On our way to Normandy, we swung by to visit Mont St. Michel. Mont St. Michel is a medieval monastery (seriously – over a thousand years ago) that was built upon an island in the bay where Normandy and Brittany meet.
The scope of Mont St. Michel – in both age and sheer physical size – is hard to comprehend. It’s simply awe-inspiring.
However, Mont St. Michel is a major tourist destination, complete with traffic, hoards of tourists, and a staggering amount of junky gift shops and bad cafes. Here’s what we learned from our trip to Mont St. Michel, as well as a few things we’d do differently next time.
Arriving At Mont St. Michel
Driving? Your ultimate goal is a car park, located 1.5 miles from Mont St. Michel. As you drive to this car park, however, you will pass – with increasing density – touristy restaurants, gift shops, RV parks, campgrounds, etc. It was with sinking hearts that we drove through this section leading up to Mont St. Michel. I guess we had pictured something more….remote? Charming?
Once you’ve parked, there is a choice of two shuttles: the free bus or a horse-drawn carriage (around 5 euros per person).
TAKE THE FREE BUS.
Mike really wanted to try the horse-drawn carriage – it looks very charming, and is initially set up like it has a direct path to the Mont, through fields and whatnot. Instead (as we learned firsthand), it starts on this path for about 50 feet, then turns onto the same road as all of the other shuttles. The 1.5 miles to the Mont takes 25 minutes via horse drawn carriage. So there’s that.
On the upside, this is the view:
The bay of Mont St. Michel has one of the largest tidal ranges in Europe. Next time, I’d sign us up for a guided walk through the tidal basin up to the Mont. We’ve heard it’s important to stick with a guide, though, because the tides do change quickly. We saw groups doing this walk – shoes off, trekking through the mud and shallow water – and having a great time. This would be my top pick.
Although, those horses might be fun, too…..
What To Wear
It’s breezy and chilly…unless the sun came out and then it was hot. Layers (and a windbreaker) are a must. If you want to walk around in the bay, wear something not overly precious – mud gets everywhere. Comfy shoes, sure, but it doesn’t need to be sneakers. The walk (and stair climbing) isn’t that intense.
Eating At Mont St. Michel
We had been warned about the restaurants within Mont St. Michel, so we had packed a light picnic. The idea was to stop somewhere before the car park, somewhere with a good view of Mont St. Michel, and have a little picnic. There might actually be a good picnic spot on one of the back roads leading up to the Mont….but we didn’t find it. Once we reached the tourist gauntlet leading to the car park, our picnic idea flew out the window.
On the way out, however, we found a few decent picnic spots! The tourist gauntlet leading to the Mont is a far cry from the charming, country roads leading away from the Mont. In fact, if you map “L’Atelier St Michel Beauvoir” you’ll find a small patisserie, with easy parking, picnic tables outside, and a pretty stunning view of Mont St. Michel. A little further along is something called a “Friterie” that looks (to this American) like a food truck. All along this road are open fields and gorgeous views.
Stick to Moules et Vin
Because we abandoned our picnic, we ended up eating inside the walls of Mont St. Michel. Quel horror! I’m joking. It was fine. The farther through the city you climb, the fewer the people. We went up for a while until we found La Vielle Auberge, which has outdoor seating. The food wasn’t great. But what’s funny (and this seems to be true everywhere, based on a ton of reviews I was frantically reading….) the moules (mussels) are all pretty darn good. As is the wine (vin). So the kids got whatever, and we got moules and vin and all of us were happy.
La Mere Poulard – I’m bummed that I didn’t find this restaurant until after we left, but it’s been running since 1888, and claims Ernest Hemingway and Yves St. Laurent as patrons. I’d even consider saving this reastaurant for after our Abbey tour – the photos of Mont St. Michel at night are incredible. This article has a few additional recommendations.
Touring the Abbey
Now the fun begins!! If you can get to Mont St. Michel around 3, that sets you up with enough time to eat and tour the abbey before it closes….but with a much smaller crowd. The audioguides are great – a little too heavy on architectural detail and a little too light on the history for my taste, but without them, you’d be completely lost. (The “click the red button for more detail on ___” option resulted in some pretty delicious information, too.)
Also, we were surprised to learn that this abbey is a working abbey. As we were walking along a stone corridor, a monk (nun??) popped out of a rather imposing-looking side door. She was delightful (and graciously put up with my terrible attempts at French).
The Rest Of Mont St. Michel
As we descended back down after the Abbey tour, we passed a small little chapel. The boys ran up the stairs to get a closer look, and I heard them both gasp. The chapel was filled with hundreds of colorful prayer candles – red, blue, green, white. As we stood in the entrance, I noticed a family just ahead of us. The mom was fervently dipping prayer beads into the holy water just inside the entrance, the father was holding his daughter tightly by the hand. Their daughter was smiling and looking around in wonder, much like my boys. She was wearing a headscarf, and obviously bald underneath.
“Mom?” Pax asked. “Can I light a candle?”
Yes. Yes a thousand times.
So Pax and Raines lit candles and sent out a prayer with the light and I lit a candle to her. “To her, to her, to her” I whispered, rendered incapable of eloquent speech and feeling a cold desperation in every cell of my body.
This is the best and the worst part of being a mother. At some level, we feel like every child’s mother. To her. To her. To her.
If you go, would you also light a candle to her?
For Next Time….
We somehow missed the tiny La Chapelle-Saint-Aubert situated on the grounds. You can easily see it when approaching by foot over the bay. And as I mentioned before, I’d love to see Mont St. Michel at night. It’s magical during the day, but, I imagine, as the sun sets, it becomes otherworldly.