Max and I seized the opportunity of a free weekend day to visit the Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey located off the northern coast of France. The original structure dates back to 708 AD, and the abbey, surrounding city, and fortified walls were added between 966 and 1500. For centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel has served as a monastery, military outpost, prison, and site of Catholic pilgrimage. Today, it stands as a tourist trap and testament to enduring Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited in Europe, receiving over 3 million people each year.
I can remember seeing the Mont in French class videos almost every year of middle and high school. It’s been my top tourist attraction priority since arriving in France. Every weekend seemed like the perfect weekend to make the drive, but Max insisted on waiting until warmer weather. That finally arrived in July.
We left super early in the morning, dropped off Jojo, picked up sandwiches, and parked in the mainland lot. We chose the 45-minute walk over the shuttle. Soon we were standing at the base, with busloads of tourists flooding in around us. Inside the city walls, narrow alleys of souvenir shops and restaurants snake their way up to the abbey. There’s a scenic (and more spacious) walk along the ramparts, so we were able to bypass most of the crowds and view the low tide and salt marshes surrounding the island.
Normally, the abbey charges a small entrance fee, but we soon learned that the tour guides were on strike (typical France) to protest the lack of employee shuttles. One captivating 10-minute explanation from an employee later, Max turned to me and said:
If anyone else here tries to talk to us about the strikes, let’s pretend we’re both American and can’t speak any French.
So we were able to visit for free. The abbey is currently home to the friars and sisters of the Fraternites Monastiques de Jerusalem, who still run mass and other ceremonies throughout the week. We cruised through the self-guided tour of the different halls within the abbey- some of which featured spectacular views of the landscape, while others offered cavernous stone echo chambers.
Around noon, we had finished both the abbey and our sandwiches, so we descended back into the village looking for more fun-tivites. A kiosk offered inexpensive passes to (all four!) historic museums. Little did we know that this was a blatant tourist trap, so we spent the next two hours viewing “relics”, presentations, and videos that clearly hadn’t been updated since the 80s. Many “exhibits” featured mannequins dressed in medieval attire, presenting historic/legendary figures or life in the Mont Saint-Michel dungeons. Seriously, what is up with the mannequins? Yes, we attended every last “museum” – we were determined to get our money’s worth of shtick. Please, if you ever visit the Mont, DO NOT bother.
Clearly, after spending several hours crushed and propelled along by legions of socks-with-sandals, we were looking for a change of pace. The island is surrounded by miles of mud flats at low tide, so we kicked off our shoes and trekked around. Honestly, aside from the fantastic views and architecture of the abbey, this was the hilight of our day. Eccentric and sunburnt hippie-types lead guided tours of the mud flats- next time, I’ll be reserving tickets in advance.