The marvel of the Mont St. Michel Abbey

Posted by on Aug 1, 2013 in Normandy & Brittany, Travel with Karen | 0 comments

The marvel of the Mont St. Michel Abbey

The Gothic-style Benedictine Abbey dedicated to Archangel Saint Michael, and the village that grew up in the shadow of its great walls stand perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany.

Designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, the remarkable abbey is one of the most extraordinary examples of medieval religious and military architecture, and was one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites from the 8th to the 18th century.  Still drawing a crowd, today over 3 million visitors annually come to the mount (of the 3 million that visit the mount, only 1 million actually make the vigorous climb to the abbey).


In an unimaginable turn of fate, we actually had the abbey ALL to OURSELVES.  Due to the fact that the workers at the Mont St. Michel abbey were on strike* and the abbey therefore closed, our privately guided 2-hour VIP tour became a private tour in every sense of the word (private tour usually refers to tours arranged for only our group, versus a public tour.  Today it meant that we had the abbey to ourselves!)  It’s rare indeed for a strike to actually work in one’s favor. 

Comprising a superb ensemble of clerical buildings, the abbey is a technical and artistic tour de force, having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.

cloister_medThe famous cloister has been referred to as the “Merveille” (the marvel) since the 12th century.

cloister_paint_medThe cloister is surrounded by a double row of delicately carved arches resting on granite pillars.  There are traces of color on the arches, revealing that the cloister and church had been formerly painted with vibrant pigments.

refectory_medOur outstanding guide, Isabelle, discusses the dining habits of the monks (such as eating in silence) in the barrel-roofed refectory.  The large room is illuminated by a wall of recessed windows ~ astonishing, given that the sheer drop precluded the use of flying buttresses.

refectory_entry_medFrom the entry, the recessed windows of the refectory are not visible.

ambulatory_medThe monks’ ambulatory features one of the oldest ribbed vaulted ceilings in Europe.

bay_dusk_medTombelaine island (Île de Tombelaine) and the Normandy coastline beyond, seen from the abbey terrace; shallow waters disguise the presence of quicksand, strong currents, and the fastest rising tide in Europe.

ND_sous_terre_medThe underground chapel, Notre Dame-sous-Terre (Our Lady underground) is one of the abbey’s oldest rooms.  The Carolingian church was built around 966 by the first Benedictine monks at the very place that Saint Aubert erected the oratory in the early 8th century. 
Today, one mass per year is held in this sacred chapel to celebrate the consecration of the man-made grotto (the 1st oratory of St. Michel) in 709 AD. 

abbey_concertWhat was the perfect way to wrap up our visit?  We lingered on the mount to attend a classical concert held in the abbey church featuring Water Music by Haendel performed by the Stradivaria Ensemble from Nantes.  Did I mention that this fell on my birthday?

Mont_St_Michel_night_medWe leave the mount filled with awe, and turn for one last look at the abbey silhouetted against the night sky. 

* Mont St. Michel strike:  Employees are currently protesting the increased parking rates (up from 8.5€ to 12€, as well as the elimination of the employee and handicapped shuttle accessing the island, forcing them (and the disabled) to take the normal tourist shuttle, thereby increasing their commute time to the island by 30 minutes each way)