de Notre Dame sous Terre (Chapel of Our Lady Underground).
Legend has it that in 708, Bishop Aubert of the town of Avranches in Manche had three dreams in which Saint Michael instructed him to build a memorial on an island. Mont Saint-Michel Abbey was born from that dream and is often referred to as the “wonder of the Western world.”
Surrounding the ancient abbey is a fortified wall and a system of buttresses extending from the central tower. During its construction, few could have foreseen that this magnificent structure would play a crucial role in history, serving as a fortress during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) and as a prison during the French Revolution in the 18th century, extending into the 19th century.
When the prison closed in 1863, the abbey lay in ruins. In 1874, it was classified as a historical monument, and restoration work began. The area around Mont Saint-Michel gradually developed, and today, dozens of monks from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem live within this national monument, with 20 guest rooms open to visitors.
Today, the abbey is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, welcoming over 1.3 million visitors annually, while the island of Mont Saint-Michel sees around 3 million tourists. The fame of the abbey has left the caretakers overwhelmed, prompting calls to limit the number of visitors.
“For 1,000 years, this structure has become an icon of universal France,” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on June 5 after his official visit to Mont Saint-Michel. In Christian theology, universalism suggests that all of humanity will eventually be saved through divine grace.
To celebrate the abbey’s 1,000th anniversary, a light show called “Millennium Solstice” was organized on June 23. Historical and architectural exhibitions will be open to visitors until November.
When the tide rises, Mont Saint-Michel Abbey stands out on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, resembling a French Atlantis—a “miracle of architecture amid beautiful natural scenery.” In 1979, UNESCO recognized the island of Mont Saint-Michel and its surrounding bay as a World Heritage Site.
Thomas Velter, CEO of the National Public Agency of Mont Saint-Michel, said, “This is the largest pilgrimage site in the West, surpassing even the famous Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.” During the last week of May, the abbey is so crowded that it restricts access from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Local authorities find this situation “alarming” as such high levels of visitors occur only during the peak summer season. “We sold 10,500 abbey admission tickets, a record number,” Velter added. The entrance fee is 11 euros.
“I don’t think the crowds are good for shop owners, hotels, or restaurants because they can’t keep up with the demand. The island has a circumference of 1 kilometer, and there is only one shopping street. Imagine 5,000 tourists all arriving at once. I don’t think it’s a comfortable experience for them,” Velter further commented.
Due to its elevated position on a large rock formation and the many staircases, the abbey can be challenging to access for tourists with reduced mobility. Depending on the peak season and the number of visitors, the journey to the abbey takes about 45-60 minutes, starting from the parking lot at the abbey’s entrance. The abbey’s website mentions the presence of security gates at the entrance, with all guests’ bags subject to inspection. Visitors are not allowed to bring large bags or luggage into the abbey, and they are prohibited from smoking or consuming food within the historic site.
To protect the environment, an eco-friendly biofuel-powered bus system connects various points of interest on Mont Saint-Michel island instead of diesel-fueled vehicles. Tourists are encouraged to explore the bay area by boat during the peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
To reach Mont Saint-Michel, tourists can take a train from Paris or a bus from the nearby city of Rennes or the town of Saint-Malo.
“Before coming here, I had never heard of Mont Saint-Michel. We followed a tour and were guided here by our tour guide. The moment we saw Mont Saint-Michel rising on the horizon, we were amazed. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” one tourist shared on TripAdvisor about their visit. “You’ll feel like you’re stepping into another world.”