Our reporter travels to France where he’s charmed by Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel
The thing about Mont Saint-Michel is that there are only two ways to get around: you either walk up or you walk down. However, thankfully once you’re on the island everything is pretty much within reasonable walking distance.
Our starting point was La Grande Rue’s ancient cobblestone street, which could easily provide the setting for a Dickens novel. This main street is packed with shops, museums, restaurants and hotels that stretch from end to end, but it’s a tight squeeze with crowds trying to manoeuvre this narrow thoroughfare.
We stopped to sample Mont Saint-Michel’s famous omelette – light, luxurious and fluffy, accompanied by a traditional Calvados apple brandy.
Fed and watered, my wife and I followed tourists heading to the famous Benedictine abbey. Carved on to this huge rock a thousand years ago it is one of France’s most recognisable landmarks and we spotted it from every angle of our drive towards the island.
The further we walked along La Grande Rue the steeper it got and to reach our destination there was more climbing ahead, up a seemingly never-ending staircase to the entrance.
Our endeavours were rewarded when we reached the top and were amply rewarded by the awe-inspiring sight of this Gothic abbey, with its stunning, light-filled stained-glass windows. A small group of nuns and monks still live here and gather for a daily midday mass at the magnificent altar.
There’s plenty to see, with crypts and cloisters and we spent ages on the abbey’s terrace taking in the views of the beautiful bay of Mont Saint-Michel overlooking the rich Normandy and Brittany countryside.
After an easy descent, we arrived at Le Vieille Auberge hotel. Set in a quaint alleyway it gave us a night-time silhouette of the abbey.
We woke to an incredible sight. The removal of the ancient causeway and the opening of a new pedestrian footbridge connecting the island meant the water which surrounded the bay the night before had disappeared and we witnessed the tide gradually fill it up again.
We saw it morning and evening and it was truly spectacular to witness; the tide reached 13m and flooded not only most of the bridge, but also the entire entrance to both the police station and Mont Saint-Michel itself.
After a hearty buffet breakfast at our hotel we took the shuttle to the mainland. It’s the only bus I’ve ever seen with a driver at both ends – there’s no room for a three-point-turn. We collected our car from possibly the largest car park in Europe; it’s the only place to park, as cars are not allowed on the bridge or the island.
It’s a short drive to The Museum of Manuscripts in Avranches. Trusted with the abbey’s ancient manuscripts it’s easy to see why this is Mont Saint-Michel’s spiritual home.
We had lunch at La Toque aux Vins, 10 minutes away in the quiet countryside village of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, where we ate the finest cod imaginable – light and so fresh it tasted like it had just been caught. Afterwards we visited the nearby Ecomuseum to understand the geology of the area and the variety of birds, animals, fish and dolphins.
Outside and with the tide out, people of all ages were crossing the bay to Mont Saint-Michel; later that day we saw crowds and their tour guides circling the Mount to experience the ancient pilgrims’ journey. Even the biting, cold wind didn’t stop them.
Our evening was spent on the mainland in Pontorson, a pretty little town 10 minutes away. We ate at the bustling La Casa de Quentin, where we had Normandy salad topped off with bacon, cheese and croutons, followed by the Normandy pancake and ice cream. We spent the night at Pontorson’s Le Grenier du Jardin run by a woman called Valerie who offers everyone old-fashioned hospitality and a big breakfast.
The next morning we took a final look at Mont Saint-Michel. As it loomed over us I could understand why one tour guide said to me, “Mont Saint-Michel, it’s my life.” Although I’ll have to practise running up and down a few staircases before I return!
Way to go
Tony sailed from Portsmouth to St Malo with Brittany Ferries (0330 159 7000, brittany-ferries.co.uk), which offers return fares from £281 for a car and two passengers including a cabin on the overnight crossing. La Vieille Auberge Hotel (+33 233 60 14 34, Lavieilleauberge-montsaintmichel.com) has rooms with breakfast from £122 per day. Le Grenier du Jardin in Pontorson (+33 687 30 56 78, legrenierdujardin.com), 10 minutes from Mont Saint-Michel, has rooms from £49 per day.
Ten things you must do in Mont Saint-Michel
1 Watch the island come alive with the summer market, held every other Friday from 5pm to 9pm.
2 Join a guided tour for a circular walk around the bay of Mont Saint-Michel – just like the pilgrims once did.
3 Spend a day on La Grande Rue for eating and shopping – and don’t miss its secret nooks and crannies.
4 See how Mont Saint-Michel changes into a stunning illumination of light at night from the mainland.
5 Enjoy fine dining at inexpensive prices at La Toque aux Vins (+33 233 79 28 00, latoqueauxvins.fr) on the mainland.
Mont Saint-Michel abbey
6 Discover ancient manuscripts and priceless objects from the Mont Saint-Michel abbey at the Museum of Manuscripts, otherwise known as Le Scriptorial. Visit scriptorial.fr.
7 Try the traditional Normandy pancake at La Casa de Quentin (+33 233 48 61 95) in nearby Pontorson.
8 Visit the Ecomuseum – a former farmhouse that now chronicles the ecology and evolution of the landscape around the bay.
9 Step inside the small 12th-century Church of Saint Pierre at the end of La Grande Rue; a must-see and good for some quiet reflection away from the hustle and bustle.
10 Marvel at the tidal wave. Visit ot-montsaintmichel.com.