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Mont Saint-Michel

One of the foremost and most recognizable monuments in France, the Mont Saint-Michel exudes an otherwordly charm (especially at sun-up and sun-down) which grips you from the moment you catch sight of it from far away, rising as it does, 80 metres above the otherwise flat Normandy landscape. The surrounding scenery and ocean bottom are so flat that sandbars appear 15 km from the coast and that the tides, among the biggest in Europe (up to 14 metres' difference between the high and the low mark), rise twice a month at the speed of a man walking at a fast pace (many drownings in centuries past before a causeway was built). These days, it's relatively safe to walk around the Mont at low tide — within six hours, it will again become an island surrounded by water — but be careful of wet sand.

The main attraction of the island (which is some 900 meters in circumference) is of course the abbey, famed for its variety of architectural styles built over the course of five centuries. The Mont is named after the Archangel Saint Michael, who is said to have appeared three times in the dreams of Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, at the beginning of the 8th century, telling him to build a chapel at the top of what then was called the Mont Tombe. Since then, it has been an important pilgrimage center, with Benedictines adding to the building between the 11th and the 16th centuries and transforming it into a fortress (portcullis still visible at the Porte du Roy [King's Gate]) which has never taken.

Reaching the abbey is simple. One simply follows the single street, winding upwards in counterclockwise direction. The street itself, the Grande Rue, is flanked by a variety of buildings with a medieval atmosphere — today, as in the past, they house restaurants and souvenir shops in addition to a handful of hotels and museums, perpetuating the 1000-year-old tradition of accomodating visitors and selling souvenirs. The shops and the restaurants offer the bay's specialties, including copperware, pottery, chinaware, and the traditional omelette, leg of lamb, and local specialties of fish and seafood.

At the end of the slope is the abbey's imposing staircase (90 steps). At the top of it stands, in all its majesty, the Église Abbatiale (Abbey Church), inside which the contrast between the Norman part (the nave) and the Gothic part (choir) are startling. On the far side of the island stands the Gothic building appropriately named la Merveille (the Marvel), which consists of the cloître (cloister) with its life-like sculptures and the réfectoire (refectory) with its beautiful natural lighting. Among the crypts underground is the the Chapelle Notre Dame Sous Terre (Chapel of Our Lady Beneath the Earth), which is the earliest part of the abbey, dating, as it does, back to the time of Aubert. At night, a brilliant light and music show called "Imaginaires" takes place inside and outside the abbey.

The Mont Saint-Michel is 327 km from Paris. The shortest route is by way of the A13 (via Rouen and Caen), then the A84 to Avranches, and finally the D275. The abbey is open from 9.30am to 4.30pm, with a daily mass at 12.15 PM.

© Erik Svane